The other day I went out to lunch, and my waiter ended up going to Aruba.
My waiter was Dana E. Dineen, who works at Loews Annapolis Hotel. He will soon be winging his way to the sunny Caribbean island because he won top prize in a contest naming him the best waiter in Maryland.
He won it by first scoring well on a 25-question exam testing his knowledge of restaurant operations. Then in the finals, also known as lunch, he piled up points by serving his customers, including me, a virtually flawless meal.
Mark Wiedorfer of Rudys' 2900 restaurant won second place, a free trip to Nassua. Third-place winner Drew J. Sinnott of Peerce's Plantation won a trip to Ocean City.
This was the first year for the contest. It was held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown and sponsored by the Restaurant Association of Maryland and Perrier. It was timed to coincide with the the Mid-Atlantic Foodservice and Lodging Expo, an annual industry trade show held last week at Baltimore Convention Center, Like the other judges in the contest, I rated my waiter, Dineen, on how well he treated his customers. I sat at a table with seven other eaters.
Dineen was cordial without being solicitous. Unlike other waiters I have encountered, he did not feel obligated to tell me his name, his philosophy of life, or his views on what dish was "all the rage."
He was cheerful without being a cheerleader. When he described the menu, he did so in a straightforward, knowledgeable style.
The soups, he said, were both spicy. The Maryland fisherman's chowder had Old Bay seasoning, he said, and the chicken Mulligatawny had curry. This won points with me. I like spices, but I don't like to surprised by them.
In describing one of the entrees, chicken breast and jumbo shrimp with grilled polenta, Dineen also explained that polenta was a cornmealporridge. This also scored points with me, because, like most folks, I want to know what I am eating.
And by casually defining this out-of-the-ordinary item, my waiter saved folks any potential embarrassment of asking a "stupid question."
Unlike most folks, I ask lots of stupid questions and am not embarrassed by them. For instance, I asked Dineen how the chicken soup got the name "Mulligatawny."
This was not just a stupid question, it was a trick question as well. Judges were encouraged to ask trick questions. Before lunch, Rudy Paul, the co-owner of Rudys' 2900, briefed the judges, most of whom were also restaurant owners, on how to score the contestants. He suggested asking a trick question to see how the waiter or waitresses handled it.
My waiter handled my question well. He said he didn't know. I didn't know, either. When I got back to my office and looked the term up in the authoritative "Larousee Gastronomique," it didn't have an answer, either.
So it turns out that the question who was Mulligatawny? is one of those unanswered soup queries of the ages. Like who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder. And since my waiter didn't have an answer, he was right.
Another thing my waiter did well was to pour the water into the glasses without lifting the glasses off the table. And when dessert was served, he moved the dessert fork down from its lofty perch above the plate to an accessible spot right next to the plate.
I didn't know about these fine points of serving style until Paul went over them in the judges' briefing. But moving the dessert fork closer to the plate fit in with my overall view of serving. That is: "You gotta put the hay down where the goats can get it."
In sum, my waiter was there when I needed him and he wasn't there when I didn't need him. He didn't screw up. He made me feel welcome. And after he had started serving, he had to seat three new diners to our table. He did this with out losing his rhythm.
So I gave him high marks. So did other judges, who scored him for how he behaved in the kitchen when ordering. He also did well, I was told, in an informal judging conducted by the luncheon's keynote speaker, Mike Hurst, president of the National Restaurant Association. During the contest, Hurst, owner of the 15th Street Fisheries restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., circulated through the dining room eyeing the contestants. Hurst reportedly said he "liked the guy in suspenders." That was Dineen.
Later in his remarks to the Maryland restaurateurs, Hurst said that good waiters and waitresses, not accountants, were the keys to success in the hospitality business.
"Accountants," said Hurst, are "weird people," and he added that anyone who gets a thrill out of "double-underlining a number shouldn't be allowed out in public." Competent, friendly waiters and waitresses like the ones in this contest, he said, will do a restaurant owner more good than dour accountants, he said.
When lunch and the attendant ceremonies were over, I walked over and shook my waiter's hand. He was headed to Aruba, and I was headed back to the office.
Let me be perfectly clear on one point. I was a judge and I did not know any of the winning contestants. They were not my friends.
Let me be perfectly clear on another point. I wouldn't mind becoming their friends. Each of resort-bound winners gets to take a companion along.
To avoid the inevitable charges of favoritism and violation of journalistic ethics, I'm willing to travel under the name Mulligatawny.