• Everyday Art

    Yesterday I was the guest waiter at The Hunt and Darton Cafe in Colchester. The cafe is a pop-up experience: it arrives, lasts for a month and then leaves. Ordinarily it prefers to occupy empty shops in the high street, but a last minute let down means that this time they find themselves in the foyer of Firstsite. It's an art gallery but for the moment it's also empty. Until the arrival of the delicious Hunt and Darton that is.

    Everything in the cafe is art, including the customers. There is a business board that records the takings, the profit and loss, any complaints. Customers are required to chalk themselves in as covers. The cafe is styled with an ecclectic mix of furniture, old jigsaws and a vast array of mismatched crockery. Customers get to choose which record (yes, record) to play. Some days are 'you do it' days: the customers take turns to serve each other, or there are community days, where the customers are introduced to each other, encouraged to sit with people they don't know, and are applauded as they leave.

    As the guest waiter I was the Competitive Waiter: I was trying to be the best. I had four training zones. Each one represented an element of waitering that I felt was important and would contribute to being an Olympic waiter. Sometimes I trained on my own, sometimes I trained with the customers and sometimes the customers chose their own training zone.

    Training zone one was Waiting. Turns out I was rubbish at this. Not too bad if I knew what I waiting for, but rubbish without a purpose. I think I managed to last 10 seconds before I got distracted and wandered off. One customer told me she was so good at waiting that she missed the bus she was waiting for.

    Training zone two was Balancing. One gentleman and I spent some time balancing on one leg. I had another lengthy and very enjoyable conversation with another customer in which we managed to balance the world. If you suddenly felt everything was ok it was probaly because we had just put the world to rights. You're welcome. A group of lads spent some time practicing balancing objects on top of one another. They were skateboarders so were already very proficient in balancing. Dorian challenged me to balance a tray on the fingertips of one hand. The tray was to have a pyramid of glasses on, and I was supposed to be able to pour champagne in without looking. I progressed from just holding the tray to being able to balance the tray and a pineapple on my fingertips. Some work to go. However, my son has just come into the study and balanced my phone and my purse on my head and I'm pleased to say they didn't fall off. Perhaps my practice yesterday paid off.

    Training zone three was Being Deferential. This was a tricky one, not being too subservient but letting the customer know they were important. Not many people wanted to practice this one. It also felt like an extension of Balancing: the ability to balance good manners with an efficient service. Not being too obtrusive and not being too invisible.

    Training zone four was Not Judging. Perhaps the hardest training zone of all. Because as soon as you are aware of it you realise how much you judge. Sometimes it's a compliment: that's a good choice (complimenting good taste but also implying there is a bad choice). Sometimes it's just a case of keeping your opinions to yourself: having good manners (see training zone three).

    The Competitive Waiter wasn't quite as aggressive as I thought she might be. I had imagined she would be overly enthusiastic and perhaps a little overbearing, but actually the quest to be a good waiter led to a delicate dance between manners, grace, hard work and remembering what you're doing. Like the cafe itself, the Competitive Waiter is a piece of Everyday Art: offering the opportunity to have conversations you might not otherwise have had, and with people you might not otherwise have spoken to. It created the space to stop, think, connect and engage.

    Each training zone had it's own difficulties. Frank judged me as a 9/10, but said he doesn't give full marks (there's always room for improvement). I'm quite happy with that.

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