My job for the evening is to shadow (i.e., try not to get in the way of) Mikey Nguyen, one of Uchi's most esteemed servers. Prior to Uchi's opening, Mikey was a server at Kata Robata but opted to make the switch and start fresh with the newly-formed Uchi team. By day, Mikey works as a luxury travel consultant, and, while his financial sitatuation doesn't dictate that he maintain two jobs, he explained that he could never totally give up something he loves so much.
Tonight, Mikey is the "shift lead," which makes him the person responsible for getting everything ready prior to the other servers' arrival. While the shift lead is required to get to work thirty minutes early, the upside is that he is exempt from most of the clean-up activities and is usually the first to go home.
As we make brisk laps throughout the restaurant, I learn about Uchi's employee structure. Each table is assigned a server who is ultimately responsible for the guests' meal experience. In addition, there are server assistants (SAs) who run dishes and re-set tables for new guests. As I made note of the hierarchichical structure, Mikey explained that the SAs are an extremely integral piece of the puzzle. Mikey emphasized, "If we succeed, we all succeed, but if one of us fails, we all fail."
As the remainder of the staff arrives, everyone takes a seat in "the 30s and 40s" to do their respective prep tasks. I attempt to pull my own weight as I roll oshis (the warm towels) and fold napkins as fast and meticulously as I could while keeping up with the server gossip flying all around me.
At the daily staff meeting, the managers stand in the front of the room to guide the staff through a few notes about some menu changes and provide a recap of the afternoon's 86'd competition. The next part of the meeting is the menu tasting. We taste three new specials: foie to kuri (foie panna cotta with "olive oil impregnated bosc pears"), wagyu to budou (grilled wagyu flank steak with four different kinds of grapes), and a new sorbet trio. The staff tastes each dish while the sous chef provides a detailed description of each item; then, they ask questions and provide feedback. Servers diligently take copious notes and rehearse their descriptions as the opening time drew near.
Following the anticipatory opening of the front doors, the hostesses seat two tables of our three table-section (dubbed "the corner pocket") fairly quickly. Mikey welcomes the tables, introduces himself (and me as his "trainee"), and briefly describes the menu. While the interchange seems extremely standard to me, Mikey explains that he uses it to gauge the status of the table. As we grab the table's waters, he is already analyzing the dynamics of the table and how it will influence the rest of their meal.
Most Uchi diners fall into one of two categories: those that want to be the drivers (they order specific menu items) and those that want to be driven (ordering is left to the discretion of the server). While tonight's tables are split pretty evenly between drivers and riders, one raucous party of seven particularly stands out. Mikey attempts to greet them three times but doesn't want to interrupt the vivacious group. Eventually (when the wine glasses were empty), there is a lapse in conversation long enough to welcome them. As Mikey begins his typical routine, the host of the party quickly surrenders all decision-making. Mikey's mind immediately starts churning with potential courses. With each stop at the computer I become increasingly more mesmerized by Mikey as he reviews the table's queue of upcoming plates and constantly revises and improves the list as he fired off the next course to the kitchen.
One thing that sets Uchi apart is that they love to send diners a dish or two "from us." Whether it's a first visit, special occasion, a tough decision between two items, or for no reason at all, the complimentary dish is always a pleasant surprise. I learn that it's a common practice that makes customers feel welcome and staff feel good. Repeat business and word-of-mouth advertising are added bonuses.
Prior to Saturday night, I would have bet money that the hardest part of being an Uchi server is memorizing all of the dishes and corresponding components. After a few short hours of experience, I quickly realized that perfecting the timing is much harder. Uchi's diners, unlike most, don't want all of their food to come out at one time. Most tables rely on their server to time the pace of the dishes appropriately. Easier said than done. Not only are servers juggling several tables' meals at one time, the kitchen gets busier and slower as the night wears on. I ask Mikey how he does it; he explained it is all about the details. He takes note of who is working in the kitchen, because even that has a potential impact on how fast a dish is prepared.
No two dinners are alike. Uchi's servers are trained to take even the subtlest of cues and use them to tailor each unique meal. For example, when Mikey runs dishes, he always prefaces the introduction with, "Have you had this before?" If the answer is yes, he won't bother the table going through each minute detail (unless they want to hear it of course). When Mikey picks up on some impatient vibes from one of our tables, he informs the kitchen that any additional dishes should be delivered with descriptions that are "short and sweet."
For someone who eats out a lot, I am embarrassed to admit that my focus is usually weighted more towards the food than the service. After spending an entire night with Mikey, I have found such a great appreciation for the art of being an Uchi server.