Photo: Courtesy of Edward Chisolm
Edward Chisholm Chronicles His Descent into a Hellish Kitchen in a Memoir About Working in a Paris Bistro
In a Q&A about his book, “A Waiter in Paris,” the British writer reveals how hard it was to learn French, how little he actually ate and what life was like “on the other side of the door marked 'Privé." / BY Kim Hughes / August 16th, 2022
Demystifying the esteemed Paris dining experience wasn’t first-time author Edward Chisholm’s main goal in writing his unvarnished memoir, A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City. But it’s hard to imagine enjoying a French bistro meal the same way after reading it.
At the end of 2011, with a humanities degree in hand and no work in sight, Chisholm, then 24, followed a girlfriend from London to Paris, hoping for a fresh start. When jobs proved equally elusive on the continent, an increasingly desperate, broke and eventually single Chisholm sucked it up, memorized a few stock French phrases, and landed a lowly job as a “runner,” or glorified busboy, in a chic restaurant.
It was, he assumed, a stopgap as he searched for a more “prestigious” gig while nurturing dreams of becoming a writer in a city renowned for producing some of the best. But the thrumming bistro, since closed but concealed in the book by a pseudonym, quickly consumed his life while testing his mettle in ways Chisholm could not have imagined.
Life “on the other side of the swinging door marked ‘PRIVÉ,’” Chisholm discovered, was ghastly, and brimming with vindictive managers, assaultive chefs, desperately underpaid coworkers clamouring for tips, interminable hours, scant food and undocumented staff too terrified to complain. The owner, who occasionally dropped by long enough to whip everyone into a lather, was also a nightmare, with negligible concern for his beleaguered workers.
“In total I spent more than four years doing various waiting and bar jobs across the city as I tried to build a career as a writer,” Chisholm writes in the introduction. “A Waiter in Paris is that story, and although based primarily on an experience in one particular restaurant, it is in reality an amalgamation of all my experiences. It’s not really my story; I was merely an observer passing through. ‘A camera with its shutter open,’ as Christopher Isherwood wrote of his time in Berlin. The real heroes of this story are the people I encountered there.”
With those colourful and occasionally unhinged people, also cloaked in pseudonyms, Chisholm developed a fierce camaraderie as he ascended the ranks and slowly mastered French while tunnelling headlong into the seldom-seen soul of workaday Paris. The Parisian restaurant, he posits, is a microcosm of the country. And while “Paris may not be France,” Chisholm writes, “all of France can be found in Paris.”
A companion of sorts to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, and Chisholm’s acknowledged inspiration, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, the book doesn’t offer revelations, since the backstage horrors of hospitality have been well documented.
But it is a beguiling and candid coming-of-age story in a city many revere, but few really know. Chisholm, who turns 35 in October and now lives in Lausanne, Switzerland, spoke to Zoomer from a holiday in Provence about his book and his hope that it will change the way people dine out the world over, but especially in Paris.
Kim Hughes: Congratulations on the book. The reviews have been quite positive. Did you have any sense of how this would be received?
Edward Chisholm: No idea. When you write, you hope it will find its audience. But I’ve been amazed it’s been reviewed so positively. Not that I thought it was a bad book, but when you write, you’re always of two minds: that it’s good and that it’s the worst thing ever.
KH: Talk about your process. Did you come home and make notes? Jot things down during restaurant shifts?
EC: I was always making notes even though I wasn’t explicitly there to make a book about this experience. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that this was the book to write. I arrived in Paris with that clichéd notion of wanting to write, or better understand the idea of writing, by getting some life experience. It’s hard [to write] in a restaurant because you’re always on your feet, but in quiet times I’d be scribbling down notes. There were always scraps of paper — and scraps of conversation — around. I would then compile those in notebooks. It was a messy process, but it got me lots of things I could use.
KH: If writing about your waitering experience wasn’t a foregone conclusion when you began, can you pinpoint when it seemed like a story you wanted to tell?
EC: It was probably some years afterwards. When I was talking to people about Paris, trying to explain how the society worked, I’d often use the restaurant as a metaphor. I also had an idea for a fictional book partly set in a restaurant. Through talking with other people, I realized the stories I was telling about the restaurant were interesting and that I didn’t need to fictionalize my experience. I thought it might be an easier way for people to enter the French mindset and Parisian society. But I think [the germ of] the idea was always there, which is why I kept notes.
KH: What was the hardest thing to get right with this book?
EC: I was initially apprehensive to put myself in the book. I’m quite shy and I didn’t think anyone would be interested in my life. My first draft was much more documentary-like. It’s been interesting getting feedback from readers who relate to that stage in life where you’re done your education, but are not sure what you’re going to do in life. It was a challenge to balance the story of myself with the restaurant and the story of the waiters who worked there.
KH: Have you stayed in touch with any of the fellow waiters or cooks who appear in the book?
EC: No, which is sort of the nature of the work. It’s very transient. Funny enough, I did cross paths with Camille in Provence [the bistro’s sole female waiter, whom Chisholm befriended] and she says she is going to read the book. Maybe it’s a sign (laughs).
KH: I found it surprising the staff at your restaurant were rarely fed, and there was no family meal as typically happens in restaurants.
EC: I think it was because this bistro was running all the time – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I was surprised by it, too, but you just have to get on with it. But it was really tough, basically surviving on bread rolls, cigarettes, coffee and appetite suppressants.
KH: Why did you use pseudonyms? Are these characters composites, or was it for privacy?
EC: Predominantly privacy. Part of me feels that it would be quite strange for these people to read about themselves and their lives. I wanted to be sure not to overstep the bounds of privacy. There are a few composite characters. I wrote the first draft with real names and descriptions but that changed later on.
KH: Were there any embellishments, like that story about the head chef flipping his lid and grabbing you by the throat?
EC: That really happened. There wasn’t violence and aggression all the time, but that one incident was a boiling-over of aggression, which I think is more a reflection of the stress people were feeling working in that pressure cooker of a kitchen. It was terrifying. I mean, I didn’t think I was in mortal danger, but it was a shock.
KH: Will A Waiter in Paris be translated into French?
EC: I don’t know yet. I hope so. I think it has something to say about French society. Sometimes the view of an outsider can be helpful. I know it’s being translated into Chinese, oddly enough. This is my first book, so I’m not sure of the process. But it would be an amazing honour to be translated into French.
KH: An astonishing component of your story is how you basically faked knowing French until you spoke French. I mean … wow.
EC: I thought I could never learn a second language, so part of going to Paris was reckoning with these shortcomings I thought I had. The first year was very, very hard. I threw myself into French and cut myself off from English completely. That forced me to learn. Eventually, people will start to correct you when you’re speaking and, by the end of the first year, I was conversing, but it took me three years to become genuinely fluent. You must bombard yourself from every direction: radio, TV, newspapers.
KH: A stated goal of the book is prompting diners to be more sympathetic and generous towards restaurant staff, who are notoriously underpaid and overworked. Have you seen evidence of that happening?
EC: I have. On social media when people talk about the book, they say, “Remember to tip your waiter.” There has been a change in that direction. The service industry is very hard, and it does contain an invisible world hiding in plain sight. And the conditions of the work are very hard. I have been contacted by people who’ve worked in the industry from different countries and different eras: New York in the ’70s, Rome in the ’80s. It’s heart-warming to know the experience I have described resonates with them as well.
KH: The landmark book Kitchen Confidential has come up in comparison, and I suppose we could broadly call your book an exposé-slash-memoir. Are you comfortable in that canon?
EC: I guess so. I didn’t initially see myself writing a non-fiction book, but I very much enjoyed it. It’s always exciting to really learn about something.
KH: What are you working on now?
EC: A novel and a film adaptation of A Waiter in Paris. That’s interesting. There are different obstacles with the screenplay, but if this is made it will be a feature film, not a documentary.
KH: Who should play Edward Chisholm?
EC: Ha! I just don’t know. It seems too egotistical to even think about! It’s one thing writing a book about your experience. But I promise I’ll let you know if it comes to pass.
KH: What the most important thing for people to know about your book?
EC: That I’m writing about a Parisian restaurant and about Paris, but I’d like to think it has broader ramifications. It’s about our society and our relationship with food and the people, pardon the cliché, at the bottom of the food chain. I’d like to think that in addition to being a coming-of-age adventure story, there’s a social realism there.
KH: So, readers get a glimpse into the restaurant industry and Paris and the symbiotic relationship between the two?
EC: Exactly that. And they get a bit of myself.