How I Found Happiness Waiting Tables

What I learned about food, writing and life from being a waitress.

  • Michelle Wildgen

During the first few months of my daughter’s life, I went to the farmer’s market every week. Alone or with friends, in glare or drizzle, and even when she was so small she seemed to nurse every ten yards, I would put the baby in her stroller and walk the mile and a half to a cluster of vendors tucked between a playground and a church.

I needed that market. I needed to see the stacks of fresh potato bread, the chalky duck eggs, and the shitakes with their meaty, fawn-colored caps. Everything else in my post-parenting life felt radically different, but the farmer’s market was central to the world I had made for myself, and so I held on to it. Sure, it’s dinner, but it means much more to me than that.

Aspiring writers get a lot of advice, but “quit your 9 to 5 editorial job and go wait tables” isn’t usually in the mix. Nevertheless, about a year after I graduated from college, this is what I did. I had developed a slight obsession with Laurie Colwin and MFK Fisher and wanted the culinary knowledge to write about food, but I knew my literary justifications were not the whole story. I wanted something else from immersing myself in fine dining, but I don’t believe I could have named it.

My path up until that point had been forged mostly by through flailing guesswork and happenstance. Before discovering Madison out of sheer luck (my parents moved there and I liked the city) and transferring to the University of Wisconsin, I’d been at a rural university not because I’d made a considered decision, but because I’d been so baffled about the whole process that I did the educational equivalent of closing my eyes and pointing. I had ended up living in not one, but two, depressing subterranean efficiency apartments. I worked at any part-time job that would have me. I carried around a baseless dread and went into a shame spiral any time I faced a small rejection, be it a job application or a B on a paper, and so I’d spent my entire childhood and adolescence trying not to extend myself toward opportunities that scared me. I did not take classes with an author whose work I adored, in case she told me I was not good at writing; I rarely reached out to new people socially, in case it was awkward. In the months after I graduated from college, I began to realize that my contemporaries were getting it together, obtaining real jobs, painting the walls of their apartments. I was still applying listlessly for positions in trade newspapers and insurance and software.

Since my teens I’d been tentatively learning to cook, but I took the same approach to cooking as to my mediocre jobs: Overwhelmed by all the choices and the vastness of my ignorance, I would freeze. I’d pick one dish and just make it repeatedly, or else I wandered the farmer’s market and bought so much it rotted before I could figure out what to do with it.

Then I scraped together some money for dinner at L’Etoile, a highly regarded restaurant in Madison. I’d been there a couple of times before, after which I immediately began stockpiling for the next visit. One evening I sat in the restaurant’s dining room and ate crisp sweetbreads with lemony béarnaise, and seared tuna, cool and jewel-toned in the center, with a whipped cloud of herbed goat’s cheese. And suddenly the solution to my career dilemma came to me: This was the place. I sent L’Etoile my resume.

Did I want to own a restaurant or be a chef? Not really. I wanted to be among the servers delivering monologues on gruner veltliner or ground cherries. When I was offered a job as support staff in the dining room, I grabbed it. During the week I went off to my day job as assistant editor at a trade newspaper and several nights a week I dashed across town, put on my black outfit and fresh lipstick, and worked a second shift.