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

By Michelle Wildgen
Updated July 21, 2014
Courtesy of 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.

Restaurant work was exhausting, but the evenings sped by. The same things that made waiting tables stressful—namely, you can’t hide from awkward encounters—are also what made it so satisfying. When a wedding party dashed in late after their small ceremony, distressed by the rain and the time and the pressing significance of their day, I could transform them and their entire memory of the day with a round of champagne and a few pleasant words.

But it was my colleagues who really changed me. They showed me how to travel cheaply but dine well. My previous trips had all been marred by self-doubt—this restaurant was too touristy, that cheese inauthentic, I was doing it all wrong—but after L’Etoile’s bartender told me a story about eating a multi-course meal of delicate, artful Thai cuisine that left her craving a Chicago hot dog, I felt a mental door swing open. My culinary education could be inclusive and joyful. It wasn’t about snobbery, but pleasure.

In the years that followed, I stopped waitressing. I got married and moved to New York and joined the staff of a literary magazine that just happened to have a food-writing department. Freed from the internal pressure I’d always had to find the most perfect, authentic thing, in my new city I could simply taste: bins of dried marine creatures in Chinatown, the soba noodles and Neapolitan pizza in the East Village, salted capers and fresh mozzarella from the Italian neighborhood up in the Bronx, and the glories of Fairway market, which I stalked every Saturday. No longer did I feel paralyzed by endless possibilities, but enlivened.

I felt the shift in my writing, too; it took on weight and clarity. I used to dally with writing fiction that was tricky or unreliable, little thought experiments, but now I’d learned to follow the same sensation in writing as I had in a job. On the page, what I loved was not theoretical but sensory. I stopped imitating every writer I liked and began to focus on trying to make a world that enveloped a reader as richly as the scent of a baking cake. Now I knew how to let food express everything from the shifting of the seasons to love, competence, joy, and the sheer artistry of everyday life. Because, of course, this was what L’Etoile had taught me.

Over the years, I have debated more than once whether to keep one job or seek another, to live in a big city or a smaller one, and each time I return to the criteria I chose to trust back when I took the job at L’Etoile—the first time I had ever simply trusted myself to make a decision on an inner hunch and not a directive. That decision broke my paralysis in the face of innumerable ways to earn a living, to become a writer, to establish oneself as a grown-up. I chase that feeling, and it doesn’t steer me wrong.

Sometimes what feels like a detour turns out to be more of a transformation—the swerve may not change the major events of your life, but everything in how you live it. My detour showed me that my version of happiness is an intimate and sensory one, less about striving than lingering. My life has more beauty in it than it would have without that detour, because I learned what I find most beautiful: the tough ruffle of winter greens, the succulent pop of currants in July. My life has more richness, knowledge, and daily pleasure in it because of that language of food, exactitude, and care.

I’ve been living back in Madison for as long as I lived in New York, and my daughter is no longer an infant, but I still go to the farmer’s market every week. It’s no longer frantic but calming. L’Etoile taught me how to sift through information and see the logic and the rhythms. And the world is no longer a jumble but a gorgeous abundance. I know what foie gras and sweetbreads taste like, but I’d rather roast a chicken with lemons on a rainy evening, or simmer tomatoes, onion, and butter till they send out a fragrance so savory that passersby have paused outside the window. My version of a life well lived, the one I believed for years I could not attain, turned out to be so simple: I can make it with my own two hands.