How a Decade in Restaurants Helped My Writing


If you have never worked in a restaurant, you may have heard it's like a ballet, or at least a noisy play. In the kitchen, the pans sizzle. In the dining room, the servers dance. I spent a decade of my life immersed in the vibrant ambiance of restaurants, an experience that left an indelible mark on my storytelling.

Those 10 years taught me invaluable lessons about the human experience, and how the colorful wave of emotions, desires, and interactions move seamlessly onto the stage of fiction

I Spent 10 Years Working in Restaurants

For a decade, I found myself engulfed in the world of restaurants—from elegant fine-dining to cozy neighborhood cafes. I moved gracefully and quickly through the dining rooms sometimes carrying two trays at a time. I held pizza, I carried jugs of beer, I balanced five plates on a single arm and glided to a table at which the love-sick teenagers were breaking up.

Each day was a unique chapter filled with challenges, camaraderie, and unexpected moments hidden at the tables. A demanding profession, it taught me the nuances of multitasking, empathy, and the delicate balance between chaos and order. While it may have seemed like an unlikely setting for nurturing creativity, it turned out to be an invaluable source of inspiration for my writing.

Why Matters Because

I was not the most responsible young adult but working in restaurants taught me plenty about responsibility, about mediation, and about problem solving. What table needed prioritzation? How do I handle an unruly customer? How do I keep smiling when I bent over backwards for this family and all their demands only to get a dollar tip on an 100-dollar check?

But in the end, it wasn't only about how I felt; it was about what I heard. A server in a restaurant is not oblivious to their surroundings. In fact, they are in tune with their environment. Even when in the weeds, they know what table needs more water, who's food will be out soon, what table should get the check. A good server also overhears their tables, listens to their conversations, understands their body language.

And that helped me understand how people really talk and how people want to sound.

I Got Ideas from Speaking with People and Learning About Them

Restaurants are more than just culinary hubs; they are melting pots of stories. From the old couple celebrating their anniversary to an anxious traveler looking for comfort in a new city, each table had its own narrative. Engaging with new people day in and day out provided me with a treasure trove of characters, each carrying their dreams, fears, and aspirations.

The overheard conversations, the stolen glances, and the moments of genuine laughter gave me glimpses into lives that were vastly different from my own or that paralleled my own experience in some way. It was these encounters that encouraged my creative curiosity, prompting me to ask "What if?" and craft my own stories around them.

I Observed Humans Existing in the World and Gained a Better Understanding of How They Acted and Why They Acted

The act of observing is an art

Restaurants gave me a front-row seat to the intricate theater of human behavior. I watched as customers struggled with menus, talking about what they'd prefer to have instead of what the restaurant did have, and revealing their personalities through their choices.

A diner meticulously inspecting everyone's order before taking their first bite spoke volumes about their attention to detail, much like a character in a novel who scrutinizes every clue. The hurried businessman scarfing down his salad, eyes glued to his phone, hinted at the pressures of his world and his life always a hair's breath close to unraveling.

In the midst of the restaurant's controlled chaos, I learned to decipher body language, interpret glances, and discern the subtext between the bodies. This skill of reading between the lines became an invaluable asset in my fiction, allowing me to infuse my characters with depth and authenticity. Just as in the restaurant, where a mother's fleeting expression revealed a universe of emotions, my fictional characters came to life through these subtleties because that's where the human existence and connection live.

Turning Experience into Fiction

Turning life experiences into fiction is not rocket science. It requires an understanding of weaving, a balance between what happened in life versus what works well with a story on the page. It's where authenticity meets imagination. The restaurant setting offered me a platform to explore the human psyche and the myriad ways it responds to challenges, celebrations, and the ordinary moments of our daily life that somehow feel extraordinary. In the kitchen, the cooks combined their ingredients to make the food, and at home I blended the flavors of real-life encounters with the zest of creativity to concoct stories that resonated with readers (or used the kitchen to make tortured metaphors).

The characters I encountered during my restaurant "career" became the heartbeats of my narratives. The star-crossed lovers hiding in candlelit corner, whispering secrets over ripped apart bread, inspired a heartbreaking love story. The tireless chef, forever perfecting his recipes behind the swinging kitchen doors, became the backdrop for a tale of passion and pursuit. By translating these human experiences onto the page, I sought to capture the essence of life's complexities, allowing readers to immerse themselves in worlds that felt both familiar and enchantingly new.

Lessons Learned and Pages Turned

I bid farewell to my restaurant days long ago and embarked on a chapter as a full-time writer working on novels and travel articles. But I carry with me a trove of lessons learned and stories witnessed. The decade spent navigating the ebbs and flows of restaurant life may have come to a close, but its echoes reverberate through my writing, infusing my stories with the flavors of authenticity, the spices of imagination, and an endless wealth of psychological discovery.

That's the beauty of life as a writer. Our experiences can always be distilled into fiction. As we gather around tables, both real and imagined, may we never underestimate the power of observation, the magic of conversations, and the kaleidoscope of human emotions that enrich the stories we tell.

Rather than end the story there, I encourage you to go to a restaurant, cafe, or coffee shop and sit down inside listening to the conversations of those around you. Listen to how other people talk. Listen to what they talk about. Take notes, memorize interesting lines or ways of speaking—but most of all, listen.