Sponsorship and the Culinary Discourse
“Which wine would you recommend with the firecracker shrimp?”
I knew that sweet wine complimented spicy, but that was the extent of my knowledge of what wine would go with a spicy dish. I couldn’t name a bottle let alone a cabernet, pinot gris, or malbec. I closed the menu and guided the customer to the list of wines by the glass on the back. I skimmed through the list searching for the word sweet before the customer could find it. “Our riesling by the glass is excellent with the spicy shrimp. The sweetness cuts the spiciness perfectly.”
“I’ll have a glass of that with dinner, please,” the woman said.
I was twenty-years-old and had moved from Seattle to Hawaii eight months prior. I was now waiting tables in a fine dining restaurant and needed more knowledge than I had about menu items — especially about wine. All I knew was whether the wine tasted good to me or not.
It seemed there was an elite club for servers who knew about wine, and due to my lack of knowledge on the subject, I couldn’t join. Servers in the club knew I didn’t know the difference between champagne and sparkling wine or what made a red wine red, but I had enough knowledge and strategies to fool the customer — hopefully.
Because I didn’t have the knowledge to ensure customer satisfaction for wine selection, I relied on getting by with the limited information and tools I had about wine. In Social Linguistics and Literacies James Paul Gee uses the term “mushfaking” to describe moves like this by individuals in Discourses. When an individual learns a new skill and has little knowledge and not much practice they use strategies to ‘make do’” (201). In the culinary Discourse, I had not yet acquired an in depth knowledge of wine, so I used the wine list on the back of the menu and questions like ‘do you like red or white wine’ and ‘do you like a full bodied wine or something lighter.’ I had to make do with the limited information I had about wine to give the customer an enjoyable experience. It wasn’t until I was twenty-one and able to participate in wine tastings that I felt comfortable enough to suggest cabernet, pinot gris, or malbec.
I also used mushfaking when describing the fresh fish on the menu. Being in Hawaii, fresh island fish was a staple on the menu. However, I am allergic to fish. My throat closes shut, and I have to use an Epipen if a hint of fish finds its way to my mouth. Without sampling fish, I was unable to describe from a firsthand experience what fish tastes like. Oftentimes, people had never tasted the fish served on our menu and that cast a shadow on their trying something new. If I had told a customer the fish was mild but I hadn’t actually tasted the fish, that would create further doubt on trying something new, taking away from the dining experience. How did I end up serving?
I might not have even been promoted to a waiter from the busser position if it wasn’t for Mason. Mason was a chef in the kitchen who always offered me extra food during shift. When he found out I was allergic to fish and nuts, he prepared extra food I could eat when cooking for guests. Delicious pork potstickers that were crisp on one side, soft on the other with a ponzu sauce (citrus soy sauce). Duck breast with uala (sweet potato) and a mandarin cabernet beurre blanc.
Knowledge of the food was my ticket to getting promoted and making more money. However, I didn’t know how to go about learning food I couldn’t taste. Since Mason had been with the company ten years, and his wife was the executive chef, I figured he’d know better than most the quickest way to get out of stocking and get to waiting tables. He set me up working in the kitchen during the day. I wouldn’t get paid, but I would learn the food.
Because of Mason’s willingness to help me learn what I needed to know, he contributed to my success as a server at Nick’s restaurant. Deborah Brandt might say he helped sponsor my entry into Nick’s Restaurant. A sponsor is “any agent, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate suppress or withhold literacy — and gain advantage by it in some way” (166–167). Mason enabled me to learn the food I couldn’t try and supported my desire to move up within the company.
I came in the next morning for training with a pen and paper. Mason gave me a packet that had all the fish listed with both their Hawaiian and English name next to a picture. Mason then explained each fish. Ono is wahoo. It’s a white fish firmer in texture and mild. Ono also means delicious in English. Opakapaka is pink snapper, delicate in texture and flavor.
Mason also instructed me to ask specific questions about food. If I asked what something tasted like, often I would get the answer ‘good’ from people. Mason told me to ask questions like ‘is the dish sweet or savory’ or ‘is there a strong flavor to the fish.’ Mason explained the more specific the questions I asked were, the more details I would get in an answer. It was the details that would give me the confidence to talk about the food I was unable to taste.
Because I could not taste the fish, I could not acquire the knowledge I needed. According to Gee, acquisition is doing something in a practical way over and over until it is second nature, using trial and error to see what works, and practice. (197). I couldn’t taste the ono or the opakapaka and acquire an understanding of their flavor and texture. I needed someone to teach me what I needed to know. I needed to learn about the fish in order to sell it with confidence. Gee says learning is when someone teaches you information needed to enter a Discourse (197). Ideally, when learning a new Discourse, you learn and acquire information to be successful. I had to rely solely on learning and gaining meta-knowledge to describe the fish.
Through descriptions on the handouts and information given to me by Mason, I was able to ‘make do’ with selling fish without any actual firsthand knowledge about how the fish tasted. I memorized the texture and flavor of each fish until I could answer any question about any fish we served without hesitation. This process was difficult because I didn’t have firsthand knowledge of fish, but I learned what I needed to know to get by while serving.
Learning about fish was different than other experiences I had while entering the Discourse of Nick’s restaurant. I acquired many skills by simply doing the work. Sometimes guests would tell me they didn’t have a lot of time to dine. As I worked with customers who had time constraints, I acquired the skills to ensure their satisfaction. My interaction with the table was quicker. I gave them shorter versions of the information they needed to select menu items. I let the kitchen know there were time constraints. I printed the check everytime they ordered something. This guaranteed I could always hand them the check if they asked for it instead of having to go and print it. The acquisition of the skills necessary to give quality service to a table with time constraints didn’t happen with the first table I served with these specific needs. I acquired the skills through trial and error and seeing what worked to please the customer.
Getting the Job
I knew I would have to ‘make do’ with the knowledge I had when I moved from Seattle. Five days prior to my interview at Nick’s restaurant, I had flown on a one-way ticket to Hawaii with two suitcases and a grand in cash. My first mission was a job.
After waiting forty-five minutes to speak with Sara, the manager, she said, “I don’t have time to meet today. You need to come back another day.”
Sean, a corporate manager, then said, “I’ll interview her.”
When Sean said he would interview me, he opened the door for me to enter the Discourse of Nick’s Restaurant. A Discourse is the specific ways a group communicates with each other through reading, writing, speaking, and other means of communication using a variety of tools to promote a distinct identity (171). From the hours of operation to serving alcohol, Nick’s was a completely different Discourse from my job in Seattle.
My prior Discourse was connected but different. I had waited tables at a breakfast spot in Seattle for a couple of years. The restaurant was fast paced, and I learned the basics of waiting tables. The meta-knowledge I gained from the breakfast restaurant — greeting the customer, making recommendations, getting the order to the kitchen, delivering food, and taking payment — I took with me to the interview at Nick’s restaurant.
At the cafe in Seattle, there was one daily special that changed once a week. And I knew every item on the menu. At Nick’s restaurant, there were 40 specials that changed daily. And I knew nothing on the menu. The menu contained words like ulua, shutome, yuzu, kabli, and tobiko. However, my lack of menu knowledge didn’t hinder Sean from hiring me. After interviewing me and reading my letter of recommendation from my job in Seattle, he didn’t hesitate to offer me a job.
Sean understood from my application and my letter of recommendation that I could learn to be a member of his restaurant Discourse without knowing what ono was.
Sean also became a sponsor who assisted in my entry and success at Nick’s restaurant. As a manager, he took the chance. Sean knew I didn’t have much experience, but through our conversation and my letter, he knew I would make a solid employee. I benefited from Sean taking the chance on me, but Sean benefited from hiring someone who would work hard and always show up for their scheduled shift. When someone sponsors another person, there is always something to be gained by the sponsor. There is a give and take by both parties.
There was a catch when I was hired. You see, Nick’s restaurant didn’t hire waiters; they promoted waiters. Every new employee had to start at the bottom. So I jumped through the hoops of polishing silverware, bussing tables, and then running food before I was promoted to server months later.
After months of running food, management began the process of training employees to wait tables. They had watched me work hard and learn the information needed to be successful within the restaurant and knew I possessed the skills needed to become a server.
Most servers training me had no problem with teaching me what I needed to know, except for one server. Trisha set out to make me doubt myself and what I knew about Nick’s Discourse. Not only did she ‘withhold literacy’ from me, she set me up to fail. Trisha was the anti-sponsor.
While Trisha watched me, I stood before the couple, who were celebrating their anniversary, and presented the bottle of wine. The lights were dim, and Hawaiian music and the murmur of customers filled the air. I cut the foil off the bottle and spun the corkscrew around and around until I reached the base of the wine key. As I levered the wine key and slid the cork up, it snapped. My arm flew up as tension broke, half the cork securely on the wine key, the other half trapped half an inch into the bottle. I looked for Trisha and watched helplessly as she walked away from the broken cork dilemma. I stood, wine bottle in one hand, wine key in the other, desperately trying to dig the cork remnant out with the corkscrew. Before I completely shredded the cork into the bottle, Trisha came back. She used my age and inexperience with wine to humiliate me in front of the customers. The customers shifted in their seats and stared at the table as I stood listening to Trisha. Trisha also told management the table said I didn’t look like I knew what I was doing, which honestly, I didn’t.
I had no experience with wine or waiting tables in a fine dining establishment. I knew I was really young at twenty to be serving at Nick’s restaurant. It wasn’t just my age though. I looked like I was a sophomore in high school. Having Trisha point out my flaws to both customers and management only increased the self-doubt she had created in me. I hesitated before I greeted tables when Trisha was with me. When customers asked about wine, instead of getting by with the wine by the glass list, I would turn their questions to Trisha, who enjoyed explaining I didn’t know a thing about wine. I began to feel that serving would be disastrous for both myself and Nick’s restaurant.
Management, however, saw the situation differently, which boosted my confidence. When Trisha listed her reasons that I shouldn’t be a server, management disagreed with her assessment. Management told Trisha no other server had a problem training me, and customers had complimented me more than once. Trisha apologized for how she treated me, which was nice, but I really couldn’t forget about her anti-sponsorship. She set me up for failure. She created self-doubt in me. She decided to make my entry into the Discourse painful and humiliating. Trisha did everything in her power to be an anti-sponsor in my journey to serving.
After I had been a server for a few years, I became head waiter. I was placed in the best sections, trained employees, and had first choice to stay late or leave early. I knew what I was doing and wanted to help other new servers get their start.
When managers thought about promoting Steve, a busser, to server — I thought of Trisha. I didn’t want any new server to go through what I had experienced. Steve always worked hard and knew what he was doing. The argument against Steve — he was too young. Steve was twenty. If Steve was promoted, I wouldn’t have his support as much as I did when he wasn’t a server. That didn’t matter though. I wanted to sponsor Steve and help him get a promotion I knew he wanted. I thought of Sean and Mason and how they had helped while I was entering the Discourse of Nick’s restaurant and wanted Steve to have the sponsorship I had experienced. When I said Steve was an ideal candidate for server, management listened.
Looking back, that was the first moment I felt recognized as an authoritative member in the culinary Discourse, more specifically in Nick’s Discourse. I entered Nick’s restaurant with some knowledge of waiting tables from a breakfast restaurant in Seattle, which was enough to initially get by. Through the help of sponsors, I was able to expand my knowledge of the culinary Discourse until I was a member of Nick’s Discourse with the status of a sponsor within the Discourse. More importantly, I learned that I didn’t want to hinder others from succeeding in a Discourse. From first-hand experience of working with an anti-sponsor, I learned I wanted to build others up, not hold them back from sought after opportunities. A sponsor makes entry into any Discourse a much easier transition than if you were to enter a Discourse without people helping you learn how to function within the Discourse.
Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 49, no.2, 1998, pp. 165–185. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/358929.
Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. Routledge/Falmer, 1996.