Stories from the industry’s best

THE PROFESSIONALS

Stephen Pacholzuk — Absolutely fabulous

Meet Stephen, professional server for over two decades

By MARTA S


Stephen Pacholzuk and I met in 2009. We worked together at Jump — I was but a humble hostess then; he was a server. I knew immediately that Stephen was something special. Indeed, most people realize how special Stephen is within moments of meeting him. It’s one of the things that’s made him such an exceptional server for over 20 years.

To see Stephen serve a table is to watch the very best in hospitality, personified. Over the years, I’ve seen him interact with countless guests, and the same thing always happens — the guests’ eyes start to shine, their features relax, and, by the end of their meal, they are positively glowing.

Stephen and I are working together again now — I’m on the bar; he’s still working his magic in the dining room. And it’s common for our diners to request Stephen as their server.

If a celebrity is coming in to dine, Stephen will be the one to serve them. If we host a wedding, Stephen will be the one in charge of the bridal party’s table. He is one of our company’s consummate professionals. He’s a serving superstar.

And he’s wholly, wonderfully, uniquely Stephen.

In a word, he’s fabulous

Hi, Stephen!

“When I was little, the very first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a supermodel,” Stephen tells me over glasses of sparkling wine at the Drake Hotel. “George Michael did that to me. But that didn’t work out.”

After we’ve finished giggling, he continues. “So, the next thing I wanted to be was a flight attendant. I pursued it for a little while, but I just didn’t have French as a second language. But I always wanted to be dealing with the public.”

Stephen’s fascination with hospitality was inspired by his mother. “I grew up in Pickering and my mom worked at a hotel in Scarborough. I’d go in as a little kid,” he recalls. “She’d prop me up in a little booth in the corner. Just watching her work and seeing her interact with her guests, I remember thinking, ‘This is such a cool industry.’”

It was his mother, too, who helped him secure his very first serving job at the age of 18 at a little pub in Pickering called the Winchester Arms.

“Usually you start at the bottom [and work your way up to serving], but I was like, ‘I’ll just go for server,’” Stephen says, a smile spreading across his face. “I only got the job because my mom basically said, ‘Put down that you worked as a server at the hotel. We’ll vouch for you.’ I had no serving experience. I literally lied on my resume, got the job, and then — really — didn’t know what to do from there. I didn’t know how to serve a table, carry a tray, anything!”

Little Stephen: Go Jays!

I have a hard time picturing it. Having only ever known Stephen as the person he is today — unfailingly professional and flamboyantly confident — I’m even more surprised when he describes himself back in those early days.

“I was nothing like I am right now. I was so meek and so shy, and not knowing anything [about serving], I was even more quiet at work,” he says, as I shake my head in disbelief. “I had just come out around that time; not a lot of people knew. Being in a small town like Pickering, and being gay — I felt like I had to keep it on the DL. So I was very timid. I wasn’t as open as I am — obviously — now.”

An adventure out west makes Stephen his best

Stephen eventually found his way to the city with a job serving at a small BBQ restaurant in downtown Toronto. At 21 years old, he and a girlfriend from work decided to go on an adventure, the way only 21 year-olds can. The pair packed up and headed west to Vancouver with only the shadow of a plan.

I tried to find a photo of us that wasn’t blurry due to the fact that we’re in a bar or club, dancing our faces off. No such photo exists. Actually.

In the end, it was there that Stephen would hone the service skills to make him a cut above the rest. It was also where he learned that serving and hospitality — unequivocally — would be his life-long passion and career.

“[When we got to Vancouver] I got panicky about finding work and being able to pay rent, so I initially took a job in retail.” He rolls his eyes and makes a face of pure disgust. “It was awful. It really sealed the deal that I never wanted to do anything besides hospitality, ever again.” His foray into retail lasted a mere three weeks.

Mercifully, Stephen found a job serving at a restaurant by the water called Cardero’s — then the latest offering from BC’s prestigious Sequoia Company of Restaurants (the Teahouse, Seasons in the Park).

Being a new property, “it started off quite slow at first. Then, one day, it just exploded and turned into one of the best restaurants in Vancouver at the time,” Stephen recalls.

It was the heavy-handed, demanding management style of this upscale eatery that shaped Stephen’s whole work ethic.

“They put the fear of God in you,” he says seriously. “Our [pre-service] briefings were like, ‘If you mess up — if a guest pours their own water, pours their own wine, for example — we will fire you on the spot.’ I had the fear of God put into me, and it worked. It worked so well. From that restaurant I learned how to be the best server that I could possibly be. From then on I knew — this is my calling. This is what I am meant to do, and I don’t want to do anything else at all. I lived in Vancouver for three years and I worked [at Cardero’s] the whole time.

“And the money was ridiculous,” he adds cheekily, taking a sip of wine.

Stephen then tells me one of his favourite serving stories. It’s a story that revolves around money — $10,000 to be exact — and how the flip of a coin decided his fate one night.

Listen to Stephen tell one of his favourite tales:

“What did you do with all that money?” I ask, my mouth agape over my pint of Guinness.

“Girl, what do you think I did? I was 21 years old and living on my own in Vancouver — it didn’t last,” he replies, and we dissolve into laughter. “I was like, ‘Who’s coming for drinks?! I’m buying you the night of your life!! Let’s go shopping!!”

“I treat them as though they were in my own home”

As good as the money can be when you’re serving at Stephen’s level, it’s not the only thing that’s kept him satisfied with his career all these years.

“On a dinner shift, in six to seven hours, I get to interact with so many different people and I love it,” he shares. “I love hearing their stories, and making emotional connections with them. Being able to touch people’s lives in some way,” he says, and the emotion in his voice rises.

“To hear someone later say, ‘You don’t know how much you made my dinner special’ — it’s important. Dinner is important. Going out is important. People are going to spend their hard-earned money somewhere, and you want to show them a good time. But really, it’s just me doing what I do. I don’t go to a table with a ‘plan’. I just treat them as though they were in my own home.

“It’s not robot service. ‘I am robot waiter how are you give me money,’” he says, doing his best Johnny 5 impression. “It’s about impacting people’s experiences and lives, you know? To have someone in a bad place leave feeling like they were heard, or that we did something to make things a little better; to know that we care, that we touched them positively in some way — that’s the best part of it for me.

“It’s not me going above and beyond. It’s just me doing what I do because I love to do it,” he says, passionate and humble at once.

Extra levels of serotonin

The hospitality industry has impacted Stephen’s life in many positive ways. His partner of 13 years, Matthew, also works in the industry. With the amount of experience between them, they have plans to open up a restaurant of their own. “We have 60% of a business plan done,” Stephen says. “Now we have to find a chef — that’s the next part.”

Matthew is Australian, and the two met during another one of Stephen’s whirlwind adventures, serving down in Sydney. So their concept is Canadian with Australian influence, and “local, fresh, simple [offerings] — nothing fancy, but consistently great. It has to be consistently amazing, all the time. The service is great, the food is great, the drinks are great. And people will want to come back over and over again because they’re as comfortable as they would be in our own home,” Stephen tells me energetically.

I often have a hard time imagining Stephen sleeping — he’s always so on (“I feel like I’ve been blessed with a lot of extra serotonin, maybe?”), and it’s clear he shows no signs of slowing down.

“This industry has helped me be the person that I am right now,” he says definitively. “This outgoing, personable, witty, quick guy — that’s the person it’s made me. I’m very, very blessed that the industry has never made me bitter or jaded. Of course I get upset or annoyed sometimes — everyone does — but never jaded.

“It’s made my life so much more enjoyable,” he continues. “I enjoy going to work, I enjoy the people I work with, I enjoy seeing their faces all the time. Many people never, ever find their true passion, or what they love to do. I’m so fortunate that I found it early on in life.

“This is the thing I will do until the end of time. This is it for me.”


Come visit Stephen at LUMA. You’ll never forget it. Or him.


Marta S

Marta S is a freelance writer and bartender living and working in Toronto. If you or someone you know would like to be profiled on The Professionals, email her at marta@behindtheboite.com.
She takes all kinds.