In the spring of 1998, I was 25 years old and living with my parents in Gloucester, Virginia. Six months earlier, I had come home from a two year stint in the Republic of Armenia, where I had served as an English teacher with the Peace Corps. While I will never regret spending those years in Armenia, I came home with a pretty serious case of clinical depression. I was broke and having a hard time finding a job that would pay enough to get me launched out on my own. I also came home to some significant family issues, which made my living at home a burden to my parents.
I spent the first few months home working as a temp, mostly at the College of William & Mary in various capacities. In the spring of ’98, I found myself working in William & Mary’s admissions office. That was an eye-opening experience, but it didn’t pay enough and the work was incredibly tedious. My parents were eager to have me get out on my own and I was eager to leave. I didn’t get along with my dad, who had his own issues with depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcoholism. My mom was at her wits’ end trying to keep their business going, which they ran out of their house. Dad had gone to rehab the day after my return from Armenia. Dad’s rehab ultimately wasn’t successful. He and I fought a lot.
One day, after a terrible row with my dad, I marched myself over to The Trellis, at that time one of the best restaurants in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was then owned by renowned Chef Marcel Desaulniers, who has written many cookbooks and used to have cooking shows on PBS. His partner, John Curtis, owned several businesses in Williamsburg and had himself been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s. My mission was to get a job that would pay more so I could GTFO of my parents’ house and get on with my life.
My eldest sister had worked at The Trellis in 1980, when it first opened. She graduated from William & Mary in 1981 and had gone on to do bigger and better things, including joining the Peace Corps. She went to Morocco from 1984-86. I had followed in her footsteps, but unlike my big sister, I wasn’t finding success. Although I had never worked as a waitress before, all three of my sisters had waited tables. I figured if they could do it, so could I. I liked working with food and was giving some thought to going to culinary school. When I was in Armenia, I had done a number of food related projects and had even once been employed as a cook.
The Trellis had a reputation for being a great place to be if you wanted to make bank, but it was also an extremely demanding work environment. I had applied to work there once in 1994, but the manager passed. I worked in retail for a year, then went to Armenia. In 1998, I was determined to get a job at The Trellis. I was mostly motivated by my rage at my dad and the need to stop living in his house. That must have been the magic that was missing the first time I applied, because that time, I got hired. Or, it could have been that they simply needed warm bodies. In 1998 and throughout my time working at The Trellis, they were always hiring because they were chronically short staffed! A lot of people were hired, only to quit or be fired in short order.
I had a really hard time learning how to wait tables at The Trellis. Marcel Desaulniers had been a Marine and he ran his kitchen with military precision. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have experience waiting tables, though. In fact, the management preferred people who were brand new to waiting tables. That way, there weren’t any bad habits that had to be remedied. But it was difficult getting the hang of the job. I remember it took a few weeks before I was finally at ease with the job itself. And then I had to learn about the food!
The menu changed seasonally, and all of the wait staff had to demonstrate their knowledge. There were daily specials, which we had to recite from memory. We were tested on the menus and learned about wine and liquor. Everyone started working at lunch, which was fast paced and required a lot more work to make cash. As a waiter’s skills improved, he or she would be promoted to “Dinner Cafe”, which was even worse than working lunch. It was basically a hybrid menu that included certain lunch and dinner dishes and patrons were seated on the terrace or in the “cafe” area. The money was nominally better, but the work was just as hard. Finally, when menu tests were passed and table maintenance skills were high enough, the waiter would get dinner shifts and start making good money.
It was a lot to take in, and I felt like I was back in college. In those days, I was strictly a beer drinker and I knew nothing about wine, fine food, or liquor. I remember fumbling with the wine tool, trying to get accustomed to opening bottles of wine with style. I got yelled at all the time by the powers that be, which was hard on me. The job was physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. There were a few times when I felt like giving up and trying something else.
Even though I was crippled by depression and anxiety, I was determined to succeed. I just thought about how much I needed to have my own apartment and reminded myself that waiting tables is a very portable skill. After many weeks of hard work, I did eventually make it to a venerable dinner waiter position and even trained some people. But there were many meltdowns along the way… and at first, quite a few people thought I might be one of the many people who didn’t make it through the first week of training. I worked at The Trellis for about a year and a half before I left to go to graduate school.
One of the captains working at The Trellis in 1998 was a guy named CW. I was immediately impressed and inspired by him. He was hardworking, funny, and kind. However, he was also very detailed oriented and task directed. I liked and respected him immediately, especially when I learned that when he started at The Trellis, he took the bus all the way from Norfolk, Virginia to get to work. There were times he missed the last bus home. Still, he showed up to work every day on time and busted his ass to provide great service and make money. He was tough when he needed to be, yet compassionate. CW was a fine role model.
CW left The Trellis a few months after I started working there. I remember his farewell at line up one day. He announced that he was going to work at Kinkead’s, a legendary (and now defunct) restaurant in Washington, DC. I remember the kind send off he received from the restaurant’s more senior staffers. Years later, when I turned 30, Bill and I celebrated at Kinkead’s because I remember CW talking about it. He didn’t wait on us, but I remember that birthday dinner as one of the first of many great meals Bill and I have had together.
CW still works in DC, and has had the opportunity to work at a lot of great restaurants with some amazing chefs. He is now studying to become a wine expert, specifically in German wines. Last week, as part of his sommelier training, he came to the Rheingau to work at a winery. We had the opportunity to meet up in Mainz last night. Even though I hadn’t seen him since 1998, he was easy to spot and there wasn’t a moment of awkwardness all evening.
We had a lovely evening at a Weinstube called Weinhaus zum Spiegel. It’s a charming place in one of the many “alleys and alcoves” in Mainz, a city Bill and I are still getting to know. Over several glasses of wine and small plates, CW, Bill, and I talked for several hours. Here are a few photos from our evening. I do mean a “few” photos, because we were so focused on chatting that there wasn’t much time for picture taking.
Weinhaus zum Spiegel is in a super charming timbered building. I wish I had gotten a picture of it when the sun was still shining. We’ll have to go back to Mainz so I can get a proper photo of the historic looking edifice. I can’t say I was terribly impressed by the food, especially since I had originally wanted smoked trout and they were out of it. I did see a lot of people enjoying Federweisser (new wine) and Zwiebelkuchen (onion “cake”, which looks more like a tart). Although Zwiebelkuchen is a famous dish in southern Germany and popular this time of year, I still have yet to try it. I wish I’d had it last night, although I did like the Spundekäs.
Anyway, we weren’t really there for food as much as we were the company, and CW is excellent company. It was exciting to hear about his plans to break into the German wine industry. Who knows? He may soon join us over here… if we don’t end up having to move again. He has many tales of working in Washington, DC and dealing with some major high maintenance folks– politicians and their ilk– as well as some surprisingly down to earth celebrities.
We finally called it a night at about 10:30, when it was becoming clear that the Weinstube was winding down its service. As Bill and I made our way home, I was musing about how special the memories of working at The Trellis are to some of us. It was a place where I went through many different levels of hell. I remember “shitting Twinkies”, as CW once put it, on the terrace on beautiful spring and fall afternoons and major holidays. I lost a lot of weight working there, and also found myself in therapy and on medication to finally deal with the depression and anxiety that had hindered me for so long. I made enough money to get health insurance, and gathered the resolve to seek the help I desperately needed. I socked away money for the day when I would finally move out on my own. Finally, when I was ready, I launched into graduate school, which led to this “overeducated housewife” lifestyle I currently enjoy.
I only worked at The Trellis for about 18 months, and much of the actual job was hell, but I left there with so many friends I can still count on today, even twenty years after my last shift. We’re all scattered around the world now, but we have the camaraderie of that common experience binding us and, through the magic of Facebook, can stay in touch. And, just like CW, when it was time to leave, I got a warm send off, complete with a signed cookbook from Marcel, and a song from the resident harp guitarist, Stephen Bennett, whose music got me through so many horrific Saturday night dinner shifts. I learned about good food, fine wines, table maintenance, hard work, and even great music. Not only did I discover Stephen Bennett at The Trellis, I also made enough money to invest in voice lessons for myself! And, as difficult as it all was, working at the Trellis absolutely changed my life for the better. In fact, working there might have even saved my life, given my mental state at the time. 😉
The Trellis still exists in Williamsburg, but it now has different owners and is no longer a fine dining establishment. I haven’t been there to try its new incarnation. I’m not sure I could bear it. I think I’d rather remember it the way it was back in the day.
Cheers to all of my former Trellis colleagues who once shat Twinkies in the weeds with me! And cheers to CW as he continues his path to bigger and better things! I have a feeling our paths could cross again on this side of the Atlantic.