You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I'm part of the ladies of RVA Dine.
Toast's owner Jessica had organized a benefit dinner at the now defunct 525 at the Berry Burke for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, staffed by an all female crew- chefs, hosts, servers and busers and even pulling from the food writing community. That's where I came in.
Of course I wanted to do my part, but with limited restaurant experience, I felt like my best contribution would be clearing dishes and pouring water, two things I long since mastered growing up in a large family.
And while plenty of the women serving had restaurant experience, many of them hadn't waited tables since the '80s. We were all inexpertly in this together.
We had to be there a half hour in advance of the dinner to have our picture taken en masse, the best female chefs in RVA in their chef coats along with the ragtag service staff, all of us in "I (heart) the ladies of RVA Dine" t-shirts.
Waiting for the 120 people who'd reserved seats to arrive, we stood around discussing what was to come, not sure how much of a clusterf*ck it might be, but convinced that to some degree, it would be a shit show.
As the first course was being plated and all of us convened in the kitchen to start grabbing plates, someone announced, "Would you look at all this pussy power in the kitchen?" I might not have phrased it quite that way, but okay.
The evening unfolded as a continuous stream of delivering plates and clearing them with filling water glasses and chatting with guests in between.
A former food critic complimented my writing, saying, "I always enjoy reading your reviews." When I thanked her with a raised eyebrow, she insisted, "No, I'm not just saying that. I like the way you write."
I took a quick moment to go to the bathroom between the third and fourth courses, finding the ladies' room occupied (of course) but a woman guest headed into the men's room and invited me along, assuring me that she was just going to change her shirt.
"When I got here, I looked in the mirror and realized you could see right through my shirt and with the size of my boobs, that's not good," she explained, trading her sheer blouse for an RVA Ladies dine shirt while I took care of business.
For the rest of the evening, whenever I was near her table, she called me "bathroom girl" and giggled.
At another table, a guy with a superb mustache looked at me and said, "So you really like the Daily, I guess," an odd thing to say since I've never been to the Daily. "You're in there like three times a week," he insisted. "Okay, maybe 17 times in the past month."
Explaining that that was impossible, he was stunned. "Well, then, you've got a doppelganger and she comes into the Daily all the time. She's really pretty. You should come in, too."
I said I'd take it under advisement.
Things were hot and raucous in the kitchen, with a bottle of bourbon being passed around and servers delivering drinks to the chefs who wanted them, but the plates coming out of there were picture perfect, clearly the work of pros.
Food-wise, I was most surprised that the dish prepared by Chef Carly of C'est le Vin and Chef Lilly of Pasture seemed to be the most challenging for diners.
Very few plates of the divine combination of smoked wild mushrooms, balsamic braised collards, quinoa and arugula almond pesto with a poached egg sailing atop it all came back licked clean.
Either they'd left the quinoa (although how, I can't imagine), pushed the greens to the side, or left part or all of the egg.
I had it on good authority from two foodies that it was a fabulous dish, so perhaps the crowd just didn't get it. I know when I finally got a couple tastes, I had to question people leaving even one bite.
And speaking of Chef Carly, she teased me that part of her kitchen routine is to drop something on the floor and ask a cute waitress to pick it up."If I did that tonight, I'd drop it in front of you," she said coyly.
It may have been because I was the only person on staff wearing a skirt.
At one point, I was clearing dishes and I clumsily picked up a plate, apologizing that it was my first time being a buser.
The plate's owner grabbed my wrist and asked what I did in real life so I told her. "That's so cool! We have to go out together. Soon. Here's my card." I stuck it in my bra.
Another table, another unexpected attention. A man said he could get used to being waited on by movie stars.
We're not movie stars, I assured him, laughing at the notion. "But you're RVA stars!" he said. I gotta say, that's a new way of looking at the life of a freelance writer.
While we weren't technically up to speed on service - there was much going in the out door - the camaraderie was terrific and it was great fun for someone like me who hasn't spent time in a kitchen to become part of the rhythm of the night.
By the fourth course (spring lamb loin and shank, barley, English peas, maitake and ramp gremolata, yum) of seven, I was feeling pretty comfortable with what I needed to do to serve, clear and water as many tables as I could get to.
I was particularly proud because I seemed to be the only one who hadn't pulled out a phone during her shift, long one of my pet peeves for real servers.
Over a few courses, I developed a special relationship with the two guys sitting at a bar table away from the main dining room, teasing them almost as much as they teased me.
It was in between the fifth and sixth course that Emilia of Heritage taught me and another serving neophyte how to balance a third plate. We looked at each other in wonder, sorry that no one had schooled us three hours earlier.
By the time we got to the double dessert course (and praise heaven because the staff had worried that we'd have to serve two dessert courses), I got some lovely validation.
At a table of all men, one looked at me and asked if he could get a coffee. His buddy nudged him and said, "Don't ask her. Karri's our server."
"I don't want Karri, " he said, ignoring his buddy and grinning at me from six inches away. "I want her instead." Coffee was never served with more care or a bigger smile.
So it only took me seven courses to get the hang of it.
If this freelance writing thing goes up in smoke, looks like I'll always have busing to fall back on.