“It is enough to have to eat,” Marcello was saying late on Tuesday night. It was the end of a long day in a string of long days in the heart of the Christmas season. Being a higher-end Italian restaurant in the CBD (Central Business District) of Wellington with many of the tallest office buildings in walking distance, Vercelli’s often played host to group after group of work Christmas parties, even putting up with the chorus of pops that resound after everyone breaks their Christmas crackers, as if a dozen guns went off at once.
But on that particular Tuesday evening, Marcello and I were waiting on one final table to decide they were done for the evening. There always seems to be that one table, doesn’t there, who fail to note the entire restaurant emptied out half an hour ago and they are the only remaining souls standing between us and our beds. Having long ago finished our closing tasks, tables wiped and reset, cutlery replenished, floors swept, we stood around the till up front and talked – rather, I listened as Marcello talked, of what’s really important in life. Food.
It’d been a disheartening first couple of days in Wellington, at least when it came to the job search. I loved my new flat, I loved the city itself, I just wanted employment. When I arrived, I’d brought with me a couple of contacts (what I thought were hopeful) – my friend Adam in Christchurch had worked for radio stations in Wellington a few years back and told me he had the name of a woman who could give me some promo work. The temp agency I worked for in Christchurch has an office in the capital and I hoped I could get a name of someone to contact from the manager I knew. Even Braden in Queenstown told me the owner of Wattie’s knew of a bar in Wellington where I could most likely find work.
Then, the night before Elise and I boarded the ferry in Picton, I visited a well-known New Zealand backpacker’s website and while there wasn’t much listed under Wellington besides a call for dancers with a “vibrant personality” at the Mermaid Gentlemen’s Club (no thank you!), I did see an advert for a housekeeper/general reception-help at a seemingly-charming guesthouse not far from my flat. I sent off an email, only to get a call from them a few hours later, asking me to come in and interview the next day. Talk about efficient.
Thus I arrived in Wellington on the hopeful side, arrived with my arsenal of contacts and my housekeeping interview. While the thought of essentially being a maid cracked me up, I also found it perfect in theory – I wanted to do something different for my last few months in New Zealand and I’d certainly found it. It all sounded too much like Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed not to get me excited about it.
But the interview was nowhere near a success in my mind. In person, the guesthouse itself seemed outdated, not charming. I would use the word ‘vintage’ only not to imply fashionably out of fashion, but just seriously in need of an update – the perfect candidate for a makeover show on TV. After the tour, I sat down with John, the owner, and instead of an interview, what I got was a two-part lecture. The first half focused on how he fills his days – buying Chinese porcelain on online auction websites. The second covered his opinions on American tourists, how they come to New Zealand thinking they’re better than everyone else, and how he proceeds to take advantage of their arrogant ignorance. Well, it may be needless to say, but I didn’t leave the guesthouse particularly excited by the possibility of working there. John said he’d call; I felt like saying, don’t bother.
So I made phone calls, sent out texts and emails, to “my people” on the South Island…and heard nothing. It was incredibly frustrating, because I knew I was just another CV in the pile for all the temp agencies I applied to – I knew I needed the edge of having a name. But, just as I learned with the weather and the lack of seasonal work in Nelson, you can’t change what’s out of your control. I would just have to move on and find something else.
So, like I said, I decided to go the temp agency route. Many of the office-oriented roles were advertised as paying $18-20 an hour – a near fortune compared to Queenstown standards. But I was quickly told I didn’t have enough experience, two years as a PA being the requirement. Apparently having a university degree and six months experience isn’t enough for them; apparently experience is just a number on paper. I suppose, though, that’s just the way they have to do things. And even when I wasn’t immediately rejected from more hospitality-oriented agencies, I was told I wouldn’t hear from them for a week or two. Yikes.
Finally, I looked through the list of restaurants and numbers I’d written down and saw one I hadn’t contacted yet – Vercelli’s. I’d found them on TradeMe, a popular New Zealand classifieds-website, but couldn’t remember why I’d decided not to call. So I did – and kicked myself for not doing it earlier. The process couldn’t have been easier – I called, I was asked to drop by with my CV, I showed up for my trial the next day, and by the second night, was working my first official shift. Just like that, I had a job…and without a single connection to help me out. I was pretty chuffed – it was the first job I’d gotten in New Zealand on my own.
The funny thing about Vercelli’s, though, is that they make you work split shifts. My Mexican restaurant in Christchurch was only open in the evening so it wasn’t something I had to deal with, but as a restaurant open for both lunch and dinner, Vercelli’s requires most servers to work both shifts. That means you start at either 10am or noon, work the lunch shift, have a break in the afternoon, start back at five or six, work the dinner shift, and finish up somewhere in the vicinity of ten or eleven at night. While not so weird of a concept, what it meant for me was that it eliminated the possibility of having a second job. After my time in Queenstown, having two jobs – and their paychecks – was something I had gotten used to. Would I be able to save enough from just one job?
But after talking to several temp agencies, it became clear I had secured the right job for the season in which I was working. One hospitality temp agent told me he could give me steady work for a couple weeks, but that after Christmas, it would slow down dramatically as work holiday functions were over. A temp agent I spoke with about reception work told me the same thing – that most offices would be shutting down until the end of January. While I had envisioned my primary job in Wellington being in an office – it is the capital, after all – it looked like that wasn’t going to be the case. But with both agents saying, “Don’t give up your job at Vercelli’s,” it gave me a little more peace about the work I had found. It paid well, it could give me fifty to sixty hours a week, and being in hospitality, it would keep me busy over the holiday season.
There wasn’t much I didn’t love about Vercelli’s at first. The location alone is worth showing up for every day – situated on Customhouse Quay, it is prime waterfront real estate, with the ceiling-to-floor, wall-to-wall glass windows looking out onto Lambton Harbor, right where the interislander ferries pull in from their journey across Cook Strait. On sunny days, we open up the three glass doors, so it’s as if we’re practically working outside. If I’m serving an outdoors table and the sun is particularly strong, I always joke with the customers, telling them to take especially long with their orders so I can maximize my time in the sun.
And the food – oh, the food. At Wattie’s, we could eat any of the pizzas that were leftover at the end of the night. But that was just it – they were leftover, often having sat under the pizza warmer for a good two hours. Not exactly, shall we say, fine dining. At my restaurant in Christchurch, there was a staff menu, but even a burrito still cost around six bucks – nowhere near cheap enough for me to make a habit of eating there every day. Which is a shame, really, because I never got to really know the menu. When customers would ask what my favorite dish was, they were largely given a made-up answer – I’d tell them, based off seeing and running the food out 24/7, my favorite dish would most likely be the fajitas or the chicken enchiladas. I have no doubt they could read right through my lack of genuine enthusiasm.
Never have I worked at a restaurant where the staff are fed…for free…and the food is nothing short of amazing. And it’s prepared by the same chefs who spend all day cooking for every customer. Chicken risotto, spaghetti carbonera, penne alla arrabiata, rigatoni portofino – and those are just the pasta dishes, the veritable tip of the iceberg, not including the pizzas. And we essentially have free rein of the menu. Initially, I’d sort of kept my choices simple, assuming that they’d want staff to pick easy, inexpensive dishes, and while we certainly aren’t given steaks, we are encouraged to experiment and explore. After my third time of asking for linguini lupara – an especially delicious dish featuring spicy Italian sausage – Marcello asked, “Why, Candy? Why you always choose lupara? I make you rigatoni amatrciana, it’s my favorite.” If you insist, Marcello…
And after our meal is finished, we can usually ask for a freshly made coffee from the bar – I’ve gotten pretty used to having a steaming moccachino every afternoon. Nothing like sitting down in the sun after a manic lunch shift with a gourmet Italian dish and coffee. It almost makes the crazy split-shift schedule worth it…almost. Because there’s definitely no way I’d be able to make anything remotely as appetizing to bring with me on my break. What I love most, though, about being fed on the job is that the chefs actually seem to want to cook for us. You’d think after cooking for an entire restaurant for about four hours straight, they’d have had enough, but without fail, right before we’re due to go on break, they come out of the kitchen and ask what we’d like. They take pride in what they make, as you can tell from the way their eyes go straight to your plate once you’ve finished and are carrying it back to the kitchen. They want to see an empty plate. It is, of course, not that hard to do my part – I make sure they always see what they’re looking for.
And what I’ve found is that by slowly sampling my way through our menu, I’ve actually gotten to know what we have to offer. When customers ask for recommendations, I’m able to give them – honestly, which is a welcome change. And on the other side of the coin, if someone orders the spaghetti bolognese, for instance, I know first-hand I’ve had better spag-bol and I usually try to lead them elsewhere. If someone asks if the pizzas are of a shareable size, I say, “If you’re hungry, you can definitely take on one by yourself – and I speak from personal experience.” It’s a nice change.
But, as fantastic as the free food has been, what intrigued me most at first was the management of Vercelli’s. The menu describes it as a “family-owned restaurant,” and they aren’t lying. The two main chefs are brothers, Marcello and Bruno. Their sister, Leila, helps out in the kitchen, and their wives, Teresa and Bianca, do a bit of everything on the floor – taking orders, running food, making coffees. Leila’s daughter, Adriana, works in the bar, and Marcello and Bruno’s cousin, Geovanni, is the pizza and dessert chef. But it doesn’t end there – Vercelli’s is actually a chain with about ten different restaurants all over the country. There are four in Auckland alone, and the first one was started there in 1980 by Marcello’s uncle. They all began working in the Auckland ones until coming to Wellington five months ago to open a new branch. It took me a while to realize just how connected they all were to each other – just when I thought I had it all figured out, I’d find myself exclaiming, “Wait – she’s your mother?!”
The whole family is originally from Macedonia, a country of about two million people directly north of Greece. I didn’t know much about this relatively new republic until starting at Vercelli’s, but Marcello filled me in on how the country came into existence as one of the successor states from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. While most of Marcello’s immediate family has permanently moved to New Zealand, I talked to Bruno’s wife, Bianca, one day about Macedonia. “Do you miss it?” I asked her. “Of course,” she said without a second’s hesitation, “It’s home.” And just like the entire Brazilian community at Premier Taste in Queenstown spoke in Portuguese, the Macedonian contingency at Vercelli’s speak only in Macedonian to each other, often leaving us wondering what’s being said. I haven’t picked up much, but I did learn “fallah” is thanks, and I love hearing them laugh every time I choose to use it.
But, even with the sea views and the Italian dishes and learning about yet another country, the honeymoon was soon over. One week in and we were right in the thick of the holiday season – when it wasn’t unusual to have several large groups in at once, parties of ten, fifteen, twenty, all at the same time, all the time. It also wasn’t unusual to spend a solid twelve hours without leaving the restaurant once. And while the idea of working with a family was one I enjoyed at first, I soon realized there was a difference between working with a family and working with your family. In Queenstown, I had a family. Every night I walked into Wattie’s, Braden greeted me with a “Hey gorgeous” and a kiss on the cheek. I went to work feeling like I was a part of something. I was thanked every night for my hard work and made to feel like I was valued. Things weren’t that easy at Vercelli’s – working with a flesh-and-blood family opened up everything that comes with such – the frustrations, the emotions, the stress.
When Marcello and Teresa announced to everyone they were expecting a child, we were all thrilled for them, as you would be. When I congratulated Teresa myself, she smiled. “Marcello and me, we be married for three and a half year, and no baby yet.” This was obviously a big deal for them. None of the Macedonians could stop smiling, least of all sixteen-year old Adriana, who was quite literally beaming from the bar, an irrepressible smile on her face. But then, not even a month later, after a particularly hectic lunch service, Marcello left abruptly. I assumed it was normal sibling bickering between him and Bruno, until their sister Leila rushed by towards the toilets in tears, Adriana behind her, saying quietly, “No baby, no baby.” We never quite got the full story, but one can only assume a miscarriage. Being in such close contact with a family means me and the other servers often find ourselves with one foot through doors into private worlds; we’re privy to their personal lives in a way that often makes us feel uncomfortable and I think in such a situation, it becomes difficult to discern between what is personal and what is business.
The job also hasn’t opened up the social circle I was somewhat hoping for. A social life was just another perk of the job at Wattie’s – not only were all my colleagues young backpackers like myself, eager for a new friend, but everyone was always making plans for their nights off. There was no escaping their texts, as well, when plans were made – which, granted, could be frustrating when all you want is a night in, but at least there was always something going on. Vercelli’s has been a bit different – while I’ve gotten to know one English girl well, there isn’t an infinite possibility of social pursuits. And, as a friend from home pointed out, because we’re perceived to offer quite a fine dining experience, we usually miss the backpacker crowd. If anyone young does come, they’re usually with their parents or on a date – not the ideal situation to get to know someone. And definitely no cute boys – even the fact that every server is female aside, it’s not like a fancy Italian restaurant is really the venue of choice for a guys’ night out.
But while my horizon of romantic interests has diminished considerably since leaving Queenstown, a new, slightly more intriguing circle has opened up – the world of networking. If the fact that Vercelli’s is fine dining has lessened my chances of meeting my next date, who it has brought me into contact with are incredibly accomplished people. What’s more, as much as I enjoy talking with them, they seem to get a kick out of their young American waitress as well. My little black book of travel – typically used to store the numbers of potential landlords and employers – is growing fatter by the second from the number of business cards I’m given every day. CEOs, university professors, television announcers, rugby players, government officials, artists – I’m forever amazed at the caliber of people I’m fortunate enough to rub shoulders with every day. I love connecting with them, getting a little banter going, telling them how I’ll be getting my master’s next year and hearing about their lives and travels.
Moreover, I’m amazed by their kindness, by their willingness to hand over their card and telling me to stay in touch. So far, I’ve been invited to stay at homes in Australia, offered a caravan to borrow in northern Scotland, and asked to come work for a travel agency in Wellington. I told the last group they had no idea how much they were tempting me. With each new person I meet, with each new card I tuck away in my apron pocket, its like watching a web grow – watching the way in which I grow across the world and my connections grow with me. Vercelli’s is certainly a job of connections, and that’s something I didn’t expect.
As cool as meeting the owner of a fruit farm in Hawke’s Bay is, though, what I’ve been most grateful for at Vercelli’s is feeling like the job has given me my life back. No more 4am finishes, no more walking home as the morning paper is being delivered. I feel like myself again and what I love even more has been having time to read and write again. I never joined the library in Queenstown because they charged a $40 bond fee for anyone who had lived in town for less than six months (obviously a product of the number of tourists who pass through). But I was able to sign up in Wellington no questions asked and was soon back to reading a book or two a week, checking out well-known and respected travel writers whose work I aspire to emulate. And the writing schedule itself has regained some sense of normalcy, not just once a week on my one full day off. I’m able to get some done every day in Wellington; writing’s back to being a part of my routine, not a luxury, and I know that can only mean good things for this project.
So it’s those kinds of things I have to keep in mind on days when I’m growing restless with the job, feeling low, like I just can’t take it anymore. My English friend, Aimee, is a big help. So is Javier, the Argentinean dish boy who’s patient enough to let me practice my Spanish with him. He makes me laugh and laughter goes a long way when you’re stressed. I went back in the kitchen one night, my arms filled with dishes, and he just looks at me from his post at the sink. “This is one of the major moments of my life. In my dreams of Argentina, I dreamt of this,” he says to me in Spanish, spreading his arms out over the miniature skyline that’s been built from stack after stack of dirty dishes. His sarcasm – el sarcasmo – keeps me going. That, and a small piece of wisdom I got from a customer one day. When I brought a gentleman his steak, he hadn’t realized it came with a creamy brandy-pepper sauce. I apologized profusely – as I always do – and offered to bring him a new one. “No, no, no, don’t worry about it. N.A.F.P.” Slightly confused, I asked him to explain. “Not a flipping problem.”
Great attitude, eh? So from now on, when things are out of hand or out of my control, I find myself repeating it, often enunciating each letter slowly, like the anger management technique of taking a deep breath and counting to ten.
N. A. F. P.