“The Last Supper Club: A Waiter’s Requiem” chronicles Matthew Batt’s return to the hospitality industry as a server at Brewer’s Table, the fine-dining restaurant at Surly Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, while on sabbatical from his teaching position at the University of St. Thomas. Told with Midwestern charm through the eyes of a server who bears witness to the life and untimely death of a restaurant, Batt’s memoir pulls back the curtain on the service industry without being nasty.
It also reminds us that, as in a good stage play, the supporting characters and behind-the-scenes players make sure the show goes on every night. There is a perception that working in restaurants can be very glamorous, yet it is quite ordinary to feed people, and what you see in the dining room is only part of the story. Beyond his time at Surly, Batt’s memoir details his rise in the ranks from busboy to fine-dining server as he crisscrossed the country in pursuit of higher education, all while staying true to his Midwestern roots.
The book, released late October, eulogizes the run Brewer’s Table had, too. There’s bittersweetness, he says, “like the closing of a show or the end of sitcom, where you’ve done this amazing thing. You should be stoked—until you realize this isn’t a movable feast. We can’t just go to the next hot spot and have the same experience.”
Do you think the Brewer’s Table was just ahead of its time?
It was a nexus of both fortunate and unfortunate events. First of all, the blessing and the curse: It was situated above a brewery. So, on one hand, no one liked the restaurant more than brewers—Surly’s own brewers and brewers around town. It was always, “Wait a second. You are pairing fine dining with beer? Sign me up!” On any given night, you could have a typical fine-dining crowd, suits and ties on their way to a play, and then you had these dudes in heavy metal hoodies, steel toe boots, and Carhartts. And, you know, sometimes we’d play Whitney Houston, and sometimes it’d be Motörhead all night long. Ultimately, there were investors to answer to.
How has the book been received by the industry?
A lot of people outside of Surly identify with the whole beautiful mess of being a waiter in a busy restaurant where it’s the most stressful job you hate to love and love to hate. There’s just something like being on an elite sports team, in an army unit, where you just have this high-pressure situation where you’re in it together or you’re all going to fail. It’s been really cool to hear from people in the industry who feel like, for the most part, I got it right.
What’s more daunting to you: a six-top table of diners on a busy night or a blank screen and a flashing cursor?
I definitely think the blank screen is more intimidating. For me, part of what I love about working in restaurants is you couldn’t be in your head too much. You had to be present and accept the night in front of you. Whether it’s a cranky elderly couple or a six-top that would rather have been downstairs in the beer hall. You just have to be there and be flexible and accept it and make the best of it. Whereas, when it’s you and a blank screen and that damn cursor, I’m all in my head. That’s part of what I enjoyed about writing this book. I didn’t go in thinking, “This is my next book.” I went in thinking, “I need $120 to pay our mortgage this month,” and that need persisted almost the entire time I worked [at Brewer’s Table]. And then at some point I looked up and thought, “Wait a second, I just worked the entire lifespan of a restaurant.” I asked around and it didn’t seem like a lot of people had done that. So, all of a sudden, I went to sit down, and the blank screen—I had something to write about.
I loved the dining experience you describe with your mom in your youth. Why do you think food memories and dining experiences embed themselves so much in our memories and shape us into adults?
I think it has to do with why we go to restaurants. Of course, there’s the base needs: You don’t cook, you don’t have groceries, or you’re just there to fill a need. It’s beyond a simple need for a wish fulfillment—to romance, to “Let’s see what kind of theater this restaurant is before the stage play.” For me, there is something about the nature of being hungry. You not only need something, but you want something bigger than the expectation of being fed. That’s why lots of religions have these food metaphors at the core of the religious experience. Literally, “I am the bread.” You can’t get more literal or symbolic than that.
What’s the biggest truth you learned about yourself while working there?
Not only is it OK to be the most enthusiastic and over-the-top version of yourself, but it’s what makes me happy.
Do you think you’re a better diner after being a server?
Absolutely. It’s just impossible to not be more empathetic. Working in a cafeteria or a restaurant or a tiki bar or a taco hut—I don’t think it matters. They are all so stressful, and being in that environment reminds us to be more appreciative and patient in any given restaurant I go to. It’s so rare it’s the server’s fault. It’s usually a whole suite of things going wrong, but it’s the server we see as the face of it.
What do you think makes a great server? Is it confidence and charisma or smarts or what?
I think it’s an intersection of being a professional athlete and an anthropologist. But also an actor, a comedian, and a talk show host. You have got to have the stamina and the ability to walk and run seven or eight miles a night in dress clothes. And on top of that, you have to be able to listen to not just what people tell you they want but more fully hear what they need. You need to figure out the rules of the table. It helps if you can be happy and helpful and eloquent during the whole thing. Teaching demands all my intellectual abilities but not many of my athletic abilities. Working in restaurants is a full-body experience.
If that’s what makes a great server, what makes a great writer?
Oh, boy. It’s the same thing with being your most enthusiastic self. This is the writer I can be. When I was coming of age as a student of writing in the ’90s, when everyone was still obsessed with that stern, lean, Hemingway-esque minimalist prose, I was just like, “I am the only son of a florist. That is not who I am.” So, to find writers like Anthony Bourdain, Dave Eggers, Mary Karr, a lot of these late-1990s, early-2000s writers who were just so thoroughly themselves you could hear it in how they used a period. That’s what it comes down to for me, the intersection of your most authentic self finding the vehicle and voice through which you can deliver yourself.