Bad Faith, Good Service: Davide Maldi’s L’Apprendistato - whynow

Bad Faith, Good Service: Davide Maldi’s L’Apprendistato


Anyone who’s worked in hospitality will recognise its inherent theatre. A waiter, barista, hostess, all have their lines to say, props to deploy, entrance and exit cues. Parts to play. Such a singular kind of labour, it’s easy to overlook – in fact, the more expertly service is deployed, the less visible it is. There’s an alchemy to ambiance, and that’s conjured just as concretely in a greasy spoon as a Michelin star restaurant. 

Davide Maldi’s L’Apprendistato – ‘the young observant’ – follows the induction of one Luca Tufano into the world of service work. At the Mellerio Rosmini in Domodossala, Italy, a prestigious (and archaic) hospitality school, a clutch of teenage boys are instructed in what it takes to serve with style. Luca, for his part, battles the encroaching demands on his personhood at every turn.

All work, of course, requires a balance – how much of your authentic self to give and how much to hold back, forever in flux. On one hand, withholding one’s true investment in labour makes for a pretty uninspiring career; on the other, that separation preserves a sense of individuality autonomous from the working day. 

It’s a toss-up we make all the time, each of us striving for the magic middle ground: fulfilment and a life beyond labour. And although Luca is struggling with something pretty universal under capitalism, service work is surely a special case. God knows I’ve done my fair share.

CAFE BLUES

From my last years at school, through university and beyond, I was always working at one restaurant or another. Sometimes I loved it, and sometimes I cried in the bathroom. There was the caf (definitely not a café) in Brighton, five pounds an hour cash in hand thank you very much. There was the deli, the franchise, the family business that cashed up wrong and accused me of stealing from the till. 

There was the bistro, where an astonishingly high degree of sexual harassment was part of any shift (hi Phillipe!). There was the pizza parlour, the gallery bar, the guy that hired me because he wanted to see what I looked like in black (a uniform, it seems, which applied only to me). There was a whole lot of bottom patting, and plenty more soul-crushing shut-up-and-keep-working to be done. Then there was the seafood restaurant – definitely my most highfalutin’ establishment, and, so far at least, my last.

Largely free from the wandering hands of management and kitchen staff (patrons, of course, are another matter), the scene was set to lean into the nightly curtain pull. Specials, fish knives, finger bowls, catch of the day and certainly-sir. Turning tables, timing aperitifs: truly, the adrenaline of lights, camera, action. I’d say I learnt more about the world running between that mezzanine and the bar than anywhere else, not least how to do 20 things at once while a chef is yelling at you. But what I really learnt was to smile. 

WEAR YOUR WORK

Drilling his young students on the importance of comportment, posture, immaculate uniforms and clean nails, Luca’s teacher explains that emotional labour is just as much part of a server’s job as the physical work. ‘Your outfit needs something else to be complete,’ he says. ‘A smile, willingness. What is known as courtesy. Courtesy and politeness are also part of a waiter’s outfit. Why is that? Because he wears those things too.’ 

‘You must love your work and wear your work’, explains the teacher. If that sounds simple enough, it isn’t – though that’s not to say it isn’t true. Certainly, those demands on a waiter’s attitude are just as crucial to their work as knowing how to clear plates or set a table; trouble is, they tug at a much deeper part of his humanity than carrying the remains of an entrée back to the kitchen.

MAUVAISE FOI

You’ll be pleased to hear that Jean-Paul Sartre’s got this covered. The existential idea of Bad Faith (mauvaise foi, en français) cites the paradoxical decision to deny one’s own inherent freedom – and it’s perhaps best illustrated by a server. Sartre invites us to consider an especially waiter-ish waiter: performing just a little too efficiently, moving a smidge too fast, projecting an outsized commitment to his servile role. Sartre would say that his behaviour shows a cognitive dissonance – here is someone pretending that a waiter is all he is, when he must know better than anyone that he contains far more. 

Maybe Luca loves Sartre. Watching him, ants in his pants and charmingly smirky, hard to corral into any shape let alone that of servant or student, I suspect he’s not totally au fait with the philosopher – point being, he doesn’t need to be. L’Apprendistato provides a glimpse into Luca’s inherent understanding of everything Sartre wrote and more: Mauvaise Foi 101.

The boy can see the transaction he’s being asked to make – hello, please hang your soul up by the door with your coat for eight hours, you can collect it on the way out – and rejects it. Making visible the insidious insanity of a world pegged on the dichotomy of server-served, Luca’s scepticism shows us something we all know and bury. You can have my hands, but you’ll never take my heart. 

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Thing is – serving takes a lot of just that. Surely, humans have to care about something to stop themselves going crazy after a 50-hour week of it? We have to draw a sense of self from somewhere, and I know that – if I was in a good mood and everything went well – an evening in the dining room could be energising rather than draining. 

Camaraderie with other staff, rolling eyes backstage about impossible customers or jumping in to steady a colleague’s tray about to topple; sneaking a choice titbit in the kitchen, snatches of conversation with interesting diners; all these things keep you sane as you pander to whim after whim, prioritising strangers’ needs over your own for 14 hours straight on a double shift. Paradoxically, those tricks of the trade also keep you invested: island oases which make the shit worth trekking through.

Speaking of tricks, I had a good one. Like all the best rackets, it came up organically – nonetheless, it proved reliably replicable. So: take a table of businessmen (we need posturing and a little competition in the air, and a few bottles of wine behind them). Make sure they’re paying in cash, and that they’ve spent enough to pull out £50 notes. ‘Goodness me’, you say, picking up a note to check it’s real. ‘Sorry, I’ve just never seen a 50 in real life’.

‘You know what darling? Take it.’ That’s what one of them – whoever’s hosting, angling for a promotion, or drunkest – will say. The first time, the question was genuine; not many fifties pop up for a student on minimum wage, and before the seafood restaurant my waitressing was largely confined to less showy establishments. Perhaps that’s why it felt like magic: the universe delivering a just reward, and all it took was a smile.

BACK BREAKING

Back in Domodosalla, the boys go on a field trip. They visit a cruise ship, where they tour the on-board theatre, the cabins. They visit the breakfast room, where a member of staff explains the exhausting balancing act of catering to hundreds of people – each with different preferences – all day, every day. ‘When you serve, you have to smile. Don’t leave the stress on the face. Don’t show the passenger that you’re stressed, that you’re working too much.’ By this point, Luca seems well and truly Over It – and from our side of the screen, it’s hard not to sympathise. 

Summoned to so many disciplinary meetings and subject to so much telling off, Luca’s future in hospitality seems increasingly impossible. After all, we’ve come to know him well; we’ve learnt that he comes from a little town in the Alps; that he loves nothing more than being outside, hunting in the forest. Luca loves being free: as yet unburdened by Sartre’s Bad Faith, he’s nonetheless being inducted into a world which will strip him of that self-possession like so much carapace from a caterpillar. But here comes a turning point – or does it?

A FANTASY

‘Never point out a customer’s fault or mistake. Avoid talking about yourself and your political and religious beliefs. […] The customer is the most important person, the purpose of our work, the source of our fortune. A person and not an object, but not a person to argue with or contradict.’ The boys intone the words in unison. The camera is trained on Luca’s face, impassive but reciting his lines without so much as a snigger. 

For L’Apprendistato’s final seconds, Luca breaks the fourth wall and looks straight into the camera. At last, the young observant sees us see him – not just as Luca, but, in his smart white jacket and neatly combed hair, as A Waiter. Has his spirit been broken? Or has he just learnt to play the game, as we all do eventually? 

After watching, and as the world closes down again, I have pleasant day dreams about travelling to Rome and ordering a coffee. Perhaps it’s Spring; in any case, I take a seat outside – and who should deliver my espresso but little Luca! In this reverie, he is happy. He is rude. I love rude waiters; I respect their holding something back for themselves. It’s something I never could do.

Rampa  They Will Be