The Charm of Non-Professionalism


Imagine, you had just served a pork chop. Not cheap, but good value. After having eaten almost all of the meat, the client angrily calls you over: "I have been eating in these trains for years now. But I have never had meat that tastes so awful. Could I have something else?" How would you react?

The answer was easy since many of my student colleagues were already working for MITROPA, the German railway’s service company. They had prepared me how to deal with the "Pork Chop Test", by which the company’s personnel manager checks out the "service orientation" of potential employees. Since I have always loved railways, I had hoped he would ask some additional questions about engines, tunnels or signals, but unfortunately the whole interview was only about service: "What is your personal service philosophy? What is your idea of good service? What do you consider to be bad service?" Knowing the questions beforehand, my statements were well rehearsed. This made it easy for him to find out that I am a smart young guy only waiting to be sent to the service front. I received the purple coloured MITROPA uniform with a nice pink bow tie and my new bible, the MITROPA’s "Handbook for Food Preparation and Serving Instructions". My mission began.

The first day on board went well. The train had broken down between Brandenburg and Magdeburg, just an hour away from Berlin. After some hours of waiting — drinking coffee in the cosy little kitchen — there were some indications of the start of a passenger revolt. By his decision to offer free food for everyone, the train director managed to calm the emotions down. Now it became stressful in the kitchen but my colleagues were old hands. I was new, no one expected too much from me. Only that back in Berlin, saying goodbye, they had advised me to study the handbook carefully.

The next day was more difficult. "Italian Alternative for place 15." What? "Mozzarella with tomato, basil and olive oil dressing. Didn’t you study the handbook?" I had just glanced through it on the way to the station. "Take the handbook. Search for the Italian Alternative. Have a look on the picture. Go!" It was not easy and it took a long time, but in the end there was something on the plate which resembled the picture in the handbook. The chief of the restaurant coach brought it to the client. Two minutes later, he came back with the client’s complaint: "Not enough tomato." "But, the picture in the handbook …" He cut some more slices, took the book and went out of the kitchen. From the kitchen I listened to his speech: "Sir, here you have the requested additional tomato slices. But first have a look at this picture. Could you please count the slices? Five. And on your plate? Five as well. If you have had Italian Alternative twenty times before but never with so little tomato, then that is only because we — the employees of MITROPA — were willing to risk trouble with our company for our client’s satisfaction."

I learned very fast: I learned where to find all the tricky hiding places for the ingredients. I learned how to serve beer and how to scramble eggs. But one problem remained: I was too slow. After cutting my twentieth or thirtieth onion on the MITROPA chopping board (using the clever star method one elderly colleague had taught me), a new colleague asked regretfully if I had ever worked before in my life.

But at least my ambitions to serve the clients perfectly had a little more success. After having balanced two salads through the constantly swaying train restaurant, two men asked politely, how long I had been working in this profession. I understated: "Just three days." They had made a bet about me. The winner, a stout old pensioner who had bet two days, praised me: "You still have the charm of being non-professional". I received a large tip. (A few days later, one of Germany’s leading business newspapers headlined an article about the whole company with "Charm of Non-Professionalism". I suppose the idea to employ students as cooks was quite an efficient way to support this image).

After a few more journeys I felt better. Not fast, but faster. Not respected, but less despised. Once I was alone in the kitchen. In Hannover a whole army of hungry managers entered the restaurant. They all ordered meal No 14, the nightmare of all train cooks. (It’s steak with mashed potatoes and there is only one hotplate in the coach’s kitchen). I cooked as fast as the elegant white express train was going and served as gracefully as a dancer. When I woke up, I could still hear the applauding managers and see their appreciative faces…

Maybe it sounds silly, but that night’s experience made me feel better. In the morning, putting on my elegant uniform, I presented myself proudly in the mirror and daydreamed of special missions into foreign countries under the banner of my company. It’s a shame that the really grand times for train cooks are probably long gone.

Just some days later all my dreams crashed. It was during a party at a friend of mine’s not far away from Mitropa’s Berlin headquarters at Ostbahnhof. The evening was fine: a lot of beer, music and intelligent conversation. A friend of mine who also belongs to Mitropa’s student workforce as well arrived at the party around midnight. He came directly from Ostbahnhof. Since I saw his elegant MITROPA uniform, I asked him about the trip. How were the colleagues, the clients, how much tip? "Well, my colleagues were fine. They said that for a student I am quite good. They have seen much more problematic cases. They gave me a special warning about one guy who’s working speed is a joke. And the worst thing is that the guy is still among us."

Life experience shows that there are black sheep everywhere. Better to know who they are: "Did they tell you the name of the little devil?" My friend had to smile. But I could see that he felt awful about how to tell me.

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