Thirty years a waiter – Interview with Andres Asmus

EstoniaCoffee team brings you an interview with Andres Asmus, a professional with 30 years of experience in the HoReCa field. In this interview, he will tell us all about how he started working as a waiter, almost ended up partying with RDJ, and what he and the president had to say to each other while they were sipping coffee. Are you ready?

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EstoniaCoffee – Interview with Andres Asmus

Interviewer: Jozo Salmanic, writer for EstoniaCoffee

Interviewee: Andres Asmus, professional waiter and one hell of a chess player

Date: Wednesday, November 2022.

Meeting place: Valmiermuiža bar, Tallinn.

EC: Hello, Andres. Could you introduce yourself to our readers? 

Andres: Hi. My name is Andres Asmus, I’m 47 years old, from Estonia, born and raised. I lived in America for 12 years and traveled the world for ten years after that, every winter. I’d usually take off in November and come back in April or May, backpacking for 4 to 6 months every year. And then worked as a waiter in the summers here in Estonia, but I haven’t done much traveling in the past few years because of COVID. Also, a couple of years before that I took care of my parents who were in their eighties, so I couldn’t leave the country.

EC: How did you start working as a waiter?

Andres: I started working as a waiter in Washington D.C., that was exactly 30 years ago, in 1992, when the Soviet Union had collapsed. Estonia became free in 1991 and the next summer, after school, I left Estonia. I had my brother’s friends in America, and their uncle (born Estonian but emigrated after the war), who made me an invitation. So I left Estonia for Washington D.C. when I was 17 years old. My brother and his friends who had gone a year before me were all in the restaurant business as well. So it just seemed natural that I start working in restaurants too and I just started hitting up restaurants that were close to my home one by one, and going there to fill out job applications. My first job was as a food runner.

EC: Could you explain to our readers what a food runner is?

Andres: A food runner is a person who brings the food out from the kitchen to the floor. He doesn’t talk to customers and he’s not the one taking the order. He’s a liaison between the kitchen and the floor. He just brings the food out on a big tray and puts it down on a tray jack. And then the waiters will bring the food from there to the table. There’s also a busboy, which is different. Busboys are the people who are cleaning the tables and setting them up for the next customers and stuff like that.

EC: So you had no prior experience before you started working as a waiter?

Andres: No, I was 17 years old, straight from high school. 

EC: What high school was that?

Andres: It was the English College. It was called the 7th Secondary School back then. The funny thing is that I had studied English for more than ten years in school and I thought, Oh, that’s easy, I’ll go to America, and I can speak English already. But the actual street language, everyday American English, is so much different from what you might study here in European schools, which is a very formal conservative British English. And in real life people don’t even use a lot of those expressions. So I had a hard time for a couple of years, learning English all over again. 

EC: You were 17 then. You were in the US for ten years?

Andres: 12 years, I came back in 2004.

Andres Asmus - private gallery
Andres Asmus – private gallery

EC: I assume you visited Estonia in that period?

Andres: No, I never visited, didn’t leave America the whole time. 

EC: Was it shocking when you came back from the US to Estonia? 

Andres: Very much so. I was pretty much Americanized by then. Estonia had changed a lot too, that was 18 years ago when I came back. And in these 18 years since, Estonia has come a long way again and changed even more but probably we will touch upon that a little bit later. In 2004 Estonia was still a bit like a Soviet country and the people were so different from the Western people here. Estonians in general are a lot more introverted and they don’t smile as much. They’re not as friendly, they’re a bit more direct and cold. It has improved a lot in 18 years, of course.  Just as an example, the service in this bar we are at right now, is quite friendly and very nice, as in any western country.

EC: Did you meet any celebrities while working in Washington? 

Andres: Yeah, a lot. How much time do you have for this interview? (laughter).

EC: OK, give us your most memorable ones.

Andres: In Washington, D.C., I met a whole list of different senators and governors and famous politicians and whatnot. But these were not very interesting. I guess the most interesting story was about Robert Downey Jr. 

EC: You met Robert Downey Jr.?

Andres: It was in 1995. That was his not-so-clean phase, when he often got in trouble with the law. I used to work in this fancy fine-dining restaurant in Washington, D.C called the River Club. We used to wear tuxedos and that kind of stuff. We had front waiters, back waiters, food runners, busboys, hosts, sommeliers and a maître d’. Every night there was a live band playing classical music. We also had a private room separate from the restaurant called the Crystal Room. And you couldn’t get in there unless you were a member. We served some snacks there, but it was mainly just a private bar and lounge area, not like the restaurant which was open to the public. I worked in the restaurant part. So, one Friday evening when my shift ended I just went to the Crystal Room to talk to the bartender because he was a cool coworker and a friend of mine. I just went there to see what was going on. I went behind the bar. Sometimes my friend needed someone to watch the bar while he was going for a smoke or making a phone call or something like that. There were only four customers in there at the time who were older and conservative, you know, 60 plus people, at one end of the bar, drinking their little cognac or whiskey or something and that was it, nobody else. So the bartender asked me:

Hey, can you stand in the bar here for 10 or 15 minutes? I’ll go to the bathroom and have a cigarette. These people just got their second round of drinks and they’re totally fine. So you probably don’t even need to do anything. You just stand here, okay?

Andres Asmus - private gallery
Andres Asmus – private gallery

And he left and I stood there, behind the bar. I was 19 years old at this point. And I’m a total nerd, you know, with glasses and all, quite a dorky-looking guy, haha. And so the door opens and this little small guy comes in, and he’s all very wiry and full of energy. So he just comes straight to the bar and he leans over the bar and says, Hey, hey, hey, I’m Bob. And I didn’t even recognize him, and I was thinking: 

Okay, whatever. He wouldn’t be able to get in unless he was a member, so I guess he belongs here. But from his appearance, fuck this guy. This guy doesn’t belong here, haha

And so anyway, he ordered Remy Martin Louis XIII, which is a very expensive cognac. And then he asked for some Cuban cigars, which are illegal to sell in America. We had them under the bar anyway, and I played stupid. I was like, Oh, I don’t know. I’m not sure, the real bartender will come back. So, I am pouring the cognac and we were just making some small talk and all of a sudden he starts doing the Charlie Chaplin walk. He had played Charlie Chaplin in a movie a year before, and he was nominated for an Oscar for it, too. Anyway, I still didn’t know who he was. And he starts doing all these Charlie Chaplin moves, and a bunch of weird funny stuff, he’s quite drunk, haha. And all of a sudden I recognize him. Holy shit, that’s Robert Downey Jr. The reason why I didn’t recognize him at first, was because he was so skinny. He was filming a movie in New York at the time where he was playing an AIDS patient, and so he had lost a lot of weight. He had come down to Washington, D.C. for a couple of days to present some awards at the Kennedy Center. All the older people at the other end of the bar were looking at him like, who let this guy in here? What the hell is this clown doing in our bar? Robert Downey Jr. said that he didn’t get the Oscar because they had to give it to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, cause Al Pacino has been dissed so many times, and he had all these great roles in Scarface and Godfather, so he was due.

EC: Like DiCaprio and Revenant?

Andres: Yeah, exactly and so they had to give the Oscar to Pacino, it was his time. So RDJ was kind of pissed that he didn’t get it. At one point he asked me, Do you have any blow? And I didn’t realize at the time what blow meant in American slang, haha, obviously now I know it means cocaine. But I was like, maybe he wants a blowjob and I didn’t know any prostitutes. So anyway, the real bartender comes back and then I leave and I go home because my shift was over. The next day I heard the story that he and the bartender had gone and gotten some blow. And then they went to the Watergate hotel, where he had a room, to party all night and they ordered escort girls and got a bunch of room service, it was a full-on party. And supposedly Robert Downey Jr. had asked him, Where was that green guy? By green he meant a really young, inexperienced guy, he was talking about me, haha. So, if I had just hung out at work for another half an hour there, I could have gone with them to the hotel and partied all night with Robert Downey Jr. But unfortunately that never happened, I had left too early. 

Andres Asmus - private gallery
Andres Asmus – private gallery

Andres: There’s another Hollywood story, too. I lived in Texas for a while, I lived in ten different cities altogether while in the States. And every year I would move to a new city. In Texas I lived in two cities – Austin and San Antonio. San Antonio actually has the highest percentage of Latino people of any big city in America. So I worked in a hotel, in a nice restaurant, as a waiter. The hotels there have a separate department for room service. People who work in a restaurant don’t do room service. So anyway, the manager comes up to me one day and says, Hey, can you do a room service for me? And I was like, What are you talking about? I have tables and you have people who do room service. And he’s all, No, no, we need you to do it. It’s this actor, Gary Busey. He was really big in the 80s and 90s. He was in a hotel and he had told the general manager that he didn’t want to see any freaking Latinos in his room. And he made up some story that something had been stolen, which was obviously a lie. Anyway, I was the only white guy who was working that day, and everybody else was a Latino. So I did that room service and Gary was super rude. I opened the door, but he didn’t even look at me, just said, Put it down. I put the stuff down and then he wanted more milk. Hotels have these very tiny little milk packages. I brought four of them. And he was, Can you bring me a gallon of milk? No, this is all we have, we’re not a supermarket. I can bring you four more of those small ones, but I can’t bring you a gallon, we just don’t have it. And he was very impolite. 

EC: What about celebrities in Estonia?

Estonia is so small. And since I worked at the very best restaurants here, sooner or later you see every single celebrity in the country, every president, every prime minister, every mayor, and every politician you can think of. And also famous actors and athletes, tennis stars like Anett Kontaveit and Kaia Kanepi. There is a funny story though. I mean, not that funny, but uncommon for a lot of foreigners. Ten years ago, our (former) president, Hendrik Ilves, just came in alone with his son, they were getting something to eat. And just a week earlier, I had read in the newspaper that when he lived in America he had studied at Columbia University. He got a master’s degree in psychology from there. And during college years and summers he’d go hiking in Washington State, close to Canada in the mountains, which is exactly what I had done also, a few years before. They have these fire lookouts, which are historical places. Nowadays they have satellites and GPS and that kind of stuff, so they don’t need anybody to be in the fire lookout for months. But back in the day, they would have somebody all summer sitting in a small fire lookout cabin. They’re historical buildings now because a lot of beatnik writers like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder would go and spend summers there writing books and all. Actually, there’s a book called Desolation Angels, written there by Jack Kerouac who was in that same national park in that very same fire lookout. So anyway, our president said in a newspaper interview that he had gone and hiked up to that place. And I actually had done the exact same hike to the same same fire lookout. And I was like, Excuse me, Mr. President, I read in the newspaper that you did that hike. Well, actually, I did it, too. I thought he would say, Okay, yeah, whatever, and that’s it. But he got so excited and told me to grab a chair and sit. So I sat next to him and then we had this whole 20-minute chat about America and hiking and camping and just living there and hanging out. And it was very informal, which is funny, because in America you’d never, ever be able to talk to a president like that.

Andres Asmus - private gallery
Andres Asmus – private gallery

EC: So, about your coffee-drinking habits. When did you start drinking coffee?

Andres: I guess when I was a little kid, my mom was a huge coffee drinker and we had instant coffee then, you put a couple of spoonsful of it in hot water and stir it up. That was in the Soviet times. Back in the day, there were no cappuccinos and lattes, but now it’s very common here of course. I guess I usually have coffee at the end of a meal, not first thing in the morning. I usually just have an espresso like you, that’s my favorite. Because it’s pure coffee, you know, and you get the real taste of it. Sometimes I have a flat white when I’m sitting for a longer period in a cafe reading or playing chess and I want to sip it. I like flat white more than a latte because it has less milk and therefore more coffee taste. At home, I use a French press.

EC: So what’s your favorite way of enjoying coffee? French press or?

Andres: At home, definitely French press. But when I am out, I prefer an espresso.

EC: Where do you usually drink your coffee? What’s your favorite coffee place?

Andres: At work, where it’s free (laughter). Here in Estonia, I used to work at restaurant Tchaikovsky for nine years and then in restaurant Ö for two years. They were both top restaurants in the country for over a decade, so we made some really good coffee there. But nowadays, just because it’s close to me, I go to Caffeine, which is on Tatari street, close to Vabaduse Valjak. 

EC: The one that’s always full of young people with laptops?

Andres: Yeah, that one. And I don’t really sit there and drink it. I’ll just take it to go because they have the best cinnamon buns there. So the whole reason I actually go there is for the cinnamon bun, but I might as well get a coffee while I’m in there too. But in general, I drink coffee at home. Estonia doesn’t really have a cafe culture that much.

Andres Asmus – private gallery

EC: Yes, it’s still a rather new concept.

Andres: In America, a cafe was the place where you could go and meet people, a place you’d hang out at and meet people and have interesting conversations. Also I play a lot of chess and in America. I used to go to a cafe very often, many times a week and hang out there for 4-6 hours, maybe even 8 hours a day. And a lot of these places have food too, so I’d eat, drink coffee, play chess, I’ll drink some more coffee and maybe get something to eat a little bit later, I’d make a whole day out of it, haha. I’d have my laptop with me too, so I can read the news and my e-mail. I’d mostly go to that same cafe, so I get to know all the other people who come there. Kinda like we do in Vaat, but much more often, our Vaat chess club unfortunately only meets once a week – every Wednesday.

Over there in America, a lot of cafes have couches and nice candles and cool art, and it looks like someone’s living room, with all kinds of books and board games on the shelves. And you can hang out there for hours and hours and every neighborhood has many of those places. And once you find your favorite cafe, then you get to know all the people who come there and become friends with them, it’s very common. In Estonian cafes, it rarely happens that strangers approach other people in cafes and start talking about politics or books or movies or philosophy. 

EC: You love your flat white?

Andres: Yeah, I discovered flat whites in Australia. I was there for six months and I’d never heard of flat whites before. That was 11 years ago, in 2011. And so I had it there and I realized it was better than a latte because it has more coffee. 90% of the time I’ll just have an espresso but since we’re sitting here for a while, I like to sip and maybe we will eat some chocolate and that’s nice, so I’m having a flat white today. But if I go for dinner, then it’s always an espresso at the end of the meal. It tastes so much better than any of those cappuccinos, lattes or flat whites because you get the real taste of pure coffee.

EC: Have you ever thought about opening your own restaurant or bar?

Andres: This idea has been floating around for such a long time. But my short answer to you is, no, I will never do it, haha. There’s no way. Because after working 30 years in restaurants (and you yourself have worked a lot of time in that business too), you know how much work and stress it is to open up a place and run it. If I remember correctly, the official statistics say that out of all small businesses, restaurants and bars are the ones that fail most often and the fail rate is around 70%. Why would I work 12 or 16 hours a day for like six days a week, and invest all my money, all my life savings, maybe even take out a loan on my apartment or whatever it takes? I’d lose my money, I’d lose my free time, I’d lose my mental health and then I’d go broke, no, thank you, haha. By being in this business for so long, I know how much stress and super hard work it is and how easily it all can fail. So I don’t want that risk. I like my peace of mind.

Andres Asmus - private gallery
Andres Asmus – private gallery

Andres: If I go to work as a waiter, let’s say my shift starts at five or six in the evening and I’m done by midnight or something like that. After I walk home, I don’t think about it anymore. But if you’re a restaurant/bar/cafe owner, you’ll go home stressed out and still have tens of thoughts spinning constantly around in your mind – Why didn’t that worker show up, did I forget to order this or that, are all the refrigerators still working, is anybody stealing from me, etc. Even if you go on a vacation, you can’t get away from it all because you have your phone with you. My friend who used to work before as a waitress with me, started managing another restaurant later and she said that was total hell because it’s not like a 9 to 5 job, you have to be ready every day for 24 hours. Your phone’s ringing all the time because of something happening constantly, problems that need to be solved, complicated issues coming up unexpectedly at odd hours. So the answer is, I’ll never do that, I’ll never open my own place, haha, no way.

EC: One of my former employers had a saying that being a waiter in a good restaurant is better than being the owner of a small bar. And that is true.

Andres: There is this great chef in Estonia, that I personally know, who has opened up four different restaurants already. He said that when you open up a restaurant, you’ll end up investing as little or as much time and money as you have. It doesn’t matter if you have €5,000 or €500,000. There’s always something to improve, something to build or renovate or expand, more employees to hire or something to buy – a new machine, new something. And it’s the same with time, it doesn’t matter how much free time you think you have, you’ll end up using almost all of it working on your restaurant, always improving it, or at least thinking about it. Even if you are at home or on a vacation, still you’ll have your work thoughts stressing you out in the back of your mind, almost impossible to fully relax. 

EC: What do you think about the quality of service in Estonia?

Andres: The huge difference is that in America, everything is much friendlier and more personal, even in fine dining. And it’s more professional, the servers are better trained. What I think that Estonian service lacks is, first of all, acknowledging the customer when he or she first walks in and making eye contact with them. And second of all, Estonian waiters, bartenders and baristas should be encouraged to make small talk and to joke around more with their guests, not to be afraid to start a conversation. The biggest issue in my opinion is acknowledging the customer, making eye contact and letting them know that they have been noticed and greeted.

Andres Asmus - private gallery
Andres Asmus – private gallery

For example, a few days ago, I tried to enter a cafe and the door was locked for some reason, even though I could see there were people inside, I could see the barista and the customers. But the door was locked. The lock on the door had some kind of an automatic function on it, somebody had tripped it, so the door had locked itself shut. I was knocking on the window, and the waitress looked at me a little bit annoyed. There was no smile or anything. She wasn’t even looking at me per se, as much as she was looking at the door. Then she comes around the desk and opens the door. I expected she would say, Hey, hi, I’m sorry about the door, maybe also make some kind of a joke about the whole situation and let me in, but she didn’t say anything at all. She opens the door and stood in front of me, and I’m still outside in the cold and she starts dealing with the lock. And I can’t enter because she’s in my way. And then she fixes the lock and then walks away without saying anything to me. Not a really big deal, I guess, but still this is not how you interact with guests.

A lot of times when you go to a restaurant in Estonia, they don’t have hosts or hostesses, for example in most American restaurants you have them. So, what I’m trying to say is that even if you don’t have a host or hostess, if you’re a waiter and you see somebody enter through the front door, you should stop and greet the guests. Even if it’s 2 seconds, you say Hi, we’ll be right with you or Take a seat, we’ll bring the menus in a moment. You acknowledge the guest. Here in Estonia, it’s normal that I might stand there by the door for 5 minutes or longer and nobody comes by and says anything to me. I don’t know if I can seat myself or if I should be seated. Where is the menu? Is it on the wall? Should I take the menus myself or are they bringing me the menus to the table? should I order at the counter or do they have table service? I don’t know. I think this is something that really annoys customers here.

EC: I am mostly annoyed by the lack of table service.

Andres: I think a lot of it is cultural because the Estonians are much more introverted than Westerners and Southerners in general. And also because in Soviet times we didn’t have any real cafes or restaurants per se. We had some places to get food, like diners and a few bars, but we didn’t have the Western restaurant, bar and cafe culture. So it’s kind of a new thing for us that has been evolving for 30 years. Estonians are used to managing everything by themselves. During Soviet times, you fix your own car, you renovate your own apartment, you build your own house and do yard work. You grow most of your own food and make marinades and all that kind of stuff. So everybody knows how to do everything and is self-reliant. So in Estonian culture it’s kind of weird that somebody comes and serves you, does something so simple as bringing a plate of food or a cup of coffee to your table, it’s like, I can do that myself, haha.

EC: What’s something Estonian hospitality workers need to pay attention to?

Andres: I would say making eye contact and friendly small talk with guests and remembering their names and faces for next time. And also remembering what they had last time, which is extremely important because that will make them feel more welcomed. Estonians shouldn’t feel threatened or offended if somebody starts asking them personal questions, like – Where exactly are you from? What do you do for a living? How is your day going? What did you think about this or that in the news today? In America bartenders need to be a bit like psychologists, they function like your local neighborhood therapists. Sometimes you go to your favorite bar or cafe like four or five times a week, sometimes you go there only for 20 minutes, sometimes for 4-5 hours, but you always sit in your favorite spot behind the bar and the bartender will come and serve your usual drink.

Andres Asmus - private gallery
Andres Asmus – private gallery

Andres: He doesn’t even need to ask you what you want because he already knows what you want. They’ll say, Hey, how you doing, Andres? And he already knows from previous times that I like a flat white, and that you, Jozo, want water with your espresso, that kind of stuff. He’ll ask something related to the last time we were here. Maybe you were reading a book, and he will ask if you finished it and if you liked it. How was your vacation, by the way? How is your new girlfriend, you’ve been together for four months now, right? Did you get your car fixed? Or something like that, he’ll remember personal things about you and make you feel at home. And then a lot of times, you know, Americans tell bartenders a lot more than they actually tell their friends and family or their partners because they can speak their mind and not be judged. They don’t have to be politically correct and can be totally honest. Because of remembering personal things about your customers and conversations like that, bartenders actually get tipped more in America than waiters. 

EC: Perhaps something else?

Andres: Checking back, asking the guests how everything is. It’s happening more these days here, it’s changing. I sometimes see it in Estonia, like here in this bar today, but still it’s nowhere close to what it usually is in America. When you serve somebody, a few minutes after you’ve brought the food or a drink, you should check back if the guests are satisfied. For instance, How is your flat white, is it how you like it? Can I get you something else right now? So how do you usually drink coffee? How does our flat white compare how they do it in Australia? Where have you had your best coffee? You generate small talk with guests. There are so many little things you can do, depending on how they answer.

EC: Trust me, this is a super-friendly service compared to some places. 

Andres: Right, exactly. When I was a waiter, not only in America but here in Estonia as well, I’d go back to guests, and depending on who they are, I’d generate jokes. When you work for as long as I have, you get a sense of what kind of jokes you can or can’t make, you learn how to read people. You see how they act and also hear what they talk about too, so then you kind of know their type already, and then you can make somebody laugh. And then all of a sudden, everyone will feel more relaxed, friendly and takes it easy. So that’s something that you don’t see that often in Estonia. If I was the owner of a restaurant/bar/cafe, I’d have stand-up comedy playing on a tv screen all the time in the staff room, so the servers would see it during their meal breaks, haha, that would put them in a good mood and they might learn something too.

EC: To wrap up this interview. Your advice to newer generations?

Andres: Don’t be afraid of the customers. Ask them questions, make them laugh or try to be more personal, just engage more, be warmer and more friendly. And most importantly, acknowledging the customer first thing when they walk through the door. It doesn’t matter if you have dishes in your hand or you’re walking the other way, you should turn around. It takes you only a few seconds just to say Hey, hello, we’ll be right with you, please take a seat in a table you like (or wait just a minute, I’ll be right back to help you). That’s the main thing.

EC: Thank you for the interview.

Andres: Thank you.

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