Interview with Melissa Shields from Reserve
My mom was in town and she wanted wine. True, we live in Beer City USA, but Grand Rapids has a lot to offer besides its favorite glutinous beverage. We walked downtown on a hot summer day to snack and quench our thirst at Reserve Wine and Food.
I have never had anything less than a stupendous experience at this restaurant. Part of that may be that I always dine to honor a special occasion: To meet a new boyfriend’s parents, to interview for a volunteer position, to celebrate a successful ballet performance. Yet, the fact remains; the food has always blown me away.
While we at Slow Food obviously believe the quality of our sustenance to be of utmost importance, there are many other components to dining that make the experience memorable. One majorly overlooked aspect of the meal is the service. Servers in America are often paid minimum wage and are forced to live off tips. Nearly half of restaurant workers live close to the poverty line. 70% are women. And 90% of those women have experienced sexual harassment (Source). Valuing the work that servers do and appreciating the dedication and talent it takes to provide a diner with a pleasurable experience can help to end these inequalities.
However, the spectacular performance of the staff at Reserve demonstrates that this particular restaurant values their employees. Our server at Reserve introduced herself as Melissa and patiently answered our (rather uneducated) questions about Reserve’s extensive wine list. Flavor notes and stories of the grape growers flowed forth from her lips without the slightest hesitation. She gracefully placed glasses upon our table, making every attempt to fix its slight wobble. With her recommendations we pieced together a charcuterie plate. Sure enough, our favorite cheese was the one Melissa had chosen.
Full and relaxed from our meal my mom and I sank back in our chairs.
“Wow,” she exclaimed. “What an experience.”
I couldn’t help but agree.
We must remember that the farmer and the chef and the quality of the food are of utmost importance, but the waiter or waitress cannot be forgotten. To serve diners is an art unto itself, and one that must be publicized and properly valued. To help us see a bit more deeply into the waiter’s world, Melissa agreed to answer a couple of my questions:
- How did you become interested in food, specifically the Slow Food movement emphasizing good, clean, fair food?
In the early 2000’s I noticed an ad on a jar preserves that declared: “Now GMO free!” I found that curious, started researching what GMOs were, and came into a whole new awareness about the state of our food supply. I decided then to make the switch from conventional to organics. The availability of organic food actually ended up influencing a geographical move for me. Ironic that a gal from the Midwest had to move more than 1,200 miles away from home to Texas to eat better. But, at that time, organic produce & products weren’t as readily available.
- What have you found to be unique about the food scene in Grand Rapids/ West Michigan?
I think that there are so many “mom and pop” shops (restaurants) in GR is unique and exciting.
- What is the most unusual thing you have ever eaten?
Hmm…I’d have to say pig brain. Haha. And that was at Reserve. Surprisingly tasty!
- As a server at Reserve you must be thoroughly educated in a diverse list of wines and an array of cheeses, as well as knowledgeable about each menu offering. What do you do to memorize all of this information? What is the preparation process like?
Taste! There is no substitute for tasting. For me, when it concerns the food, I need to be able to succinctly explain a dish to a patron while also helping to stimulate appeal. Often, because curiosity is high, we educate tableside as well. This is true of the food but particularly the wine side. It can be difficult for people to explain why they like something, so it’s my (our) job to listen, ask questions and find them the fit that they will, hopefully feel really good about. To do this effectively, we read and taste and discuss…ask questions and taste again: it’s very much an educational environment.
Because we use the freshest ingredients available to us, our menus (wine and food) shift with some frequency, so it’s a big task. But we are all passionate about introducing wonderful things to people.
- The Slow Food Movement looks to acknowledge and appreciate the entire journey of sustenance from the seed planted at the farm to the slow and indulgent consumption of a meal at the table. This includes recognizing educated and passionate servers! Do you feel that waiters and waitresses are undervalued or taken for granted?
Oh, well…certainly dining as an art form or leisurely activity guided by professionals isn’t the m.o. of the majority of what seems to be “standard American dining experience.” Servers and serving is still largely looked at as menial labor or an “anyone could do it” kind of thing. We have families, values, and keen intellect. Sure, you get those unfortunate folks that mistakenly assume otherwise, but most people are cool.
- What is an aspect of serving at a high-end restaurant that most of the public is unaware of?
I think they would be surprised at how very intentional everything we do is. We are working continuously to ensure our guests are having the best experience possible, and that doesn’t just happen by accident.
- What is your favorite dish at Reserve?
Right now? Today? The lamb.
Loved the review and Melissa Shields sounds like an incredible asset to the Reserve. I know from past experiences of dining for over 40 years that if your server is not good, knowledgeable, and a little bit entertaining, especially for the price points on the menu, your dining experience can go down hill fast and leaving you either wanting to come back or not, and to me, that is the most important thing. Knowledge is power, and for what these poor servers get paid, a total commitment means everything.