My Memorable Encounter with the Rudest Waiter in the World

“Elegance and kindness is an elegant and kind reply to the rudeness of this world.” (Mehmet Murat ildan)

Edsel Ford Fong, the world’s rudest waiter, 1982; Photo by Ken Gammage; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s been a story in the news recently about a waiter in Vancouver, British Columbia, who was fired from his job last summer for rude and aggressive behavior. It seems he is now suing his former employer for a human rights violation, claiming that he is not rude, he’s merely French. His firing, Guillaume Rey contends, is discrimination against his “direct and expressive” culture.

The arguments on all sides of this have been most entertaining.

Some are defending rudeness as a quality of the French that is practically inbred. Others are saying that if a Frenchman wants to work in oh-so-polite Canada, he’d better change his ways. Some have said the waiter’s rudeness has been mostly directed toward his work colleagues for their shoddy performance, and that restaurant patrons find him not only acceptable, but charming.

The restaurant in question applied to have the complaint dismissed, but a judge has deemed it to have enough merit to move forward. At a time when nearly everything I see in the news makes me want to scoop out my eyeballs with a melon-baller, this story offers me not only something light to dwell on, but it also recalls a distant memory: More than four decades ago, I had an encounter with a waiter who was—certifiably—the rudest waiter in the world.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, it was widely known that for the best Chinese food, you go to Chinatown. The restaurants there weren’t fancy, but the food was authentic, generally economical, and always delicious.

One summer day, my boyfriend (who, about 25 years later, became my husband), our friend Bob, and I decided to have lunch in Chinatown after a morning of exploring Golden Gate Park. After finally finding a parking place, we walked into the nearest Chinese restaurant which happened to be called Sam Wo, a name that literally means “three in peace.” How appropriate for the flower children that we were then.

We were led up some creaky wooden stairs and shown to a small table in a crowded second floor dining room. A large Chinese man in a stained apron and bow-tie descended on us.

“Sit down and shut up,” were his first words to us.

He tossed three menus on the table and turned away without another word. We looked at one another. Had we heard him right? Couldn’t be. We must have misunderstood.

We looked at our menus. They were printed entirely in Chinese, without even any helpful photos to suggest what the items might be.

The waiter came back with three glasses of water that sloshed across the table as he slammed them down. “What you want?” he asked.

Bob asked if there was an English menu. Our waiter completely ignored him. Bill started to ask a question and the waiter cut him off in mid-sentence. “Her,” he pointed at me, “I talk only to her.”

I, unfortunately, was speechless. Our waiter glared and said, “I be back in two minutes. You be ready.”

Thinking back on it, I don’t know why we didn’t get up and walk out. Bob was rocking in his chair laughing. Bill was also amused, but equally alarmed. At that time, I was a painfully shy 18-year-old. Bill knew it and clearly wondered if I was up to the encounter.

We looked around and saw our waiter berating diners at a nearby table. They looked as startled as we were. Then he went to another table and heaped abuse on the patrons, who laughed and appeared to be lapping up their mistreatment.

Our two minutes were almost up. “Okay, guys, what do I do?” I asked my tablemates. We looked over at the table closest to ours. They were sharing a big bowl that looked like noodles tossed with vegetables and another large plate of stir-fried vegetables and some sort of meat.

“Let’s order that,” Bill suggested.

When our waiter came back, I pointed to the table next to us and said, “We’ll have that.” He turned and left without a word.

When he came back a few minutes later with our order, he tossed three sets of chopsticks in the center of the table. I had absolutely no proficiency with chopsticks, but had seen what happened when another diner asked our waiter for a fork: “No forks. You eat with chopsticks!” he had screamed.

This, I decided, was as good a time as any to learn to use chopsticks.

The meal, when it came, didn’t look much like what we’d seen on the nearby table, but even if it had been octopus tentacles and chicken beaks in butterscotch pudding, we wouldn’t have said a word. Fortunately, it was delicious and we ate every morsel.

The instant our last bite had been taken, our waiter swept the plates from our table and threw down our check with the words, “Small check, big tip.”

We took it as a warning and left him a decent tip. As we stood to go, he was back. He grabbed our money from the table, looked at it and nodded. Then he nodded again at me, leaned over and kissed my cheek. We walked out quickly, with Bob still laughing merrily.

A few days later, I described the surreal experience to a colleague where I worked. He laughed, “That’s Edsel Ford Fong, you really haven’t heard of him?”

Edsel Ford Fong. “No.” That’s not a name I would have forgotten.

I learned then that Edsel Ford Fong was famous. Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, wrote about him frequently and had dubbed Fong “the world’s rudest waiter.”

As we learned more about our waiter, we realized we had gotten off easy. Fong was known to have berated patrons by calling them “fat,” “stupid,” or something equally offensive. On occasion, he required guests to clear and wash the dishes from their table, and it is said that he regularly groped female patrons. This was the 1970s—a very different time!

There is a Wikipedia page for Edsel Ford Fong and a lengthy description of his behavior on http://priceonomics.com/the-worst-waiter-in-history/, which refers to him as “the rudest, most despotic waiter to ever walk the earth.” It also describes how countless San Franciscans came back time and again for more of his abuse. It’s not entirely clear whether Fong was an obnoxious bully, a master showman, or, as I suspect, both.

Edsel Ford Fong died in 1984 at the age of 56. The Sam Wo Restaurant closed in 2012 after nearly 100 years of operation. Fong is still a legend in the Bay Area, and still recalled by many as the instigator of their most unforgettable dining experience. Today, I bear little resemblance to the shy 18-year-old who was once bussed by the “rudest waiter in the world.” Over the years, I have had the pleasure of dining at many fine restaurants, and—while I don’t condone Fong’s behavior—I, too, count that lunch as one of my most memorable restaurant experiences.

While rudeness is rampant in this second decade of the 21st century, I have my doubts that a waiter like Edsel Ford Fong would last long in the hospitality industry—certainly not here in Seattle. I will be watching with interest to see what happens when Guillaume Rey gets his day in Canadian court. French, indeed!

“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” (Khalil Gibran)

25 thoughts on “My Memorable Encounter with the Rudest Waiter in the World

  1. To be fair, after a few years of living in Paris, the ‘French’ thing might be a valid defence – can’t remember ever getting much in the way of friendly service over there. But Mr Ford Fong sounds very entertaining – I think I’d go back multiple times for that show.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It will be interesting to see how the “French defense” plays out in a Canadian court. The performance art aspect of a dining encounter with Edsel Ford Fong does make it interesting—it helps to know ahead of time what one is confronting. Thanks, James!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed reading this, Donna! I lived in SF in the early/mid nineties and though dabbled in Chinatown and Herb Caen, never heard of this delightful chap or Sam Wo’s. My first trip, first day, first night in Paris in the late nineties and faced a first rude Parisienne waiter when simply asking for another glass of their delicious wine. We are so inclined to match one’s rudeness in response, however, a deep breath and words of kindness puts us on the high road.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Nancy. Yes, kindness can counter rudeness, and even if it doesn’t do anything to change or enlighten the perpetrator, at least we know we haven’t sunk to their level and we’ve upheld our values. Thanks so much for commenting!

      Like

  3. Pingback: CONVERSATION WITH…The Statue of Liberty…holding up virtual blogging awards | OVER THE HILL on the YELLOW BRICK ROAD

  4. Wow, I don’t know how I would have handled that at all! But I have to say that I have only been to France once in my life, on a trip which included two nights in Paris. And we didn’t once encounter a rude waiter…. It will be interesting to see how that court case plays out. It may be must me, but I think calling an entire nation rude is almost racist?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does seem a bit racist—or at least blanket bigotry toward an entire nation. But, in this case, the person doing the name-calling is the Frenchman, himself. And it seems to be a point of pride. Interesting times…. Thanks, Ann!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting indeed! Before we went on our trip to France, one of my husband’s coworkers told us we were wise to visit in May. As he put it, there wouldn’t be so many tourists and the weather would be nice, so the locals would be in a good mood. Because, he warned us, French people can be rather touchy. And he, of course, was from France!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I imagine it’s difficult for residents of places where there are high influxes of tourists (Paris, Rome, Caribbean islands…) to deal with the seasonal changes to their home towns. On one hand, it brings revenue; on the other, it may bring traffic, crowds, noise, and a certain amount of clueless people who behave inconsiderately and make little effort to adapt to local ways. Perhaps all of these French people who warn us about their brethren are simply honest and self-aware.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Donna – this article had me laughing first thing in the morning. A good way to start the day. I think I would have been speechless also.
    On my visits to Paris, I’ve never encountered a rude waiter. All have been lovely or indifferent, but not rude.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad I could provide some morning humor. I think most of the time (with some exceptions, like Mr. Fong), we tend to receive the treatment we invite, which is why I wouldn’t expect you to be treated rudely in Paris—or anywhere. You invite kindness, Kathleen!

      Like

  6. I, too, beg to differ with Guillaume Rey. I’ve met many locals throughout France, waiters and otherwise, who were thoughtful, kind, amusing, apathetic, and reserved. People run the whole gamut of emotions and personalities no matter where they reside or what culture they come from. Do you think if you had entered Mr. Fong’s restaurant as an adult your reaction would have been different?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such an interesting question! Yes, I think my reactions would have been different at various times in my life. If I were still unaware of his reputation and persona, at one time I might have taken umbrage and walked out; at another, I might have played along and bantered back; and were this to happen today, I think I would have engaged my curiosity and wondered what he was about, and why, and tried to find enjoyment in the experience. I agree with you that a blanket label on an entire country or culture disrespects the diversity of people and personalities. Thanks so much for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it is funny now … then, not so much. I’ve learned in recent days that though Sam Wo Restaurant closed in 2012, it reopened in 2015 at another location nearby on Clay St. Yet another reason to plan a trip to the Bay Area. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Jet.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. A great story well told. I remember an experience dining in aChicago restaurant—maybe Dick’s Last Resort. Rudeness was apparently the theme, along with dining without plates and, if I’m not mistaken, waiters mastering the art of wrapping giant condoms on your head and blowing it up with your nose.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s