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)