Kevin Straka is at your service.
One of Madison's veteran waiters, Straka is now on staff at Heritage Tavern, 131 E. Mifflin St. During some 25 years of waiting tables, he spent close to seven years at Odessa Piper’s L’Etoile, 10 years at Lombardino’s and four years, while in college, at the late Ovens of Brittany in Mineral Point.
“It can be the most physically, intellectually and emotionally draining job,” Straka said of serving. “Of anything I’ve done, it pulls in all three aspects.”
Straka, who lives in Fitchburg, has multiple advanced degrees and another job in project management at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. He teaches at Madison College and works with the Badger Childhood Cancer Network to plan a charity run/walk every fall (set for Oct. 1 this year).
Straka has worked as a maître’d in charge of the front of the house, but mostly he’s been a waiter. After nearly three years at Heritage, Straka has cut back to two shifts a week, usually weekend dinner and brunch. Heritage is likely to be Straka’s last restaurant.
But he’s not done waiting.
“I truly enjoy waiting tables,” Straka said. “It’s an art. It’s not just me dropping things off at your table. There’s an art to it.”
The Capital Times spoke with Straka recently about where Madison’s restaurant scene is going, dining trends he loves and hates, and how to be the best diner you can be.
How did you get started in restaurants?
I go all the way back to the Ovens of Brittany in 1989. My undergrad was at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and a lot of people don’t remember that there was an Ovens in Mineral Point, in the Chesterfield Inn. That’s where I worked for four years during undergrad. I didn’t work with Odessa Piper at that time, but that’s where she got her start as a baker.
I worked at a Pizza Hut as a teenager, the Schiavos’ restaurant on King Street, Café Continental, and Clay Market Café.
(In Mineral Point) it was seasonal, which helped. I was in school, my friend managed the restaurant and I really enjoyed the concept, the physical space. It was fun.
How do you think the job of being a waiter has changed? Are people trained differently now?
When I was working at L’Etoile, we never, ever introduced ourselves. Unless you were invited in to the customer’s conversation, you were not part of their social experience. This whole concept of “I’m you’re server and I’m going to be taking care of you” is foreign to me.
The quality that makes the best waitperson is not whether I can memorize (menu) additions. It’s not whether I make sure everything is served from the right and removed from the left.
The number one quality (is) that ability to read the table immediately, before you even approach. Every customer’s experience is individual. You can know, this is a table I can be a little more loose with, this is a table that’s having fun. This table is a little more reserved.
Once you understand that and it becomes innate ... you’ve created exactly what that person wants.
On sites like Yelp, people are obsessed with service, down to the minute of how long they waited between courses and water refills. Is this a recent thing?
They don’t understand how they delay service.
There’s a larger percentage of people that want the table they want, which is fine as long as there isn’t a conflict. They are on their phones constantly, and you have to be careful. It’s disruptive for me to my job effectively, to walk up to a table and they’re on their phone —
Because they’re not looking at you?
People won’t even look at you. You have to judge — let’s give them a few minutes to finish what they’re doing on their phone. It’s this guessing game. Am I interrupting you? Technology is very difficult.
I’m not telling people they can’t have it. But while I am trying to help you, simply taking the order so you get things completely, knowing if you have food allergies or food aversions ... that’s important, that’s crafting your experience.
If I don’t have your full attention during that time, if there’s a mistake that’s made, you’re going to think it was me that made the mistake. How many times do I ask for clarification? It’s hard.
Do you hear more about food allergies and restrictions than you used to?
It’s more and more. I use “aversions.” I give you an opportunity to tell me you don’t like it, I don’t care if it’s an allergy or not.
What I do want to know is to what degree I need to be prepared, does the kitchen need to be prepared for cross-contamination. That is a lot of work.
If you tell me you have a deathly allergy to shellfish, I believe you. The kitchen is going to take extra precautions. If they don’t have to take those precautions, your food is probably going to come out quicker and everyone else’s food in the restaurant will come out quicker.
I just want to know the severity of it. You can have a trace amount of soy if you aren’t truly a celiac. You’re limiting yourself if you say you have an allergy and you don’t.
It doesn’t seem like there are many career servers in Madison anymore. What do you make of that?
People jump and hop all over. You can’t really hone your skills, because you’re constantly jumping and learning new menus. It takes a while to mold a relationship with a chef, to know that chef’s approach. Chefs are artists; let’s keep that in mind.
You learn more about the cuisine, you learn more about cooking if you can establish that groundwork. You learn more about your regular customers ... you know what they want.
I have customers that just say, choose my meal. That’s a lot of fun. I know their likes and dislikes.
You’ve worked both on the near west side, at Lombardino’s, and downtown. Is wait service different between the two?
There’s a rash difference between diners on the near west side and downtown and their expectations of restaurants. Downtown, people expect a lot more. Lombardino’s is much more casual.
In Madison, we don’t have a dress code. People generally dress casual. But there is a definite difference in expectations ... in reactions, when the customer doesn’t get the service they expect. Some of the expectations are almost unwarranted. Not many; this isn’t a large percentage.
What do you wish people understood about what’s going on behind the scenes at a restaurant?
In this city, everyone wants to dine at the same time. People say, “We want this, but we’re not ready for entrées.” Then I’m not able to time this appropriately for you. When you sit and you wait, you think it’s much longer that what you actually are.
During a service, maybe 50 elements can affect what happens, or your experience. The majority of them are out of my control. It’s my responsibility to communicate to you.
When I’m at one table, I’m listening to you, but I’m thinking about all those four, five other tables, anticipating you need another glass of wine, anticipating that your water glass is low. Servers are trying to be professionals, but I can’t control everything.
If you trust me, I will make sure that you are happy. Trust that I care.