Ready, set, Garçon! Parisian waiters race as the famous competition returns

Attendees warmed up with stretches and squats in front of City Hall, carefully placing croissants and glasses on their trays and tightening their aprons as pop music blared from the speakers.

Then it started.

On Sunday, Paris revived a tradition for the first time in over a decade: an annual race of waiters in cafes and restaurants. About 200 men and women arced, jostled and jogged 1.2 miles through city streets lined with cheering crowds. The rules were simple: no running and reaching the finish line with intact, loaded trays containing a croissant, a glass of tap water and a small coffee cup.

The race, which was first held in the early 20th century, has been on hold since 2012 due to a lack of funding. But Paris officials saw an opportunity for the city to shine ahead of hosting the Summer Olympics, which begin in July. It was also a moment to highlight that drinking coffee in a café or wine in a bistro is as much a part of the capital’s cultural heritage as its most famous landmarks.

“When foreigners come to Paris, they don’t just come for the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower,” said Nicolas Bonnet-Oulaldj, the deputy mayor in charge of trade. “They also come to eat in our cafés, in the Bouillon Chartier, in the Brasserie Lipp or in the Procope.”

Last year there were more than 15,000 bars, cafes and restaurants in Paris. according to city statisticsThis fuels a vibrant, sit-down culture that has held strong despite the coronavirus pandemic and concerns about inflation and labor shortages.

“It’s a French way of life and a Parisian way of life,” Mr. Bonnet-Oulaldj said.

Before the race, waiters attached numbered race numbers to their clothing with safety pins. Those from the city’s most famous establishments were treated almost like star athletes before a big game.

Cameras and spectators gathered at No. 207, representing Les Deux Magots, the iconic café frequented by intellectuals and writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and James Baldwin; and No. 182, representing La Tour d’Argent, a renowned restaurant with breathtaking views of the Seine.

Others were just happy to be there.

“It’s great to see everyone running together,” said Fabrice Di Folco, 50, a waiter at Chez Savy near the Champs-Élysées, who was taking part in a race for the first time. Like many others, Mr Di Folco said he had not trained specifically for the competition – his main job was preparation enough.

Apprentices raced separately from veterans, and men and women competed together but were scored separately. The top three participants in each category won prizes such as overnight stays in four-star hotels and exquisite restaurant meals. The first place winners in each category also secured coveted tickets to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

While the race is nominally for waiters, it was open to almost anyone working in the service industry: cafes, restaurants, hotels and even the British ambassador’s residence.

Adam David, 22, an under-butler at the residence, wore a green tartan vest as he waited for the race to start. “I always say I’m going to win,” he said jokingly. But he added: “I’m trying not to cause a diplomatic incident.”

From Paris City Hall, participants headed to the Pompidou Center, then wound through the narrow streets of the Marais, the capital’s old Jewish quarter, and then looped back to the starting point. TV crews and fans ran alongside them like they were at the Tour de France, while spectators clapped and shouted encouragement.

The more competitive waiters charged forward with an intense, almost frantic power walk. Most were ready in 13 to 20 minutes.

“It felt long,” said Anne-Sophie Jelic, 40. “But the crowd was great.”

She wore bright red lipstick and lace-up shoes that matched the color of her cafe’s awning. Ms. Jelic, the daughter of a chef and pastry chef, said she remembered hearing about the waiter’s race when she was growing up in the rural Eure-et-Loir area, west of Paris.

Ms. Jelic moved to Paris to get a master’s degree in art history and archeology and waited tables on the side. She said she liked it so much that she changed the title. She and her husband, who runs Café Dalayrac in the second arrondissement, attended Sunday.

“It’s not about the prizes for us,” Ms. Jelic said before the race. But she finished second in her category and won a meal at the Tour d’Argent.

At the finish line, the judges checked the “integrity” of the participants’ trays. Any glass of water below 10 centimeters resulted in a 30-second penalty. Empty glass? This will take a minute. Broken dishes? Two minutes. Something is missing? Three. Have you lost your plate? Disqualified.

Carrying the tray with both hands was also forbidden, but not switching from left to right.

“The problem is that I can’t replace my legs,” said Théo Roscian, a young trainee waiter at Francette, a restaurant on a barge near the Eiffel Tower, as he puffed across the racetrack.

A bit of water that was sloshing dangerously in Mr. Roscian’s glass ran out. He cursed.

Although it is unclear when exactly the tradition began, most date back to the first date.Course of the Garçons de Café” until 1914. For decades it was sponsored by L’Auvergnat de Paris, a weekly newspaper named after migrants from Auvergne in central France who came to the capital, many of whom became bistro and café owners.

This year’s competition was sponsored by the city’s public water utility, which said cafe habits such as serving coffee with a glass or carafe of tap water with a meal made these establishments important allies in efforts to reduce plastic use.

The cafe and restaurant industry welcomed the revival.

Marcel Bénézet, president of the cafe, bar and restaurant division of the Groupement des Hôtelleries et Restaurations de France, a service industry trade group, said Paris had faced a series of crises over the last decade that had hurt businesses: terrorist attacks, violent protests , Covid-19 lockdowns and rising inflation.

“It is important to showcase our profession,” said Mr. Bénézet, who took part in the race. “There’s a lot going on in Parisian cafes,” he said, citing love, friendships, business deals and revolutions as examples.

Historically, waiters dressed in classic attire: white jacket, black bow tie, and formal dress shoes. Participants on Sunday had a dress code that called for a traditional apron, but modern concessions were made, such as the ability to walk the Paris cobbles in sneakers.

André Duval, 75, a retired hotel maîtrean who wore a large red bow tie, said he remembered the days when waiters brought wine – not water – across the finish line. “It’s a shame it doesn’t last as long as it used to,” he added. Some of the earlier waiter races spanned five miles.

One spectator, Renée Ozburn, 72, a writer and retired judge, said the competition embodied the unique energy of the French capital.

“It’s one of those ‘only in Paris’ things,” she said.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button