A Din Tai Fung waitress spills the beans on what goes on behind the scenes in the perfect world of Din Tai Fung. The grueling training, the tiring day to day responsibilities and of course, the dating life.
Victoria (name obscured to protect parties involved) briskly walks through the crowd, carefully sidestepping and avoiding the mass of customers fervently clustered at the front door. Like a pro, she sidesteps a confused Japanese tourist, fixes her hair, and makes a few hand motions to the maître d like she has done so millions of times before. In the background, “guest number 45 your table is ready” a carefully enunciated voice rang over the intercom in perfect English. She sighs, her feet getting increasingly tired as hour 8 of her shift approaches. She brushes her hair up again her ear, puts on her best smile and quickly makes her way to the group of American tourists waiting outside. It is definitely going to be a long night.
Even though the Foodamentals staff has been to Din Tai Fung more times than we can possibly count in Chinese(the number 2 is all that we ever learned in 15 years of Chinese school). Regardless of where we are in world, the experience is always the same – simply stellar. If you have read our previous articles, its evident that we make no qualms in professing our love for this one Michelin star restaurant. From the incredible food to the (always)consistently wonderful experience, its no wonder that Din Tai Fung is the de facto restaurant that many critics say, best represents Taiwan. Although much has been made about the food, the incredible experience is only heightened by a below-the-radar, but integral part of the Din Tai Fung mystique – the wait staff.
That got us thinking. If you look around the internet, there are countless of articles and guides on what to eat at Din Tai Fung. However, none of us has ever heard/read anything about the people that, you know, do actual work at Din Tai Fung. So, we enlisted the help of Foodamentals Taiwan to help us out and get the inside scoop on these magic makers that we have never met.
Luckily, we met Victoria through some mutual friends in Taipei. She is incredibly polite, warm and absolutely charming(can you tell we like her already) – traits that are integral to working at the restaurant. Like her Din Tai Fung colleagues, she has been carefully vetted and meticulously trained. Although her schedule is insanely busy, she still made time to meet up to tell us her story.
We start off trying to get to know her, specifically she fell into the job. “Din Tai Fung asks people to submit their resumes and cover letters, although prior experience isn’t necessary, qualifications and work history does matter,” says Victoria, who studied hospitality in college and landed the job via a Din Tai Fung recruitment fair. “Candidates are brought through a live interview process, which takes place onsite at a Din Tai Fung and are trained for the day as though they were already a trainee. The candidates are evaluated on how well they take instructions, poise and ability to perform under duress. Only the ones that are capable will be asked to come back for a 3 months probationary period.”
Once a trainee, the job becomes eerily similar to any other corporate job – with the exception that you breathe in delicious soup dumpling smells everyday. A mentor is assigned to show you the ropes and they are tasked with not only bringing you up to speed, but is also there to evaluate your progress. Etiquette, interpersonal skills and “warmth” are stressed repeatedly. If you completely suck, well, then you could be issued your walking papers at any given time. That same mentor, alongside your supervisor, also plays a part in determining your salary via a (subjective)performance based ranking system. The best potential employees warrant a 1, whereas the one’s that just make the cut get a 4. Additionally, if you possess decent language skills such as English, Korean or Japanese, then your shot of attaining a higher rank just increased exponentially.
Though both the training and selection process is rigorous, people still dream of a career at Din Tai Fung. Think of Din Tai Fung as the Google of the Taiwanese restaurant industry where the best of the best look for an opportunity to pad their resume. A place where employees are treated with the utmost respect, receive fantastic pay and employee benefits are almost unheard of. Din Tai Fung CEO, Yang Chi-hua (楊紀華), is often lauded by both employees and the general public for his philosophy on the fair and progressive treatment of his employees. As such, employees are offered free language classes in English, Korean and Japanese. as well as free access to dorms for workers who need to commute into/out of Taipei. By far, the most badass benefit of all is that all employees are offered free massages to help them alleviate the stress throughout the day. Free I tell ya, free!
In Taiwan’s current economic conditions, much has been made about the relatively low salaries for college graduates across the country. While we aren’t at the liberty of making a political stand on the issue, Victoria did confirm that employee salaries at Din Tai Fung are ridiculously competitive. Starting monthly salaries for Din Tai Fung waitresses can range from 35,000 NT($1,160 USD) to 50,000 NT($1,600 USD) whereas chefs can make anywhere from 50,000 NT($1,600 USD) to 80,000 NT($2,660 USD). For comparison sake, a hardware engineer with a Masters degree could make anywhere from 50,000 NT to 80,000 NT. So, its not wonder why people with college degrees clamor for these waitressing jobs rather than an office 9 to 5.
Every time I go to Din Tai Fung, I’m fascinated by how the entire wait staff seems to be super fluent in English. I’m assuming that the language lessons play a big part in that fluency. But to confirm, Victoria told us “It is not entirely uncommon to find co-workers at Din Tai Fung who are fluent in two, three even four languages. Even the bathroom staff are taught basic conversational English so they can direct people to open stalls on the 2nd and 3rd floors. Additionally, because we have restaurants overseas, people who work at Din Tai Fung in foreign countries are sent over to Taiwan for a one week ‘internship’ where each day, they will work at a different Taipei restaurant so they can experience the true Din Tai Fung culture. But having them here, gives us a chance to practice the languages that we learn and so I think that’s why most people get pretty darn good so fast.”
According to Victoria, the most challenging aspect of being a trainee is learning the nuances of each type of customer. With the clientele being heavily international, managing ethnic palettes and balancing a tour group’s allocated budget is just some of the off-the-resume skills required. Although, the restaurant see’s people of all nationalities, the Mainland Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Americans and Europeans are the most prevalent groups to come through. As expected, different ethnicities have greater affinity for certain dishes.
“Every nationality will get the soup dumplings, because, well, that’s what we are known for,” she says with a laugh. “The local Taiwanese will always get the fried rice.The Korean go absolutely crazy over the spicy cold cucumbers, beef noodle soup and the shrimp shumai. The people from Hong Kong get the crab roe soup dumplings paired with the sesame noodles. Although the Japanese clientele will always get the fried rice, they also go pretty crazy over the truffle soup dumplings. Europeans will always order the spicy wonton dish. The mainland Chinese will get EVERYTHING! However, for some inexplicable reason, the Americans will always order the vegetarian soup dumplings and the truffle soup dumplings,” making a face as she lists the last item. “I think the truffle soup dumplings are gross, I don’t know why Westerners love them! I suppose it might be a cultural thing.” Editor’s note: I like the truffle soup dumplings. A lot.
With the Din Tai Fung brand so closely cultivated and managed, employees are held to the same sets of minute standards as the food. For the most part, hipster glasses and accessories are out. For the waitresses that wear skirts, dark colored leggings must be worn at all times. Long hair must be tied up into a bun and contacts must neither be colored or size enhancing(yes, these are a real thing in Asia). Employees are allowed to wear any color hair accessory that they want, as long as the color is black. The same goes with hair color, which has to be a dark shade of brown or black. Although I wonder if that’s true if Din Tai Fung ever decides to hire any Caucasian waitresses. Lastly, no big hoop or dangling earrings, instead only studs are acceptable. For any type of infraction, employees can be punished in the form of reduced pay. While this may all seem severe, think about the image that Din Tai Fung needs to cultivate and maintain.
While Americans have long held the mantle of being some of the most annoying tourists in the world, the general consensus across Asia is that mainland Chinese have quickly taken the pole position for that distinction. When pressed on whether she feels the same, she surprised us by mentioning that her least favorite customers are the local Taiwanese. The reason being is that the locals know that you can get fantastic food anywhere in Taipei. So, their expectations and what they think they should be getting, sometimes don’t quite overlap. “There would be this one Taiwanese couple who would come in every single week and always order the drunken chicken. But they also bitch about how the drunken chicken wasn’t made the way it was suppose to, so they keep sending it back to the kitchen. Finally we had to tell them to F off, albeit in a nice way of course.”
With a waitress’ work schedule always in flux, weekends are at a premium. She rarely has a chance to go out with her friends, since most of the time, waitresses are still at work when party time goes into effect. So with such challenging schedules, how do people at Din Tai Fung date? “We usually just end up dating the (few)waiters or the chefs that work in the front kitchen. It is not unusual to see ‘Din Tai Fung marriages’ in which two staff members decide to marry one another.” Unlike the American perception of line cooks in the United States, many of the chefs are 20 to 30 year olds who came through the same recruitment process as the waitresses. Therefore, the concept of a line cook with a greasy apron and beer belly doesn’t really apply here. “My boyfriend is actually one of the chefs that make the soup dumplings in the front kitchen. Luckily, unlike other places, Din Tai Fung doesn’t have a no workplace dating policy in place. Honestly, they don’t really care.”
While the life of a Din Tai Fung waitresses isn’t exactly the smoothest of rides, its none the less interesting and intriguing. As for Victoria’s plans for life after Din Tai Fung, she mentioned that most “alums” tended to hop over to other restaurants or maneuver into new retail verticals. For the more ambitious chefs, they would open up their own competing soup dumpling restuarants such as 小樂精緻麵食館, applying the skills they learned on the job towards their own entrepreneurial endeavors. Though Victoria doesn’t know exactly when she will move onto the next step in her career, she does mention that its been a pretty fun ride thus far. Till she decides she’s had enough, well, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the ride.
Names have been obscured to ensure no repercussions to the participants. Big thanks to Yayi Chen, general manager of Foodamentals Taiwan, for conducting the interviews, taking the pictures and making this article happen.