Front-of-the-House Heroes

A great server can transform a remarkable meal into the dining experience of a lifetime—making you feel welcome and special with well-timed and light-handed expertise. Exhibiting equal parts grace, humility, heart and charm, they know what you need before you need it. These front-of-the-house stars are some of the unsung heroes of the restaurant world and are an integral part of turning first-time customers into regulars.

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Rob Andrews, Evangeline Café

Towering above the tiny four-seat bar tucked in the back of Evangeline Café, Rob Andrews is holding court—pouring beers and listening intently with a genuine, beaming smile. From the first hello, it’s clear that this South Austin Cajun café isn’t just where this bartender works; it’s also a big part of his heart.

A native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Andrews discovered Evangeline Café while visiting a friend in Austin—showing up for an early dinner of Abita beers, fried catfish and shrimp on Fat Tuesday. “It was swamped and, as crazy as it was, it looked like a fun type of crazy,” says Andrews.

He went back to the restaurant a few days later to visit with Curtis Clarke, the owner, and asked if he had any openings. “We talked for an hour and a half about everything but the restaurant,” he says. “Curtis told me they weren’t hiring, but he’d call me if something came up. About twenty-four hours later, he called, and I’ve been there every day since. It feels like home; the bayou off Brodie Lane.”

Ten years later, Andrews is still excited about every shift—smile at the ready and looking forward to catching up with his regulars. He has his lighter on standby for customers in need and a stash of candy behind the bar in case one of his co-workers is having a bad day. He wants to do whatever he can to make folks happy. “This is my fellowship; it’s my church.”

 

Cameron Barber, Chez Nous

At a first job as a part-time server at a gelateria and espresso bar in Corpus Christi, Cameron Barber learned quickly that there was something immensely gratifying about serving food. “Customers come in hungry and I get to feed them,” he says. “So much in our world is abstract, and it’s wonderful to provide something that can satisfy a customer in that moment.”

After 28 years in the service industry—with 18 years at Chez Nous—Barber has mastered the art of pleasing customers. He deftly slips between tables in the cozy downtown bistro as he delivers enticing plates of traditional French cuisine—helping customers navigate unfamiliar dishes and whisking away empty plates without ever rushing diners. “So much effort has gone into the making of the meal…years of effort for the recipes and the wine,” says Barber. “As the server, you are the conductor for the customer. You should be able to glory in it and make it extraordinary for them.”

He approaches every table from the customer’s point of view—focusing not only on what they’re telling him, but also on their gestures and body language to ensure he is providing what they need. “When you’re a server, it’s not about you,” says Barber. “Sometimes I see a server who seems to be performing, or they’re very into the idea of being a server. They seem to be more concerned with culinary sophistication. For me, service is about the human connection.”

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Sharon Bright, Uchiko

Sharon Bright is often introduced as the magical unicorn of Uchiko, but she just wants to help diners have a memorable evening. As one of the original members of the restaurant’s opening team, she’s helped countless customers have a life-changing food experience. “That’s why we do what we do,” says Bright. “We’re a marker for the celebrations in people’s lives. We want every meal to be special.”

Bright, who started her service career in 1989 at the Olive Garden in Amarillo, has served in some of Austin’s most iconic restaurants, from Good Eats in the early ’90s to 15 years at Castle Hill Cafe. When Castle Hill transitioned to Corazon, Bright moved to the Steeping Room as a manager. After a few months, she realized she missed serving customers every day.

When a friend told her that Uchiko was hosting a hiring fair at Mercury Hall, she threw on a dress and hustled down there with some cookies for the interviewers. She interviewed two days in a row and had the most genuine conversations with everyone. She knew she’d found the right place.

The new program was intense—requiring extensive studying and training for a cuisine that was new to her, professionally. “You have to be devoted, because it takes weeks of training before you’re ready,” she says. “You have to put passion and pride into your work every time you come in the door.”

By Kristi Willis • Photography by Dustin Meyer