Memoir of a Waiter in the DMV

Remembering my first tour at Zaytinya with the prophet José Andrés.
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Waiter, author, film director and entrepreneur Isa Seyran near his home in Arlington, Virginia (Photo by Michael Ventura)

As a waiter for more than two decades, Isa Seyran worked in many of the D.C. area’s most celebrated restaurants, helmed by chefs such as José Andrés, Roberto Donna, Fabio Trabocchi and Mike Isabella. In that time, he served a star-studded list of luminaries, from first lady Michelle Obama to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and—fun fact—once hung out in a hookah bar until dawn with comedian Dave Chappelle. Born and raised in the central Turkish city of Sivas, he is also a writer, film director, producer and poet. 

This spring, Seyran hangs up his waiter’s apron to launch the Ballstonian, a cart serving Turkish coffee, brewed black tea, masala chai, baklava and other treats in the Arlington neighborhood he has called home for 22 years. A portion of sales from his signature Anatolian coffee (a roasted blend made with pistachios and spices) will be donated to rebuilding efforts in central Turkey in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the region earlier this year. The following is an excerpt from his 2022 self-published book, Waiter: Reflections & Memories: A Brief History of Washington D.C.’s World-Class Dining Scene. The text has been edited for length and clarity. 

I do not remember for the life of me who it was, but in 2002, somebody whispered in my ear that a new restaurant was opening in D.C. and needed a Turkish waiter.

Soon I was sitting on Zaytinya’s large patio on a beautiful day, among hundreds of others also applying for a job.

The manager, Selçuk, a fellow Turk, hired me on the spot and whisked me inside the colossal dining room, still under construction with its soaring ceilings and elegant Mediterranean-influenced design. From a distance, I could see a large figure in the back hunched over a long table covered with thick cookbooks, taking notes. That was the first time I saw José Andrés.

At this point, Anthony Bourdain’s sensational book Kitchen Confidential (which I still hold as a sacred text) had been out for a couple of years. But the era of the rock-star chef was still to come.

José Andrés did many things in the decades that followed. He opened dozens of restaurants across America, wrote bestselling cookbooks, produced hugely popular television shows and created World Central Kitchen, the ubiquitous nonprofit that serves humanitarian aid to disaster-stricken people around the globe in the form of paella and hot soup. He was twice named to Time magazine’s prestigious “100 Most Influential” list. Now it is just a matter of time before somebody hands him the Nobel Peace Prize.

But when I met him that day, José Andrés had only two other restaurants—Jaleo and Cafe Atlantico—and he was getting ready to open Zaytinya at the edge of Chinatown, well before that area gentrified and became known as the fancy Penn Quarter.

Combining the cuisines of Turkey, Greece and Lebanon—nations that are, in fact, quite distinct from one another—under one roof required training that would last for about a month. While José taught Zaytinya’s menu to an army of cooks in the kitchen, we, the service staff, received what felt like a crash course on the history and culture of Eastern Mediterranean civilization.

We covered geography, studying detailed maps of the region while learning about grape varietals grown nowhere else in the world. Makers of spectacular wines flew in from Greece and Turkey to lead tasting sessions, sharing personal notes about each vintage. I learned, much to my embarrassment, that Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which I had always associated with terrorist training camps, also produces magnificent wines such as Chateau Musar and Hochar.

Sales representatives gave seminars on raki, ouzo, arak and other liquors, at the end of which we all got drunk.

While José taught Zaytinya’s menu to an army of cooks in the kitchen, we, the service staff, received what felt like a crash course on the history and culture of Eastern Mediterranean civilization.

We spent an entire day learning pronunciation. While sous chef Alex Zeppos taught us how to properly pronounce the Greek dishes on the menu, yours truly took over the Turkish and Arabic names.

I showed the waitstaff how to make Turkish coffee, carrying it on copper trays José had brought over from Istanbul. The chef wanted us to use the same copper trays to serve drinks. I told him that was a bad idea. But he was José Andrés, an acclaimed chef on the verge of opening his masterpiece. And who was I?

The result was many shattered glasses that fell victim to Zaytinya’s concrete floors. These casualties were not just because the trays were slippery and unsuitable for tall cocktails and wine glasses. I confess that I might have also had something to do with the carnage. I had showed the waitstaff how to hold trays full of drinks and swing them in the air, and of course they wanted to imitate me. Management noticed the shortage of glassware, found out why, and finally retired the copper trays, hanging them above the grill as souvenirs from José’s travels.

In the evenings, the staff would gather around a big communal table in the middle of the dining room, eat the delicious mezes José cooked, and talk. One evening, at the end of a long day, I told the story of Hünkar Beğendi, a Turkish dish dating back centuries. “The French Queen liked the lamb stew with eggplant so much that she sent her private chef to Topkapi Palace,” I explained. “That’s why it was called Hünkar Beğendi, which translates to ‘Queen’s favorite.’ ”

José then reclaimed the floor, talking about the Palace Kitchens in Istanbul (the largest kitchens in the Ottoman Empire) with great passion.

That evening, I realized what it takes to make an original and brilliant concept like Zaytinya possible—deep knowledge, vast experience, serious research and passionate commitment.

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The dining room at Zaytinya in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Reema Desai)

We had just opened Zaytinya and were excitedly rubbing our hands to make money when the Beltway Snipers shook Greater Washington, gunning down 10 innocent people and injuring three others going about their everyday lives—mowing the lawn, pumping gas, shopping, reading a book.

Understandably, people were scared. No one dared stick their head outside, let alone go to a restaurant. 

As we hunkered down with no tables to serve, rent became due and credit card bills piled up. Just as I was getting ready to look for something else to do, Selçuk called.

“Why are you not here?”

“Because you gave me some time off.”

“Come right away.”

“Why? I thought we had no business.”

“I said come right away. We are under attack.”

“By snipers?”

“No, the snipers got caught. People have swarmed us all over. The waitlist is three hours long.”

I was too far away to make it in time to see this historic crowd, but the demand for Zaytinya never diminished.

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The dining room at Zaytinya (Photo by Reema Desai)

Taking a food order was a constant tug of war at Zaytinya. As much as I wanted to get things going, guests were often inclined to slow things down.

And who could blame them? After a two- to three-hour wait at the bar, they were finally seated at Washington’s hottest new restaurant. They wanted totake their time pondering the menu’s 80-some items while looking around for celebrity sightings. And as paying customers, they had every right to do so. The problem was the managers and hostesses kept bugging me, asking me constantly when one of my tables was going to open up.

I believe it was right around this time that I truly realized the monetary value of my tables. A waiter’s section in a hip and fabulous restaurant like Zaytinya was a serious place of business. Therefore, I concluded, the people who wanted to nibble on hummus and pita for hours with hopes of catching a glimpse of José Andrés drolling over avgotaraho (cured fish eggs) with Mario Batali were a waste of my prime real estate.

Taking it upon myself to speed things up, I pitched myself to diners as “The Waiter Who Fed Tom Sietsema” and told them the same thing I’d told the food critic on the occasion of his first visit: “Sit back and relax. Let me take you on a Mediterranean trip.”

Relieving the table of its decision paralysis, I would select three mezes per person, balancing things out to include vegetable, seafood and meat dishes.

I pitched myself to diners as “The Waiter Who Fed Tom Sietsema” and told them the same thing I’d told the food critic on the occasion of his first visit: “Sit back and relax. Let me take you on a Mediterranean trip.”

At first, some thought my approach was a scam—a lousy trick from the restaurant equivalent of a car salesman—but soon everybody realized the convenience of it. Customers were delighted because everybody at the table got to try different things and split the bill equally. Managers and hostesses were happy because I streamlined people in and out of my section like a conveyor belt, making the waitlist shorter and their jobs easier. And the kitchen was pleased because I spaced the food orders in close communication with the cooks instead of overwhelming them.

As the “star waiter” (as the general manager once referred to me in a pre-shift meeting) I was entrusted with taking care of investors, owners, partners, VIPs, celebrities, critics, chefs and restaurant industry heavyweights. But my favorite guests were the sophisticated, chic and elegant ladies of Washington, D.C., who came to frequent the place.

I would often open my performance with a signature ”ring check,” asking the guests to kindly put their hands on the table so I could see who was single, at which point I would announce, “Now I know who to flirt with and who to stay away from.”

When one married woman responded with, “Just because I am a vegetarian does not mean I can’t look at meat,” I knew we were off to a good start.

But I was not always the smooth, charming, flirtatious and charismatic Mediterranean waiter. A few times, I blundered severely and said the wrong things to the wrong people.

I once asked a woman about her accent, not realizing she and her companion were in the middle of a vicious fight. My inquiry did not sit well with the gentleman. After staring me down for a good minute, he asked why I cared so much about where she was from.

Given the chance, I would have tried to explain my curiosity about languages and accents, but he was in no mood to listen. “We did not even sign the papers,” he shouted at her in the middle of the lunch rush, “and you are already flirting with young men.”

I was so embarrassed I would have dug a hole and buried myself if I could.

And yet, my biggest gaffe was the time I told three drunk, obnoxious women who had overstayed their welcome to shut the hell up.

It was after midnight on a Thursday. I’d been working double shifts with no time off for weeks. I was tired beyond description, waiting for them to get up and leave.

They were in no hurry, and they kept getting louder. Finally, my fatigue got the best of me and I did the unthinkable, suggesting under my breath that they “take things down a notch, or even better, shut it down completely so that we could all go home.”

The second the words came out of my mouth, I realized what a mistake I had made. I closed my eyes and prayed they did not hear me.

Of course, they did.

My biggest gaffe: the time I told three drunk, obnoxious women who had overstayed their welcome to shut the hell up.

“How dare you?” one of them said. Another followed immediately with, “Who is asking?”

I turned around, hoping to see somebody I could point to, but nobody was around.

“We would like to speak to the manager,” said the third woman.

Luckily, the manager that night was Selçuk, who always had my back, but I wasn’t sure there was much he could do. I suspected it was over for me and prayed I would not take him down with me. I found him at the bar, equally eager to go home, and told him what had happened. He closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. 

“Tell me you are joking.”

“I wish I was.”

Selçuk was furious. I’m sure he wanted to punch me, but instead he started hitting his head on the wall next to the POS system.

After collecting himself, he went over to the table, talked to the guests for a good 15 minutes with his hands in the air, returned to the bar, took my credit card and charged it the full price for an expensive bottle of champagne, which he then served to the table. I don’t know what exactly he told the women, but I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard them laugh.

I thought about asking Selçuk to apply our generous employee discount to the champagne, but when I saw his red face, I decided against it.

For no reason other than to entertain myself during slow shifts, I started reading guests’ fortunes from Turkish coffee grounds in cute ceramic cups. It was an instant hit—particularly among Middle Eastern women who thought I looked like Omar Sharif.

One Saturday, I was reading the fortune of an exquisite Iranian woman when I saw Selçuk eyeing me from afar, like a hawk watching a rabbit. He didn’t have to motion for me to come over. I ran.

“What the f*** are you doing?” he asked.

“I am reading a guest’s fortune,” I said.

“In her lap? Holding her hand? On a Saturday night?”

I wanted to say, “I don’t think I was that close,” but I was petrified. Instead, I mumbled a few words along the lines of, “Lady asked me to lean in close to hear me better.”

Selçuk shook his head, gesturing toward the enormous dining room filled with oceans of humanity. The crowd of people waiting for a table was spilling into the street.

Of course, he was right. My party trick had been fun for a day or two, but I had dragged it out for too long. 

So Selçuk devised a brilliant plan that put my show to an end. He made me cut my long, wavy hair very short, hid me on the upper-level mezzanine for over a month, and told the angry women who refused to leave that the Omar Sharif look-alike waiter had been fired.

He hid me on the upper-level mezzanine for over a month, and told the angry women who refused to leave that the Omar Sharif look-alike waiter had been fired.

Arriving for work one afternoon, I was greeted by one of the hostesses, who told me to report to the office immediately. Well, that was never a good thing. I wondered what I could have done to warrant the ire of the management.

There, I found another waiter, Michael, who had also been summoned.

As it turned out, José Andrés was having a party at his home, and he wanted Michael and me to help out. The managers gave us the chef’s Bethesda address, called a cab and paid us the equivalent of a Saturday night’s earnings upfront.

Mind you, this was 20 years ago. José was not the global icon that he is today, but he was still a visionary chef with several world-class restaurants. We naturally assumed the party would include the glitterati of Washington’s high society. But no—the guests were friends of José’s kids from school and their parents. This, we learned from the young nanny who opened the door and assured us we were at the right address as a horde of youngsters whizzed by.

We found the chef in the kitchen, cooking with the boys from El Bulli in Spain. For the uninitiated, El Bulli was at one time considered the best restaurant in the world. José had been a protégé of its legendary chef, Ferran Adrià.

A pioneer of “molecular gastronomy,” Adrià turned food into science, chefs into biochemists and restaurants into “laboratories,” replacing the usual cooking techniques with high-end gadgets and making words such as emulsion, infusion and deconstruction part of the industry jargon. The leading chefs of the genre became artists. Their fame and fortune reached global heights.

Dusting off the Castellano I had learned during a summer dicking around in Spain—complete with the lisp, like a true Spaniard—I bonded with the guys over our shared passion for Mediterranean food, culture, history and people.

I never had the chance to eat at El Bulli. (In its heyday, a dinner there was $1,500 per person and reservations were virtually impossible to score, so I could not have even if I wanted to.) But that night in Bethesda, José Andrés and crew from El Bulli brought the world’s greatest restaurant to us.

Frankly, molecular gastronomy is not my cup of tea. But the greatness of that moment was not lost on me.

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