Busser, ice cream scooper, deli meat slicer, barista: food jobs can teach a person a lot about other people and the world.
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The reaction when one tells people you’re a food and travel writer is invariably one of envy. “Do you get to go eat at fancy restaurants for free?” is a question I hear often. (No.) “Do you take trips to fabulous places for free?” is the other. (Also no.)

When I was young, my family patronized just three restaurants: Slattery’s, Mickey’s, and Donnelly’s. The latter was my favorite of the Irish pubs, as the bacon on their cheeseburgers—the only thing this fussy child would eat—was nice and crispy. I’ve since learned to love Thai, Ethiopian, Chinese, Mexican and Israeli food, but I was fully expected to earn my own money to expand my palate. I’ve had a full eight jobs involving food prior to my current one, and they’ve taught me an extraordinary amount. Here’s the highlight reel.

Restaurant Busser, Age 15

Lesson: If the rolls on your lunch table, no matter how upscale the restaurant, look like they’ve been recycled, they quite possibly have been—from other tables.

Ice Cream Shop Scooper, Age 16

Lesson: Presentation matters; no one wants to take a cone from a hand covered in a psychedelic swirl of M&M ice cream.

Grocery Store Deli Employee, Age 18

Lesson: No carnivore trusts a vegetarian college kid slicing roast turkey in the deli department.

Country Club Lifeguard/ Bartender, Age 19

Lesson: If a rich woman sees you looking like you have nothing to do on your lifeguard shift, she will put you in charge of making frozen margaritas for her and her friends. Always look busy on the job, and never treat someone like she’s less important than you are.

Waitress, Maharashi Ayurveda Health Center, Age 20

Lesson: Sit down when you eat, and pay attention to what you’re eating. The pleasure of taste is too fleeting to rush a bite while rushing around.

Barista, College Café, Age 20

Lesson: Controlling the caffeine that your peers need in order to function is the most power you will ever have in this life.

Summer School Teacher, Age 22

Lesson: There is no faster way to charm a child than teaching her how to make ice cream by throwing a ball around.

Bartender, Charity Events and Parties, Early 30s

Lesson: Bus your own table at the bar, and know that Russians will always grouse about the vodka choices at an illegal warehouse party.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.