Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hurry up and wait: Servers speed-walk through Paris, reviving a century-old race

Servers take off for the "<em>Course des Cafes</em>" in front of City Hall in central Paris on Sunday.
Dimitar Dilkoff
/
AFP via Getty Images
Servers take off for the "Course des Cafes" in front of City Hall in central Paris on Sunday.

Foreign stereotypes of French restaurants tend to paint the service as slow. But hordes of Parisian waiters proved just the opposite this weekend as they hurtled down the streets of the capital with full trays in hand.

Thousands of spectators gathered to watch more than 200 servers compete in Sunday's "Course des Cafés," the newly-revived version of a century-old race.

Waiters and waitresses traversed a 1.2-mile loop starting and ending at City Hall, suited up in traditional crisp white shirts, black trousers, neatly tied aprons and in some cases, bow ties. They each carried a tray loaded with a croissant, a full water glass and an empty coffee cup.

The goal: Cross the finish line as quickly as possible without running, spilling or carrying the tray with two hands at the same time.

"Through the streets of the Marais, you will have to slalom with agility, avoid obstacles with a skill worthy of Opera dancers and demonstrate speed without haste," said Eau de Paris, the city's public water company and sponsor of the event. "It will not only be about speed but above all balance."

Judges at the finish line inspected contestants' trays, docking points for sloshed water, broken dishes and empty glasses, according to the New York Times, which reported that most people finished in under 20 minutes.

Men's winner Samy Lamrous finished in 13 minutes and 30 seconds, while women's winner Pauline Van Wymeersch clocked in at 14 minutes and 12 seconds.

Aside from bragging rights, each won a medal and a night's stay in a fancy hotel and two tickets to the Olympic opening ceremony this summer, the Associated Press reported.

Thirty-four-year-old Van Wymeersch, who has worked in the industry since age 16, told the AP that she couldn't imagine doing anything other than waiting tables, calling it "part of my DNA."

"I love it as much as I hate it," she said, noting the weekends and holidays she has lost as well as the experience she's gained. "I have been shaped, in life and in the job, by the bosses who trained me and the customers, all of the people I have met."

Participants carried trays each with a cup of coffee, a croissant and a glass of water.
Christophe Ena / AP
/
AP
Participants carried trays each with a cup of coffee, a croissant and a glass of water.

A celebration of Paris café culture returns after more than a decade

Cafés and restaurants are a major part of Parisian history and culture. In fact, the modern restaurant has its roots in the broth-heavy "bouillon shops" of 18th-century Paris, says Maryann Tebben, a professor who specializes in French food and identity at Bard College at Simon's Rock.

Tebben told NPR in a phone interview that the race reflects pride in that long tradition and in the quality of French service overall. Many waiters work in the industry — and even at the same establishment — for decades, following a strict set of best practices.

"The café exists since the 17th century, so the café waiter exists since then too," she said. "And there's a lot of pride in the traditional ways. But as it does enter into the modern age, it's still alive and well."

The café race — which was originally called the Course des Garçons de Café (café waiters race) — originated in Paris in 1914, celebrating what Eau de Paris calls the "know-how and skill of waiters."

"On the big day, glasses and bottles placed on their trays, napkins in the fold of their arms, the waiters, in white jackets, black pants and bow ties, competed on the boulevards, to the cheers of the public," it said.

Waiters take part in the café race in 1957 at the Place de la Bastille in Paris.
/ AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Waiters take part in the café race in 1957 at the Place de la Bastille in Paris.

The race was held regularly in the decades that followed. And similar races have taken off in other French cities, like Marseille and Nice, and beyond, including in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires and San Francisco. Some towns in the United Kingdom have put their own spin on the event, CNN reports, swapping out the coffee and croissant for a pint of beer.

Paris paused the race in 2011, reportedly due to budget constraints.

The city is home to some 150,000 cafes and restaurants, according to a 2023 report, but Tebben says that number has shrunk over time, especially as young people increasingly gravitate towards places with fast service and strong Wifi.

Given economic and political realities, she says she's not surprised that the race faded away — or that city officials decided to bring it back this year, ahead of the summer Olympics.

"The way [the French] do sports is a little different, and everything in Paris is a little bit more elegant," she said, noting that France doesn't have the same sort of public gym culture as the U.S. "So I love with this race that you can't run, you have to walk. You can't hold the tray with both hands, you can switch it from hand to hand. I just think that's a very French rendering of ... an athletic contest, with all the style and the sort of panache of what the French are about, especially in Paris."

Hundreds walked the 1.2-mile loop, careful not to run, spill or drop anything.
Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Hundreds walked the 1.2-mile loop, careful not to run, spill or drop anything.

Meanwhile, the summer Olympics are getting closer

Eau de Paris contributed the equivalent of more than $100,000 to cover the cost of the trays, aprons, coffee and croissants, according to the Guardian.

The water company says the race has the same objectives as before — "to promote sport and French excellence in service" — with a new focus on reducing plastic waste.

It's part of the utility's larger campaign against single-use plastic water bottles, which includes encouraging restaurants and businesses to pledge to refill patrons' water bottles with tap water for free.

"In a city that is about to host the greenest Olympic Games in history and two days before World Water Day, it is important that even our oldest traditions take a step towards a greener future," it said.

The race returned to Paris on Sunday after a 13-year hiatus.
Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
The race returned to Paris on Sunday after a 13-year hiatus.

Tebben says she's glad to see the race return, and, alongside the Olympics, hopes it will help re-energize Paris's café spirit, which she describes as a sort of "eternal pleasure."

The Olympics are a chance for France to showcase its innovations, from environmental initiatives to culinary fusion, Tebben says. To her, the race shows how old traditions can be modernized, without being scrapped altogether.

"They're proud of it and they're not going to try to change it because the world has changed," she said. "There's some comfort in that too, that it's still going on: Waiters are still there, doing what they've always done and doing it properly."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tags
Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.