Service 101: Being the Unseen

It’s dinner hour at The Big Traveling Potluck. I head straight for the kitchen.  Three of the ladies behind The Potluck—Erika, Pam, and Sharon—garnish the succulent smoked lamb and pull the vegetable skewers out of the oven.

Tina, a strong Finnish woman and host of the night’s events, hands me two spoons and a silver tray piled high with lamb and lollipops of vegetables.  “Let’s go,” she says. 

It was almost a year ago when I first volunteered my hospitality services to The Big Potluck founders, Maggy, Erika, and Pam. I wanted to apply my hospitality skills and restaurant experience so I could help to relieve them of the organizational pressures of the event and they could be free to do what they do best.

I step into the dining room and a familiar rush of adrenaline flushes through my veins. I feel more alive when I’m in service.  I feel doubly present in a busy dining room. A few tables away I see Maggy—one of the event’s lionhearted leaders—as she laughs with a small gathering of friends. Though the event’s pressures are mounting, I don’t detect even a glimmer of stress on my friend’s face. A swell of gratitude rises in my chest. 

Just as fast as gratitude can come, so, too does fear. Even though French service—the technique of serving food one-handed with two spoons—isn’t any more complicated than using chopsticks, I worry as I lift servings of meat from the tray.  I say a little prayer to Joan of Arc, the patron saint of service, that she help me keep me from dropping food on someone’s lap.

I approach another table and in a flash the fear transmutes into self-doubt when a guest I hope to impress with my service—orders more food without even looking at me in the eye. She doesn’t care who I am, I think. All she wants is an extra portion of lamb. I am her servant.


The more I do this work, the more I see how service—like the martial arts—is a spiritual practice that one can spend a lifetime working on. It’s easy to say the words “Let me be of service,” but it’s hard to actually live them. Because when I mean what I say, I am stating that I am willing to commit to an entirely selfless act that requires generosity, kindness, and a certain level of personal sacrifice. 

People who practice radical hospitality in their work and in their lives must be open and willing to go to any lengths for others, even if they are never seen or given thanks for their service. Service asks the practitioner to find satisfaction in the act, not in the results. Service requires a smashing of the ego and pride.  The expectations of thanks and recognition can only lead to personal misery.

Even though most of the people I serve that night nod and smile at me when I offer them portions of lamb and vegetables, I invite  personal misery into my heart when I take the one woman’s offhanded order personally. Even though she may have a very good reason to not look at me at all, I take it as an affront and feel my own need for acknowledgment. I want to be seen by her.  

It’s a funny setup – I volunteer to play the part of the servant leader of the event but here I am now seeing the truth of the matter: I do not want to be treated like a servant. 

I thought I was being humble and selfless, but I was really just hiding my ego and pride behind all of the humble acts.  The truth revealed itself to me in that moment of pride and expectation: I really wanted EVERYONE to love me.

A crisis of faith ravaged my resolve. my mind exploded. What the hell are you doing serving? No one here is going to know you are a writer too! Everyone is going to think that you’re just a hired hand, a server, a servant!  No one even knows you have a blog! I wrestle ingloriously with expectation, anger, doubt, self-loathing, and humiliation for the next long while.

I am quiet on the bus ride to the hotel as the chorus of mean voices continue to attack.  I know that the suffering is of my own making. I know peace will come only when I can  reach for something else that can help me let go of all of the expectations and all of the voices. 

Before slipping away into sleep, I pray for relief from the bondage of self and ego and pride. I want out of this crucible of suffering from expectation.


The next day, I start from a better place. I surrender myself to the idea of being unseen and to give without expectation for praise. I put my head down and work hard. I fill a pitcher of water. I move a table. I hug a new friend. I give in places where my contribution may not be seen, but felt. 

It’s no coincidence that everything goes well. There’s minimal stress and an abundance of sweetness and beauty all about me. The final hour of the Big Traveling Potluck is quiet like a whisper. The hugs goodbye are heartfelt and true.

I spend the car ride home to Los Angeles in silent meditation. I thank the power of the great big world outside of myself for the opportunity to learn, grow, and surrender a little bit more of myself.  I thank God for showing me the painful effects of expectation and ego.

I believe there is no coincidence that the ride home to Los Angeles is traffic free. Only open highways and beautiful vistas.

My husband and dog greet me when I arrive. We embrace, happy to be in each other’s presence again after a long week away. 

At home, my email box lights up with thank you notes for my service and hard work.  One particularly moving missive is from Pam, the culinary leader of the event. She thanks me for my diligence and tells me that my abilities in service allowed her and the team to be the best that they could be and do what they do best. 

Hours later, I open an email that is only one sentence long.  It’s from Cheryl Sternman-Rule. “You made a deep impression on me,” she writes. Attached is a link to her most recent essay. It’s a tribute to the beauty of watching me (and others) be of service.

I laugh out loud when I read her words. After all my struggle and self-doubt, here was someone who truly saw me. 

I imagine God winking, nudging me a little.  Don’t you see, little one? Just do the good work and forget about the rest. You will always be seen.


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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.


  1. María Arguello
    May 13

    True…, “there’s always, an eye watching..” I am exactly as you are. Thank you for writing this. Makes me be more humble and keep serving. Have a beautiful day! I live in San Diego. Would love to meet you some day!

  2. Sometimes, it takes a lot for me to get over being ignored, because I seldom am.

    At every table I wait upon, I see myself as a co-host to my guests’ dinner. I am the one who makes everything happen. I am the one who does a good portion of the entertaining. I’m often included in the hugging, hand shaking, and thanking as they make their way out of the restaurant.

    But not always. Sometimes, there are people who don’t seem to care at all about my presence, except when they want a drink, to order their food, or to pay their bill. It’s those rare times when I have to collect myself, dial back the “personality” and become invisible.

    It took years for me not to take that personally. But now I don’t. I do the best I can with the people I am given. And if that means I must be pliant and silent, I am. I know it has nothing to do with me and has everything to do with supplying the service those individuals need.

    Then I remember that they will be out of my life in two to three hours, smile to myself, and go chat with the other guests– the ones who actually enjoy my presence.

    • Maria Arguello
      May 13

      I feel you.., any kind of work you do.., it is all about serving other people and having that connection! I wish you ALL the best Michael! You are doing the right thing! Keep up the great work you are doing. Some people actually “feel..” you are present. All my best!

  3. May 13

    Such a great post and such lovely insight …. Being of and in service can sometimes be the most challenging and at the same time rewarding work. Love this and hope you make it to the Big Harvest Potluck…

  4. Such a lovely written piece on intent, service, and detachment. One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is to have an intent (serving others, etc.) and detaching from the outcome. The ego loves to get in the way of letting us live in the present moment.

  5. May 14

    Brooke, there’s so much beauty and wisdom and raw honesty here, and I’m grateful you’ve shared it far and wide. Too often, we (and I include myself in this) diners or recipients of others’ service fail to appreciate the hard work and dedication to craft of those like you who work to keep us comfortable, fed, and satisfied. Seeing all that goes into it (the emotional fortitude, the steeling of nerves, the decision to dedicate oneself to others) gives me such a huge appreciation for that hard work.

    I also enjoyed reading Michael’s thoughts above, as they illustrate how individual (and therefore variable) these types of service approaches can be.

    Please keep doing what you do. You do it beautifully.

    • May 14

      It’s true. Everyone has their own approach to service. Some see it as a way to pay the bills, a craft, or a spiritual practice. Applying my craft in front of my peers in an environment designed for creative vulnerability brought my service to another level. This experience proved to me that serving a roomful of strangers is far easier on the ego than being of service to a roomful of creative peers. Not because of what they expected of me, but what I expected of myself.

  6. Annie
    May 16

    This spoke to my heart. It actually exploded inside me. One of the people who posted a comment here on a previous post said she found a grain of epiphany when she reads your insights. I found the granary. Your heart for customer service and for service is a gift. Thank you for sharing. Finding you here is timely for me because I recently lamented the lack of customer service with certain companies I deal with and no longer wanted to reward them with my business. I want to focus on rewarding companies who provide not only a needed product but provide it with great customer service. And at the same time be mindful of my own customers. Many of which are my internal co-workers and management. But not just in business-in all of life. So thank you and I will continue to get fed by your insights and thoughtful writings.

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