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Paris Waiters Race as Storied Contest Returns Before Olympics

WorldEuropeParis Waiters Race as Storied Contest Returns Before Olympics

The contestants warmed up with stretches and squats in front of City Hall, carefully repositioned croissants and glasses on their trays and tightened their aprons as pop music blared from loudspeakers.

Then, they were off.

On Sunday, for the first time in over a decade, Paris revived a tradition: an annual race of cafe and restaurant waiters. About 200 men and women swerved, jostled and jogged 1.2 miles through the city streets, which were lined with cheering crowds. The rules were simple: No running, and reach the finish line with laden trays intact with a croissant, a glass of tap water and a small coffee cup.

The race, which was first held in the early 20th century, had been on hiatus since 2012 because of a lack of funding. But Paris officials saw an opportunity for the city to shine before hosting the Summer Olympics, which kick off in July. It was also a moment to illustrate that sipping coffee at a cafe or wine in a bistro was as integral to the capital’s cultural heritage as its most famous landmarks.

“When foreigners come to Paris, they don’t just come for the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower,” said Nicolas Bonnet-Oulaldj, the deputy mayor in charge of commerce. “They also come to eat in our cafes, at the Bouillon Chartier, the Brasserie Lipp or the Procope.”

Paris was home to more than 15,000 bars, cafes and restaurants last year, according to city statistics, fueling a lively, sit-down-and-take-in-the-scene kind of culture that has held strong despite the coronavirus pandemic and concerns over inflation and worker shortages.

“It’s a French way of life, and a Parisian way of life,” Mr. Bonnet-Oulaldj said.

Ahead of the race, waiters used safety pins to fasten numbered bibs to their clothes. Those from the city’s best known establishments were treated almost like star athletes before a big game.

Cameras and onlookers converged on No. 207, representing Les Deux Magots, the iconic cafe frequented by intellectuals and writers like Simone de Beauvoir and James Baldwin; and No. 182, representing La Tour d’Argent, a renowned restaurant with stunning views of the Seine River.

Others were just happy to be there.

“It’s great to all run together,” said Fabrice Di Folco, 50, a waiter at Chez Savy, near the Champs-Élysées, who was racing for the first time. Like many others, Mr. Di Folco said he had not trained specifically for the competition — his day job was preparation enough.

Apprentices raced separately from veterans, and men and women competed together but were ranked separately. The top three contestants in each category won prizes such as four-star hotel stays and fancy restaurant meals. The first finishers in each category also clinched coveted tickets to the Olympics opening ceremony.

While the race is nominally for waiters, it was open to almost anyone who works in the service industry: cafes, restaurants, hotels, even the British ambassador’s residence.

Adam David, 22, an under butler at the residence, was wearing a green tartan vest as he waited for the race to start. “I keep saying I’m going to win,” he said jokingly. But, he added, “I’m trying not to create a diplomatic incident.”

Starting at Paris City Hall, the competitors headed to the Centre Pompidou, then wound their way through the narrow streets of the Marais, the capital’s old Jewish quarter, before looping back to the starting point. Television crews and fans ran alongside them, like at the Tour de France, as onlookers clapped and shouted encouragement.

The more competitive waiters forged ahead with an intense, almost harried power walk. Most finished in 13 to 20 minutes.

“It felt long,” said Anne-Sophie Jelic, 40. “But the crowd was great.”

She wore bright red lipstick and laced-up shoes that matched the color of her cafe’s awning. The daughter of a cook and a pastry chef, Ms. Jelic said she remembered hearing about the waiters’ race when she was growing up in the rural Eure-et-Loir area, west of Paris.

Ms. Jelic moved to Paris to earn a master’s degree in art history and archaeology and waited tables on the side. She said she loved it so much that she switched tracks. She and her husband, who own Café Dalayrac, in the Second Arrondissement, competed on Sunday.

“We aren’t in it for the prizes,” Ms. Jelic said before the race. But she came in second in her category, winning a meal at the Tour d’Argent.

At the finish line, judges checked the “integrity” of the contestants’ trays. Any glass of water below a 10-centimeter gauge line inflicted a 30-second penalty. Empty glass? That’ll be one minute. Broken dishes? Two minutes. Something missing? Three. Lost your platter? Disqualified.

Carrying the tray with both hands was also banned, but not switching from left to right.

“The problem is that I can’t switch out my legs,” said Théo Roscian, a young apprentice waiter at Francette, a restaurant on a barge near the Eiffel Tower, as he huffed along the racecourse.

A bit of water that was sloshing precariously in Mr. Roscian’s glass spilled out. He swore.

While it is unclear exactly when the tradition started, most date the first “course des garçons de cafe” to 1914. For decades, it was sponsored by L’Auvergnat de Paris, a weekly newspaper named after migrants from the Auvergne region in central France who came to the capital, many of them becoming bistro and cafe owners.

This year’s competition was sponsored by the city’s public water utility, which said that cafe habits like serving coffee with a glass or carafe of tap water with a meal made those establishments key allies in the effort to reduce plastic consumption.

The cafe and restaurant industry welcomed the revival.

Marcel Bénézet, the president of the cafe, bar and restaurant branch of the Groupement des Hôtelleries et Restaurations de France, a service industry trade group, said Paris had faced a string of crises over the past decade that harmed businesses: terrorist attacks, violent protests, Covid-19 lockdowns and rising inflation.

“It’s important to showcase our profession,” said Mr. Bénézet, who competed in the race. “A lot goes on in Parisian cafes,” he said, citing love, friendships, business deals and revolutions as examples.

Historically, waiters competed in classic attire: white jacket, black bow tie and formal dress shoes. The contestants on Sunday had a dress code that included a traditional apron, but modern concessions were made, such as the ability to traverse Paris cobblestones in sneakers.

André Duval, 75, a retired maître d’hôtel who wore a big red bow tie, said he remembered the days when waiters ferried wine — not water — across the finish line. “It’s too bad that it wasn’t as long as it used to be,” he added. Some of the previous waiters’ races extended over five miles.

One onlooker, Renée Ozburn, 72, a writer and retired judge, said the contest embodied the French capital’s unique energy.

“It’s one of those ‘only in Paris’ kind of things,” she said.

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