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Ballston resident’s new book serves up dishy stories about working at local restaurants

Isa Seyran (photo courtesy of Ibrahim Turk)

As a waiter at some of the region’s glitzy, famous, and most expensive restaurants, Ballston resident Isa Seyran has seen it all.

Tense political negotiations. Joyous family reunions. Power brokers holding court. Elaborate marriage proposals. A first lady having a great night out.

And now, after more than two decades, Seyran is telling his story about serving others in his new book “Waiter: Reflections and Memories, A Brief History of Washington D.C’s World-Class Dining Scene.”

“Call me crazy. Call me romantic,” Seyran told ARLnow. “But I think there’s something sacred about feeding people.”

Seyran made his way to this country and Arlington 22 years ago. He grew up in a small village in Turkey, always interested in “literature, language, and poetry.” While he says he could have had a fine life there in a “diplomatic career,” Seyran knew that wasn’t for him.

“I wanted to be free. So, I escaped with a one-way ticket and $300,” he said.

And that’s how he landed in the Ballston neighborhood, where he has lived since moving to the U.S.

He calls himself a true “Ballstonian,” throwing out memories like how there used to be a Shell gas station where he washed his car at the spot where The Salt Line is now.

Isa Seyran (photo courtesy of George Kolotov)

Seyran began working in restaurants, using his charisma, love of people, “genuine smile,” and ability to learn quickly to earn a place working as a waiter, bartender, host, and manager at some of the region’s most well-known eateries.

That includes ​​Zaytinya, Rasika, Bombay Club, Galileo, Fiola Mare, Faccia Luna, and Ballston’s The Salt Line, where he works as a waiter today.

By his estimate, he’s served nearly a half million diners in his career.

Besides working at restaurants, he’s also found time for his “hobby” as an author, playwright, and filmmaker. In 2015, a play he wrote was part of the Capital Fringe festival. Then, in 2019, Seyran’s short film about working in the local restaurant industry was chosen to be part of an Amazon-sponsored film festival.

The new book is an all-encompassing look into his life over the past two decades filled with stories, experiences, and memories.

The point of the book, he said, is not to be “salacious or malicious” about the industry he has worked in, but to provide an “honest account” of what restaurant workers experience on an everyday basis.

“There are people who are the unseen heroes of our industry, the busboys, the managers, and the dishwashers I work with. I thought it would be a nice tribute…writing their stories,” Seyran explained.

That being said, there are a number of anecdotes in the book that may create some good old-fashioned D.C. buzz.

There’s the one about former First Lady Michelle Obama being a “camper.”

Michelle Obama had the night of her life with two of her female friends at Rasika, drinking martinis first, then a bottle of wine, eating a sumptuous meal with appetizer, main course, dessert, masala chai and the whole nine yards. But when her security detail did not eat or drink anything, I lost between seventy and a hundred dollars in the first seating.

Like that was not enough of a loss, Ms. Obama turned out to be what we call in the industry “camper,” a guest who overstayed their welcome, which cost me another hundred dollars in the second seating.

Or how he once got bribed to give up a famed Washington Post restaurant critic’s identity.

I am a member of an elite circle of professionals who knew Tom Sietsema, the Washington Post’s food critic, well. One of the few mortals who saw the immortal in the flesh. Once, a female food and beverage director of a boutique Georgetown hotel offered five hundred dollars in exchange for describing Mr. Sietsema’s appearance.

And I refused it at a time when five hundred dollars was worth something. His secret was always safe with me.

There’s some tweaking of local celebrity chefs as well, from Jose Andres to Michael Isabella to Fabio Trabocchi, head chef of one of the most exclusive restaurants in the area.

The tension in the air at Fiola was just too much to bear. Fabio Trabocchi would run the pre-shift meetings himself like a four-star general with the precision and seriousness of a military operation. He would go over the reservation list individually and decide who would sit where, how much they would spend, and which waiter would care for them.

Then would come the quiz section of the meeting: I was wise enough to direct Fabio’s attention from me to others by saying, “I need more time to absorb the menu thoroughly,” but not everyone was as lucky as I was. Chef Fabio would ask the Salvadoran and Honduran bussers who could barely speak English about his famous Cacio e Pepe and scold them if they did not get his masterpiece right.

I honestly thought it was a bit too much to treat a meal that would go down the city’s sewer system in three to five hours as Mona Lisa and torture pour souls with it.

Seyran said the reason for the book now is that he’s planning to retire as a waiter in the coming months and has already his next adventure planned.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years and I’ve always sung other people’s songs, but but wasn’t my stage. At The Salt Line, people respect me… and love me genuinely, but sometimes I feel like the stage is too tight for me,” he said. “It’s about time to sing my own song, you know?”

Seyran is not quite ready to reveal publicly what he means by that, only to say he’s working on a concept that would “serve my fellow Ballstonians in a new capacity.”

What he hopes people take away from reading his book is that the restaurant business can be challenging but it provides its own rewards.

“We’re in the business of serving people. And that’s a great thing,” Seyran said. “And serving humanity is wonderful.”

Seyran’s book “Waiter: Reflections and Memories, A Brief History of Washington D.C’s World-Class Dining Scene” is available now on Amazon. The preceding feature was supported by the ARLnow Press Club.

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