Dinner at 5pm and cats on leashes: Luxury retirement work had its perks

This article is part of our My First Job series, where Age writers and columnists share the tales of finding their feet and receiving their first paychecks.See all 19 stories.

My sense of smell has always managed to transport me to different times in my life. Peppercorn trees take me back to primary school recess behind the shed. Burning incense and the smell of clove cigarettes take me to backpacking across South East Asia. And musky air freshener takes me back to my first job as a waiter at Cavendish House*.

Cavendish House was a retirement village in one of Melbourne’s leafy south-eastern suburbs. It was marketed as offering “premium services for luxury retirement living”.

Working at a luxury retirement village introduced me to a range of characters.
Working at a luxury retirement village introduced me to a range of characters.Credit: istock

The complex itself was a large red-brick building in a faux-Edwardian style, comprised of around 30 one-bedroom units. While they were reasonably modest, Cavendish had impressive communal spaces, which were the jewels in its crown. There was the ornate library, the cinema and its plush chairs, the felt card tables used for bridge and mahjong. And then there was the restaurant, open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, serviced by a full-time chef and a team of wait staff.

That’s where I came in.

I was a waiter at the restaurant in my first year of university and during my short time working there, I met some of the more colourful residents of the place.

In applying for the job, my plan was to take as many shifts as my timetable would permit, including on weekends, to save some money to go backpacking the following summer.

In many ways, working at Cavendish was a brilliant job. My shifts were regular, my colleagues were very pleasant – even the chefs- and were patient with me despite my inexperience. Once, I remember bringing three steaks back to the kitchen after having forgot which had been cooked rare, medium rare and well-done. The chef was a lot more forgiving than he could’ve been.

The other perk was that the work still allowed me to maintain a social life. Given most of the diners at Cavendish wanted their mains served by 5.30pm, staff usually had the dining space emptied, cleaned and packed down by 8pm, much earlier than most other hospo jobs.

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But the most remarkable element of the job was the residents. Most were gentle, engaging and fascinating people. Many had enjoyed distinguished careers at the top of their chosen field before retiring and entering the later years of their lives.

Some residents, though kind and equally impressive, were also wildly eccentric.

Take Mrs Rogers, for example, who would regularly walk her Siamese cat on a leash around the complex, including into the restaurant. There was also the complex’s glamour couple: Dr Williams and Mrs Evans (who dubbed themselves “Lord and Lady Cavendish”), who met at the retirement village some years after their married partners had passed away. And then there was Dr Petrie, a retired dentist who insisted on ordering all of her meals in French after I’d told her that I studied French in VCE. Her verb conjugations were far more advanced than mine!

Like in any job, I also had to endure a dose of workplace politics. Like the Friday I accidentally put Mr Oxley’s chardonnay through at full price despite it still being happy hour. The painstaking reconciliation of the bar the following Monday hardly seemed worth the $1.20 in savings.

There was also the time when the residents at table three lodged an official complaint to my manager because I had spent too long socialising with the diners at table four, and not enough time focusing on my work duties.

These were memorable, if not amusing sagas.

When I returned from my backpacking trip, my role at Cavendish House had been filled. I’d officially served my last chicken vol au vent. It may have been a short stint, but I have fond memories of my time there. In particular, the cast of characters, who were each memorable and charming in their own way.

*Names of places and people have been changed.

Sam White is a media lawyer for Nine.

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