Restaurant people are, by and large, some of the most generous, giving people that I know. In many cases, whether they think this way or not, restaurant families make a difference in people’s lives on a daily basis. Yes, our primary role would appear to be providing sustenance, for a price, for those people who walk through our doors, but in reality we are capable of, and often do, provide far more meaningful benefits to society.
An increasing number of chefs and restaurateurs are taking on the responsibility of educating the public about healthy eating, nutritious preparation of food, and the impact that these processes have on an individuals well-being and sense of self. Whether restaurants are simply relaying this information by example, taking a “soap box” stance in the press, or even offering their services as cooking teachers on site or at various locations throughout the country, this new role for professional food advocates can and is making a difference in people’s lives. I was recently involved in an on-line debate about customers today who seem to only want very basic (not necessarily healthy or interesting) foods when they visit restaurants and are only looking for a bargain. Many chefs believe (as do I) that although this may be true today, it is our opportunity and obligation to show customers what they are missing and teach them how to move away from their “safe” dining habits and look to the undeniable value associated with what quality cooks know how to prepare. This role of teacher is a different one for the chef, but one that is incredibly important and personally gratifying.
The dinner table is also a place where character, honesty, respect and family values are built. I have oftentimes referred to the demise of the family table and the impact that it may have on the way people treat each other. It is refreshing to see restaurants and some schools adding etiquette teaching to their daily routines and lesson plans. This small step in helping people appreciate and respect others was historically a part of every day life, but over the past few decades has slipped out of the mindset of family. Restaurants like “EPIC”, Jamie and Melissa Keating’s spectacular culinary mecca in Georgia, are taking the time to work with local schools, offering an opportunity for young people to learn how to act at the table. Charlie Trotter did this for many years at his namesake restaurant in Chicago and more and more culinary programs such as New England Culinary Institute have even incorporated etiquette training into their curriculum. The long term impact of this will need to be seen, however, I stand firm with my belief that respect is taught at the dinner table and without this forum we will continue to experience the negative results of a society that fails to see the good in others.
Finally, restaurants can and have always viewed their success as an opportunity to help others. Chefs and restaurateurs are oftentimes the first to volunteer their time and product to help those in need. A family suffers property loss, restaurants are their to help with their nutritional needs; a staff member is injured and unable to work, restaurants will help their own; a disaster strikes a town or a region, restaurant folks roll up their sleeves to help feed the masses. In recent years I have found great pride in seeing and participating in such events. Hurricane Katrina saw hundreds of chefs and food vendors stop what they were doing and travel to New Orleans to help. In 2001, when New York was attacked by terrorists, restaurants inside and outside of the city were setting up temporary operations to feed the workers and provide for the stricken. In Vermont, when devastating floods damaged and wiped out family homes, local restaurateurs, chefs and culinary students were their to try and bring a smile to the faces of those who had lost so much.
These examples do not even take into account the daily task of providing a reward system for guests after their busy days at work; the place of celebration for birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, graduations and weddings; or even that safe haven from the elements when people just don’t feel like cooking at home. Early in the day, late at night, weekends and holidays, restaurants are open and their staff is ready to be at your service. Restaurants are many things to many people.
You will never find these new roles outlined in a book on what it takes to be a restaurateur or chef. You will never hear those same culinary professionals brag about how much they do to help communities and their people. You may rarely even hear about the countless other services that restaurants provide for a community that go way beyond sustenance for a fee. These are the things that restaurant people do that give their efforts meaning. These are the things that make restaurant people some of the finest human beings I know. This is how they define success, way beyond a profit statement or a paycheck. This is who restaurant people are.
As we begin to approach the holiday season and a time of giving thanks, I would encourage you to look to your local restaurant and give them a nod of appreciation for their important role in American life and note that they are so much more than simply a place to find a good meal at a reasonable price.