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I can’t remember where I first saw this picture, but regardless – I found it so telling of the soul of a restaurant worker. Far too often, we assess people based on face value – our first impressions that are sometimes true, but oftentimes – misleading. How often do we take the time to truly look people in the eye, get to know them, get to understand them, and allow ourselves to feel their condition? Behind that façade of cook, chef, owner, server, bartender, or dishwasher is a person with deep feelings, life challenges, missed opportunities, great aspirations, interesting talent, and a heart that may be strong, broken, or on the mend.

I find that restaurant employees represent a portal into the human condition – a sampling of a cross section of America – it’s challenges and its opportunities. They are my portal, the people whom I know best – my friends, co-workers, source of dismay, and source of inspiration – these are the people with whom I am most connected. For those familiar with the business – the following assessment will likely ring true, but for those outside of the restaurant field it may prove to be confusing and enlightening at the same time. This is an attempt at viewing the people behind that plate of food through a magnifying glass. This is an opportunity to humanize the restaurant business and provide a perspective that will give life to that plate of food and the experience that these individuals collectively create.

A server arrives at the table with a smile and warm greeting ready to guide you through the process of ordering, becoming the liaison between the kitchen and the dining room, and hoping to build your experience while increasing that check average at the same time. As much as he or she rehearses the approach, and as much as the server might enjoy the company of other restaurant employees, for the majority of service staff – this is not a life-long ambition. There is a good chance that a server may have a degree in a different field that was, at some level – their passion. It might be in psychology, anthropology, and business marketing, or journalism- but odds are it was not in restaurant management. The server may very well be a teacher who can’t make ends meet on the meager salary offered those in the field of education – this is a second job. Maybe, the server is a single parent who finds that the restaurant schedule aligns with that of the baby sitter, or it might just be that transition job in-between careers (you can always fall back on the restaurant business). The stories of struggling actors taking a job as a waiter are still prevalent, as are those of the transient traveler who picks up a server position as he or she treks across the country. There are many skiers or surfers who simply look for that restaurant job that allows them the time to pursue their passion during the day. On rare occasions there might be a server who actually wants to do this work because he or she loves it and wants to make service – a career.

Behind those eyes is a person, who in many cases, would rather be doing something else, but struggles internally to make it work, to do a good job, to try and make customers happy, and who wants to be in a happy place while they figure out what to do next.

The cook is a complex person who shows a persona on the outside that is likely very different than the one inside. That crusty line cook who seems to always carry a burden on his or her shoulders might spend free time writing contemporary poetry or insightful articles on a blog (yes, I have seen both). That quiet, methodical prep cook may live in a sparsely furnished apartment, but glow over that vintage Stratocaster guitar and double stack Marshall amplifier stuck in the corner. It is this instrument that gives the cook real pleasure and astounds his or her close friends when given the opportunity to hear this hidden talent masterfully shred a few solos. Or you might just find a dozen or so sketch pads with incredible charcoal drawings or even an easel with a current watercolor that the cook has been working on.

There is a chance, just as is the case with service staff, that the cook has a degree in an unrelated field, or maybe was a few courses short of completion when he or she lost hope of pursuing that career in programming, music, or graphic art. Cooking is the safe haven for these cooks – a place that they can fall back on, feel comfortable, work physically and mentally hard, and push aside those feelings of being incomplete – at least during that 10-12 hour shift.

Many cooks are lonely people, not to be confused with loners. They may put on a façade of enjoying their independence, but in their heart they are looking for real companionship and unable to find it. The kitchen is a place where they feel as if they have connections and a purpose.

Of course, I have seen the hopelessness in the eyes of some cooks who suffer from a variety of addictions from alcohol to drugs, and from self-doubt to uncontrolled anger. All of these destructive behaviors seem to find solace in a kitchen where no one judges and where there is always a support mechanism that can either comfort those in pain, or feed the pain with common misery. In all cases – deep within those eyes is a story, one that can be either listened to or ignored.

second cook

Don’t underestimate the dishwasher. Look into the dishwasher’s eyes – why is he or she here? What makes this person tick, what dreams are swirling around in his or her head, heart, and soul? Sometimes it is simply that transition job, a steppingstone to something different or bigger. Sometimes it is an escape from something else – stress, life challenges, job uncertainty, or disappointment. Oftentimes it is a second job that simply means a paycheck, but you might be surprised to find a few who are perfectly content to take on a job that provides steady work, doesn’t require constant skill improvement, and is very predictable. I have seen dishwashers who do the work without complaint and take a scheduled break while reading a complex novel or page through the Wall Street Journal (yes, I have seen both). Never judge or wire your thought process to think that the person diving for pearls is in any way less complex than any other employee. Look into their eyes.

The chef is maybe the most intriguing figure in a kitchen. It is easy to list the many difficult aspects of the job that would, and maybe should, scare people away from the lead position in the kitchen. Yet, there is never a shortage of individuals who think that it is the right track for them. Most, but not all, chefs suffer from obsessive/compulsive behavior patterns, a bit of attention deficit, sleep deprivation, occasional attacks of anxiety, lower than normal patience levels, and difficulty accepting any slip in quality from themselves or others. Look into a chef’s eyes and you will see adrenaline wrestling with self-doubt, untapped entrepreneurial energy, an awareness of uncontrolled work ethic, and that uncomfortable feeling that everything could fall apart in an instant.

Far too many chefs have incredible talent and far too little self-control of their emotions. This results in lashing out and unprofessional behavior that puts a kitchen on edge. The answer for them is to either admit that they need to change and put the effort in or hop from property to property until they step over the line once again. Look into their eyes and view a complex person who must constantly work at the balance that it takes to navigate the ship. They may be happy to state their love of the profession, but they also know how tenuous the position is. Look into their eyes and you will see a person who will always treat the position as if they owned it, their entrepreneurial spirit is always present. Chefs are creative individuals with the organizational skills of a librarian – a combination that is sometimes difficult to understand and deal with.

Look into a restaurant employees eyes and try to understand what is inside, what makes them tick, and what demons they work hard to keep in check.


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