This picture was a perfect opening for some Labor Day musings. I am part of an industry that is interesting to many on the outside, challenging to those who own restaurants, exciting to those who find themselves in the grips of the service adrenaline rush, back breaking to those who have made it their life, unbearable to some and inspiring to many who become part of a close knit restaurant team. The restaurant business as portrayed by the new wave of reality shows, Food Network segments, Anthony Bourdain adventures, colorful coffee table cookbooks, and countless magazines on the art of cooking is really a far cry from what it is like.
On Labor Day we celebrate those who work hard every day to support their families, provide for others and make this country great. It is only fitting that I spend some time paying homage to those who work in OUR industry, the industry of food and service.
Allow me the privilege of telling the truth about the day-to-day. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up, just like those who begin their career in either the front or back of the house. The dishwasher is one of the most important employees in a kitchen. If you don’t understand this statement, realize this: if a cook doesn’t show up everyone rallies to cover the station, if the chef is out sick (unheard of) the cooks would quietly cheer, if the manager doesn’t make it in the restaurant will likely not lose a step, if the dishwasher doesn’t show the place falls apart. Why? This is oftentimes a thankless job that involves standing on your feet for an entire shift, working around heat and steam, cleaning everyone’s dirty plates, lugging out tons of garbage, bending at the waist scouring greasy pots and pans, handing scalding hot plates as they end their cycle, lifting and pushing heavy racks of dishes and doing this to the din of demanding cooks and service staff. The dishwasher has no one to delegate to, yet he or she manages the single most expensive piece of machinery in the kitchen as well as thousands of dollars of china, glassware and flatware. An entree improperly cooked can be forgiven and re-fired, a dirty plate on which that food is placed is inexcusable and not correctable if it makes it to the guest.
Cooks come to restaurants with all sorts of baggage. My favorite people in the world are cooks. Some are vagabonds searching for a place to fit, others are introverts who need an opportunity to work with their hands without the pressure of interacting with others aside from the person standing next to them. A number are what we call “pirates” who are tough, crusty, oftentimes a bit obscene, full of pent up anger, but content working over a 700 degree char-grill; and a few are those culinary school interns or graduates who came to make their mark, learn the trade, build their chops, and aspire to become a chef. All-in-all, as tough as many of them seem, they usually love food and take pride in what they do. Snap at them and beware, tell them their food is not very good and you may need to reach for tissues to help fight back their tears and broken confidence.
Chefs, are always there. Even when they are not physically there (which is rare), they are still mentally there. A chef can expect to work 70 or more hours per week and should plan on being in the restaurant from mid-morning until the last few dinners hit the window. If they have developed a name for themselves, the guest will expect to see them there. Guests have no concept of a day off or of the effort that a chef must put in. The chef started as a person who loved to cook, but in his/her current role they are a business manager. They plan menus, hire and train staff, order food and negotiate with vendors, monitor the sanitation and safety of the restaurant, help to market the image of the place, set the tone for the kitchen and ensure that the quality remains consistent, interact with guests and guest special requests, serve as the mentor for those fragile egos in the kitchen, and oftentimes serve as a fill-in person when a station is in the weeds or a cook or even dishwasher fails to show or bails. This can be exciting and fun, but trust me, it is not as glamorous as TV would have you believe.
Servers and back waits are always on the firing line. What guests do not realize is that most service staff are paid sub-minimum wage (allowed by law) because their wages are typically supplemented by gratuities. Servers and their support are entrepreneurs who have been given the opportunity to set up shop in a restaurant. They certainly must represent the restaurant, but in essence are working solely for the guest. The guest, in turn, is expected to reward them with a gratuity that reflects the level of service provided. The vast majority of guests are nice, reasonable, polite and respectful, however, there is a smaller percentage who view service staff as subservient and fail to recognize them as people with feelings. As a chef I have spent many an hour consoling servers who have been verbally abused and offended by that 5% of guests who enjoy being abusive. People should not treat other human beings this way, but it is, unfortunately expected. To add insult to injury, some kitchens dish out the abuse to service staff making the whole experience of working the front of the house anything but enjoyable. Shame on the chef who allows this to happen.
Managers, like chefs, are married to the restaurant. They have the same responsibilities in the front as chefs do in the back with the added pressure of financial management. True the chef is responsible for food and labor cost, but the manager is ultimately responsible to keep the restaurant afloat. What guests do not realize is that the average restaurant only makes a net profit of about 5% if they do everything right. Many restaurants simply hope that cash flow is positive and ignore the fact that eventually the bills will catch up. Running a restaurant is very difficult and very expensive. Guests are fickle and rarely as loyal as you would like them to be, so the manager must always be on his/her toes. Just as the chef is responsible for the temperament and vibe in the kitchen, the manager must be on stage and insure that whatever may be going wrong is not evident to the guest.
The picture of screaming and yawning feet at the beginning of this article was a vivid symbol of the cycle of life in a kitchen. Restaurant people are always on the edge and one never knows how today will turn out. All this being said, I love this business as do many of my dearest friends and associates. My hat goes off to all who call restaurants their home on this day.
Happy Labor Day!