Jean-Georges and the Bad Parenting of Chefs

Jean-Georges

Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the decorated chef and restaurateur, caused a stir this week when he revealed on stage at the Philly Chef Conference that he’d once broken his dishwasher’s nose because of his poor work ethic. The moderator offered him the opportunity to express remorse for an incident which occurred over thirty years ago, early on in his promising career. Instead, he defended his actions, and only walked back his comments after the backlash went viral.

Chef Vongerichten’s stoicism came as no surprise to those of us who work in the restaurant industry. We’ve become conditioned to accepting tension and violence as an inherent hazard of the workplace. Asking for forgiveness is considered a sign of weakness.

Attacking the self-worth of subordinates, as military officers do, is a popular tactic chefs employ to encourage productivity. What Chef Vongerichten’s comments make very clear is an almost universal truth of restaurant life: Chefs, when left unchecked, weaponize discipline. But instead of wondering why these chefs act this way, we should be asking ourselves why we continue to tolerate their behavior.

Jean-Georges boasts in his book, JGV: A Life in Twelve Recipes, that he and his former dishwasher are still friends. Knowing the tribalism that exists in restaurants, it’s believable that there’s no ill will between them. After these abuses occur, most cooks are trained to “get over it” because… well… the food isn’t gonna cook itself.

There’s an unwritten code that exists in a restaurant kitchen, albeit an antiquated one. Cowering in the face of anger indicates one’s lack of fitness for the chef’s profession. Could this be the reason that so many young chefs are covered in tattoos? Perhaps the Bourdain Effect has romanticized the poetic ideal of the battle-tested chef. Cooks working their way up the chain of command learn that scars earn you valor behind the line, and there is no gain without pain. But at what cost?

Jean-Georges already knows the cost because he’s undoubtedly worked under the tutelage of many male chefs (likely of the older French variety) who were probably louder and more violent than he’s ever been. One wonders whether he might credit being on the receiving end of that tough love for his own resilience—the way a father that metes out discipline might reflect upon learning discipline from his own father.

Being a chef in charge of a team is a lot like parenting. In the same way that every parent has a different approach to raising his children, chefs also do with their apprentices. As with child rearing, there are often times when disciple becomes abusive, and the children suffer for it. They feel inadequate. They blame themselves. In turn, they abuse others.

Jean-Georges

Chef Vongerichten’s statements expose the real problem which is that so many people who work in executive roles in restaurants believe that abusing staff is the most effective way to keep them motivated. Busy restaurants don’t have the luxury of having a staff with a passive work ethic. So they recruit people with a high tolerance for adversity. One of the ways of evaluating a cook’s mettle is to deploy these stress tests and separate the wheat from the chaff. Chef’s will burn down the fields for the sake of saving a few sturdy plants.

It’s hard to believe that this “Come To Jesus” moment for male chefs will have any staying power. The most malicious behavior in restaurants always occurs when no one is looking. Changing the culture requires the type of humility that restaurant professionals like JGV are often too proud to show, or they are only wiling to show it when they get caught misbehaving.

Spectators at the Philly Chef Conference reported that Chef Vongerichten seemed like he expected the audience to be amused when he justified punching his dishwasher. Restaurants exist in a fragile, oxygen-deprived bubble. Air is for the guests. We often do nasty things to each other and convince ourselves that it’s all a part of restaurant life. When the bubble finally bursts, exposing our misdeeds, even we are sometimes shocked by our own behavior. But it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks when that’s the way they were raised.

Ask Jean-Georges.

The Power of Forgiving Bad Service

bad-service

The other night, I experienced the kind of catastrophic scenario waiting tables that haunts every server’s dreams. One of my tables ordered the most expensive steak on the menu, a prime dry-aged cut of quasi-Wagyu beef from a boutique farm somewhere in bumblefuck that massages the cows and feeds them beer or whatever. You wouldn’t believe the price if I told you, so I won’t bother mentioning it.

When the runner plowed through the kitchen double doors hoisting a tray with their food, the steak plate flopped over and everything, including all of their sides dishes, slipped off the tray and spilled onto the floor. It looked like a crime scene at a butcher shop in a gentrified neighborhood.

This caused a chain reaction. The chef went ballistic. The food runner responsible for the blooper cowered by the dish pit. I almost fainted. The manager’s face turned ghost white. Suddenly, we all went into triage mode like an EMS crew. The manager approached the table to break the unfortunate news. The chef immediately began grilling a new steak. The sommelier opened another bottle of the wine they had free of charge to begin the reclamation process.

Miraculously, the guests who ordered the steak didn’t feel victimized. They seemed surprisingly amused by the whole situation. In high-end restaurants, this is rarely the case. It’s not uncommon for people to walk out in the middle of their meals when food delays cross their patience threshold. But this party showed remarkable humility. They were even concerned that someone might have been hurt when the tray collapsed. I thanked them profusely for being so gracious and promised we’d make their dessert course extra soigné.

The wait for the replacement steak was excruciating. The truth is, most of the time when crisis situations like this happen in hospitality, the staff suffers through it more than the guests do. In restaurants, timing is everything. Minutes feel like hours, and servers bear the burden of long kitchen waits every night like a constant ticking time bomb.

The re-fired steak took forty-five minutes before it was delivered, but it came out perfectly cooked. The guests loved it, but it helped that they didn’t want to hate it. We sent almost the entire dessert menu with our compliments, including a special table-side presentation that drew everyone’s attention. Other tables might have presumed they were friends of the owners. We treated them like royalty because they’d acted like it.

How a restaurant staff performs in crisis situations says a lot about the culture of the restaurant. They should take guests’ bad service experiences even more seriously as good ones. Do they run and hide from conflict or do they address it head on and take responsibility for any wrongdoing? But how guests respond to these crises says a lot about them, too. For people who depend on external sources to make them happy, most likely issues with disappointing food or perceived bad service will exacerbate their misery. Those anchored by inner happiness aren’t as likely to be unmoored by choppy wa ters.

It’s critical to acknowledge that when things go wrong in restaurants that it’s rarely about negligence or even incompetence. More often, service issues result from unforeseen turbulence or the grinding gears that result from the difficulty in trying to make so many different people—with unique tastes and personalities—happy simultaneously.

Yes… you always have the right to be upset. But you also have the choice to show mercy. Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of your caretakers, and you might respond more charitably. Calling off the dogs when things go awry will make you more worthy of hospitality, the sincere kind. It’s never a pleasure to take care of people who bully their way into restitution. Having the attitude that the “customer is always right” might get you what you want, but it will never get you respect.

Your Favorite Dish is Sold Out? Big Deal.

It’s difficult to remember what restaurants were like before people dined out to take photos of their food and invested hours online sifting through reviews weeks ahead of their reservation. The world was a much simpler place. The company you kept mattered more than the food you ordered. There was no such thing a Cronut. It used to be that a famous dish on the menu only became known through word of mouth or perhaps the occasional write up in the local newspaper. We didn’t get so emotional when a particular dish we loved was taken off the the menu or sold out.

Some restaurants still revel in being known for specialty items, broadcasting their prowess in flickering, neon humblebrags like: “Home of the Original Stuffed Clam” or “The Place for Ribs.” But there’s hardly a need for restaurants to flex anymore, the world has already seen it all on the ‘Gram. Social media has made having a signature dish a curse as much as a blessing. Now when we dine out, we’re not only comparing our restaurant experiences to our neighbor’s or friend’s account; we expect it to live up to the multimedia accounts of hundreds and thousands of strangers and, of course, the Kardashians. 

The most epic tantrums that occur nightly in restaurants come from guests incensed when popular items are sold out or signature dishes have been replaced on the menu. These meltdowns have intensified as guests spend more time and energy anticipating and planning their restaurant visits. The build up creates pressure which makes the explosions of disappointment even more combustible. “We made this reservation months ago and that dish is the only reason we came!!” they’ll say when the waiter delivers the bad news. Pacifying these irate guests is not unlike soothing crying children whose parents have just told them they can’t have dessert. 

sold-out-food

It’s a sensitive subject for restaurant managers and servers. We understand the reality that any dish on the menu can be sold out on any given night. That’s just how the economy of a restaurant works. It’s an imperfect science. If a restaurant only sells four orders of salmon on average every night, the chef isn’t going to buy ten pieces of fresh salmon every day just in case more people order it. Throwing away unsold food isn’t a good strategy for survival. Unfortunately, conveying this calculus to disappointed guests that had their heart set on a particular dish is difficult to do without seeming inhospitable

The fact remains though: Restaurants should do their best to make you happy but they don’t owe you anything. Food is perishable and supply chains fluctuate. An ingredient shortage often impacts the industry as a whole, not just one specific restaurant. You’re upset that your favorite sushi place is out of Uni but half of the city’s sushi bars may also have missed their deliveries. Many dishes take days in advance to prepare. It’s impossible to “whip up” a few orders of braised short ribs that needed to be salted days ahead of time and braised in red wine for hours.

Of course, guests are entitled to be disappointed that a dish is unavailable but it should never provoke outrage. When guests lose their cool, they’ve clearly convinced themselves that there is only one way to enjoy their experience. Approaching dining out anywhere with this kind of tunnel vision is self-sabotaging.

It’s actually a sign of your fluency as a diner to demonstrate how open you are to enjoying your meal despite missing out on a dish you’d hoped to try. Servers will work harder to make you happy. No one hates it more when dishes are sold out than the staff. Waiters’ lives are so much easier when they can give everyone everything they want every single night. Ask them for solutions. Understand that there is more than one path to having a great meal and always approach ordering with an open mind. You never know. You might end up liking your dish even more than whatever the Kardashians ate.