Reconsidering Unconditional Hospitality: The Myth of Salvation Through Service

In her episode of Chef’s Table, Asma Khan, reflecting upon her success as a restaurateur, sums up her philosophies about hospitality by saying that “a guest is an incarnation of God.” She envisions her role as a chef beyond the kitchen—devoting herself spiritually to the people she feeds. Chef Kahn’s statement implies that a chef’s path toward achieving enlightenment is found through the joy of her guests.

Today’s diners expect transcendent restaurant experiences which has brought about a dramatic change in the way hospitality is administered. In extreme cases, a restaurant staff must faithfully commit itself to service in the way that some dedicate their lives to a set of religious beliefs. This quest for purity can make modern restaurant work an ascetic pursuit, where holiness can only be achieved through deprivation. Individuals that are incapable of achieving the level of piety necessary to please guests are defrocked. 

In the most dogmatic restaurants, the idea of achieving salvation through hospitality can border on the occult. In reality, supplicating ourselves on a daily basis to serve others exacts an immeasurable psychological toll. Restaurant work is already hazardous, mentally and physically, but being expected to unconditionally love guests who often don’t reciprocate is toxic. We bend but don’t break, yet we cover up our bruises and convince ourselves that abuse comes with the territory. 

One busy Saturday night at a former restaurant job, the staff was relieved to learn that the last reservation was a no-show. The line cooks—drenched in a combination of sweat and animal grease—began gradually breaking down their mise-en-place, as they do every night when they’re given the “all-in” signal from the host stand. There is a ritual to this denouement in busy restaurant kitchens. In the dining room, waiters mustered the necessary adrenaline to shepherd the last few tables to completion. The staff was exhausted, many had already been working for twelve hours straight.  

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Almost thirty minutes after the restaurant had officially closed, the no-show party materialized and, of course, expected to be seated. Many restaurants would have apologetically refused them a table but high-end restaurants, like this one, tend to be more charitable. The manager on duty scurried into the kitchen in a panic to plead with the attending sous chef to accommodate the latecomers. The morale of the staff deflated as the manager made the executive decision to seat the table. 

The dining room was almost empty which meant that the entire staff would need to extend their work day by several more hours to care for one late table. In any other realm where appointments are compulsory—hair salon, doctor’s office, airline, theater—this group would have been denied service. Turning guests away in a restaurant, though, is an act of war—an affront to one of the basic tenets of hospitality. 

Of course, we all put smiles on our faces and treated their party graciously, but the staff was incensed. Putting our feelings aside is part of the job in restaurants—it’s deeply ingrained in our DNA. But should we also be expected to put our well-being aside too? Is there a threshold where the welfare of our staff should be placed above the welfare of our guests?

Occasionally restaurateurs will defend their staff when guests are careless, but the vast majority take a passive approach in the face of impropriety. In hospitality, we’ve been programmed to always take the high road even when our guests’ behavior is beyond reproach. The high road is a one way street. 

Every restaurant worker has witnessed countless tables of loud, inebriated businesspeople destroy the atmosphere of a restaurant with boorish behavior. Despite complaints from neighboring tables, management rarely intervenes to ameliorate the situation. The risk of offending the noisy table isn’t worth appeasing the others who are bothered by it, so we take a docile approach. We tolerate their behavior like bad parents, and they continue misbehaving like spoiled children. 

Instead of asserting ourselves, we’re trained to “kill them with kindness,” even though most of these situations call for discipline. Part of the reason that people so confidently misbehave is because there is so little risk of being reprimanded. Poorly-mannered, paying guests often revel in their immunity. 

We choose to pacify them because there is an unwritten Hippocratic-like oath in hospitality to which we pledge to adhere: Every guest must leave happy, even the ones who arrived miserable. Committed restaurant professionals take that responsibility very personally. But there is a hidden cost to our tolerance. The old tired tropes about how servers can “turn problem guests around” feel out of step with the times. 

We inflict emotional damage on ourselves through the selflessness that service jobs require. Feelings of humility descend too easily into feelings of inferiority and the consequences are corrosive. The psychological baggage we carry around with us from our daily nightmare scenarios manifests itself in relationship problems, workplace harassment, excessive consumption of alcohol, drug abuse and insomnia. And, yet, we come to work everyday and are reminded that denigrating ourselves for the edification of others is the only path toward righteousness. It isn’t. 

The emerging mental health crisis we face in the restaurant industry varies directly with the metastatic popularity of restaurants. The more seriously people take their dining experiences, the more emotional energy is required in the background to make those experiences successful. The harder we work, the more entitled our guests are becoming. As much as we wish we had more leverage, it will always be a buyer’s market. 

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We rarely look at some of the public scandals of abuse and harassment in the restaurant world and blame the culture as a whole. Of course, we must hold rogue individuals accountable for their behavior, but we cannot expect to stem the tide without addressing the underlying dysfunction in our industry.

The deep-seated problem lies in our subconscious belief—upheld by generations of restaurant professionals—that we are less important than our guests. Attempts at self-preservation are routinely met with proselytizing and hospitality jingoism. If you don’t like dealing with difficult people, find another line of work. (See: The comments section of this article for the inevitable backlash.)

The goal in hospitality is to make people happy, but should feeling responsible for other people’s misery also be considered part of the job? Restaurant guests have been conditioned that if they fuss enough, we will cower and meet their demands. We always negotiate with terrorists, and we concede too much because we’re afraid that if we don’t they’ll start killing hostages. 

We need to start by decoupling our satisfaction from the satisfaction of our guests. As restaurant professionals, it’s possible for us to perform at a high level and still not convince our clientele of our greatness. If they don’t leave satisfied, we shouldn’t feel like we’ve failed. Too often, we tie our self-worth to external factors. We obsessively read online reviews, shoulder the burden of guest malpractice and stay silent when dissatisfied people sling mud at our reputation. 

Industry leaders also need to be less rigid about what constitutes good service and more forgiving of their employees when guests are critical. Management should empower staff to stand their ground when confrontation arises. Why should servers have to run to tell mommy and daddy (the managers) every time they have a problem with a guest? Rules should be firm and apply to everyone. Ham-handed attempts to flout the rules should be unapologetically rebuffed. 

Holding our guests to a higher standard has inherent risks but calling them out when they are disrespectful reminds them that we are equals and humanizes the transactional nature of hospitality. If—like Chef Kahn says—our guests are truly godlike, it shouldn’t be too much to expect for them, like God, to also be merciful. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Guest. Amen. 

Why Abusive Restaurant Culture Will Never Go Away

2018 was a momentous year in the restaurant world. It will go down in history as a precipice—when the world finally learned how fucked up we are. The shameful skeletons amassed in our closets had outgrown our ability to hide them and finally burst into the public eye. The restaurant industry has been dysfunctional for as long as chefs have worn hats—so the revelations come as little surprise to those of us employed by it, who have become accustomed to the misogyny, abuse and bullying. We may never go back to the way things were, but it feels premature to declare the era of “Men Behaving Badly” in restaurants over. Anyone who thinks that is ignoring how poorly—prior to these public scandals—we’ve policed ourselves. How do you think we got here in the first place?

If not for the persistence of journalists exposing what the restaurant business couldn’t expose itself, these abuses would have continued unfettered. Now that we’re under a microscope, the industry is more attuned to these problems, but real reform requires real accountability not just excommunication of the worst offenders. In hospitality, we’ve always been conditioned that looking the other way makes everyone less suspicious. How can we expect victims to speak up about inappropriate behavior if the only people who can effect real change are the perpetrators? Sadly, it’s easy to imagine a world where restaurants slide back into their bad habits.

Cultural issues in the workplace typically start from the top and get passed down the chain of command. Restaurants owned by aggressive people tend to rely on aggression and fear-mongering as tools to increase productivity. Since they can’t be omnipresent, some restaurateurs train management to be aggressive by proxy. No matter how competent a restaurant’s HR Department is, it rarely has the authority to discipline the owners when the owners are the problem. This is why malpractice among CEO’s is tolerated more than offenses by middle management (See: Weinstein, Moonves, Kalanick). Subordinates who are victims don’t challenge executives because they worry their complaints will be construed as treasonous. 

Aggression is used in restaurants to test loyalty. The competition in elite establishments is cutthroat, which creates a cult-like atmosphere that coerces employees into accepting mistreatment. Management often subjects new hires to unofficial “hazing” to weed out prospects with weak constitutions. There are still many chefs and managers who believe that fear is the most effective tactic for ensuring the proper level of motivation and complicity. 

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Adrenaline fuels our business. Though it can be relentless, chefs thrive on the frenetic pace and the rush they get from powering through a busy night. But often, the endorphins of a chaotic service cause tempers to flare and egos to clash. Harassment and aggression in the restaurant world may be more violent than in corporate environments because we aren’t confined to offices and cubicles. We have a tendency to behave like uncaged animals, abusing each other to survive. Tomorrow, all may be forgotten but the psychic baggage we carry around with us is burdensome and usually bubbles to the surface in deviant ways. 

Misconduct by owners and upper management happens everyday in the restaurant business and most subordinates know that there is very little they can do to stop it. Complaints aren’t taken seriously and individuals aren’t willing to jeopardize their standing within the organization to call attention to the guilty parties. The dynamic is remarkably similar to abuses that have transpired among priests within the Catholic Church. Victim’s voices can’t be heard if the organization is only concerned with its own sanctity.

The most public restaurant harassment scandals—Batali, Friedman, Besh, Hallowell—have one very obvious element in common (aside from their all having been perpetrated by men): They were all the owners. It’s unfathomable to think that aggressive male owners will properly design safety mechanisms to protect employees from aggression when many of these male owners consider their aggressive tendencies to be the key to their success. Being a tyrant requires a lack of concern for the feelings of the people in your kingdom. Dictators ignore societal mores because they believe they know what’s best for their constituency. Restaurant owners who exhibit tyrannical tendencies rarely face criticism from their lieutenants, who must choose loyalty over ethics if they want to keep their jobs. 

In the meantime, while we wait for the next chef-shaming exposé, we move forward without having drawn a road map for accountability. It’s hard to imagine—since moral compasses have long since betrayed us—that without a map we wont end up driving off the same cliff again. 

We Have a Restaurant Fetish

In an episode of “Ugly Delicious,” chef David Chang and comedian Ali Wong are having a conversation at Din Tai Fung Restaurant where they refer to the liquid that squirts out of a soup dumpling as “dumpling jizz.” Later in the show, we see it physically manifested when Chef Chang sensually bites into a Sheng Jian Bao and hot broth gushes like a geyser from the swollen dumpling. He groans euphorically while the juices roll down his chin. It’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable witnessing this epicurean money shot, but we can’t turn it off or we’ll miss the noods.

Satisfying hunger has always inherently been a restaurant’s primary concern, but modern diners—raised on a steady diet of food porn—have more carnal appetites. The dining experience has morphed into an event that must be captured to maximize enjoyment. We objectify our food—and the chefs who make it—scrutinizing the dinner table with our smartphone cameras like forensic detectives preserving evidence at a crime scene. Eating is secondary to achieving the perfect Instagram-able moment.

No restaurateur has exploited these voyeuristic impulses better than the swarthy Turkish chef slash Steak Whisperer slash viral YouTube sensation Nusret Gökçe—more commonly known in social media circles as “Salt Bae.” Legions of lusty fans line up from New York to Miami to Istanbul for the privilege of having Chef Gökçe wield his phallic sword and carve their steak. Before they can enjoy it, however, they must wait for him to climaxshooting his proverbial load—in the form of snowy white salt crystals erotically cascading all over their sizzling meat. It might not seem totally out of place if he also cuddled and shared a cigarette with his adoring fans after the check comes.

Restaurant Fetish

The popularity of open kitchens in the early Oughts may have foreshadowed the dynamic of Chef as “Bae.” A chef’s work was no longer shrouded in secrecy. Television cooking shows had flung the kitchen doors open and invited diners in to see how the sausage is made. Guests were now privy to what was happening backstage and restaurant experiences had transformed into something meant to be observed. Long before social media, dining out had already become a voyeuristic experience. We learned that having someone cook for us, like sex, is even more fun when we get to watch. 

The cumulative effect of objectifying restaurants is akin to the effect of consuming too much pornography—entertaining these impulses obscures one’s actual desire and makes satisfaction difficult to achieve without perversion. Increasingly, people don’t enjoy restaurants as much as they fetishize them. Whether they realize it or not, most of today’s diners measure enjoyment by arousal rather than nourishment. We talk about our restaurant experiences this way, too—“The food was good but nothing I ate was orgasmic.”

In the midst of this narcissistic spectacle, industry professionals have had to accept the unwanted role of being fluffers for our guests. Metaphorically speaking, we dedicate an exorbitant amount of energy keeping our guests hard and wet, instead of quenched and full. Tableside service has become increasingly overstimulating as servers mug for the camera. Prostituting ourselves in this way has resulted in a difficult predicament—we know that allowing guests to take video and flash photography in the dining room is distracting but choosing not to cater to voyeuristic patrons may be construed as inhospitable.

One night, I colorfully recited the dessert specials for a guest who interrupted me mid-sentence, reached into her purse, discharged her phone and asked me to repeat myself for the camera. When I declined, she reacted as though I was being rude. Because I was designated to serve her table meant I shouldn’t have say over whether she could broadcast my image on social media. She made me feel like a sex doll—a pulseless facilitator of her urges—and it ruined the moment for her when I wouldn’t just lay there. 

This scenario also illustrates the way in which technology has eroded the personal connection that once comforted us about restaurants. It’s even more disconcerting to imagine a remote and distant future where embedded cameras in wearable devices will turn eye contact into video. Restaurants will deploy augmented reality applications as they search for ways of using tech to make guests’ experiences more immersive. Over time, these initiatives will only further exacerbate the problem of our objectifying restaurants, dissolving what’s left of the humanity in them where we once found sanctuary.

In this new world, traditional means of administering hospitality have become inert. For restaurant professionals, attentive service has always been defined by ascertaining the needs of our guests and doing everything necessary to fulfill them. But how do we forge a relationship with an audience that can only connect with us superficially? Hospitality professionals—perhaps with the exception of Salt Bae—want to be appreciated for the sacrifice that goes into pleasing others, for our minds not our bodies. Unfortunately, our guests are too horny to notice.