Well Done But Juicy

well-done-steak

On an otherwise smooth night, a guest summoned me to his table in a panic because he was disappointed with the Filet Mignon he had ordered well done. His complaint, predictably, was that the steak was dry. Everyone—except this guy, apparently—knows that Filet Mignon has very little fat and should not be served past medium rare. But before I could even respond, he launches into a five-minute diatribe about how a properly cooked well done steak should still be juicy. He pointed to the dark crust on the outside that was studded aggressively with black pepper and explained that it also shouldn’t be burnt (it wasn’t). To prove that it was dry, he offered me a taste of his steak—one of my pet peeves because I find it insulting to be offered someone’s half-eaten food. Only a person who doesn’t see you as an equal would offer you his leftovers. 

I brought the dish back to the kitchen bracing for the inescapable moment where the chef needs an explanation for the inexplicable. I told the chef that the guest wanted the steak remade, juicier this time. The silence in the kitchen was deafening. You could hear the chef’s blood pressure rising as he stared blankly at the dehydrated Filet. He explained the obvious that re-firing the steak would yield exactly the same result. It would also take an extra twenty-five minutes to cook.

So, I returned to the table and, on the chef’s behalf, suggested we prepare the steak medium well instead. The guest agreed and, of course, was annoyed by the wait and underwhelmed by the second iteration. The whole ordeal was a reminder of how often in hospitality we’re expected to show deference to ignorant people.

well-done-steak

When a guest doesn’t like the way a dish tastes, it’s easy. You take the dish away and replace it with a refurbished one or you offer alternatives. When a guest doesn’t like something because he thinks the dish is improperly cooked, it’s more complicated. “My pasta is undercooked” (no… actually it’s perfectly al dente). “These clams are too salty” (no… they have natural salinity). “My cappuccino isn’t hot enough” (no… a properly made cappuccino isn’t supposed to be scalding).

The customer is not always right and, when these things happen, the staff is faced with the inevitable dead end of having to confront someone’s meritless complaints. We usually choose the path of least resistance, but taking the high road requires us to prostrate ourselves before untoward guests. 

Some diners describe the way they like their meat cooked in abstract terms. “I like mine pink but not bloody, just a touch more to the rare side of medium.” Sadly for them, a line cook with twenty steaks on the grill doesn’t have time for an existential conversation about how each individual steak is cooked. The mnemonic scale of doneness (R-MR-M-MW-W) exists for a reason. If we don’t standardize a language for cooking meat, then we will spend the entire night recooking steaks.

Incorrect meat temperatures are the most common instances where food is sent back in restaurants, and so often the guest’s judgement is wrong. Chefs will rarely stand their ground and refuse to make the dish again when it was cooked properly the first time. In the hospitality game, we’re trained to give people what they want and sometimes that means putting our pride aside and doing it over again even when we know it was right the first time.

Goodbye, Uncle Tony

Bourdain

The outpouring of emotion within the restaurant community in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s death last month is a sobering reminder of the familial aspect of restaurant work. His unexpected passing hit many of us harder than most celebrity deaths because we considered Tony an honorary member of our restaurant family.

If you spend any meaningful period of time working in the restaurant industry, the tree of people you work with in different jobs has long branches and deep roots. The word “incestuous” is often used when we describe how intertwined those relationships are. The meals we eat together before our shift are called “family” meal. We preview our newest restaurants with mock services referred to simply as “Friends and Family.”  If industry comrades visit our restaurants, we shower them with extras and we charge them for less than they ordered. Our solidarity is only something you can understand if you’ve ever burned yourself on a hot Rondeau or entered an order into Micros—we live and die for each other.

Bourdain had expressed in interviews that he wrote Kitchen Confidential with his fellow line cooks in mind. His criteria for publishing it hinged on whether they would consider it worthwhile reading. If not, he said, then no one should read it. Surviving restaurant life was a badge of courage that Tony wore proudly and he had the scars—both literally and, sadly, maybe also figuratively—to prove it.

No matter how mainstream he’d become in the culinary world, Bourdain was royalty to line cooks—the Michael Jordan of blue-collar chefs. It was rare for a cook, one who never seemed particularly comfortable being regarded with the same reverence as a chef, to be so revered. As a populist food personality, he flourished in an era of swirly sauces and molecular gastronomy without being tempted to cook that way. Of course, he respected the talents of those chefs (ok maybe not all of them) but always viewed his membership in the club with skepticism. Though he may not have been cooking in a professional kitchen as of late, Chef Bourdain was one of the first to make it cool to be a line cook. This blog—as well as every social media outlet related to food and restaurants—likely wouldn’t exist without Tony having fascinated laymen by revealing the secret world of restaurants.

I often wonder why I still work in the industry. I’m tired. My feet hurt. The hours are terrible—routinely over 50-hour weeks along with 10-12 hour double shifts. When you wait tables, the only way to get a raise is by waiting on more tables. Vacations are a luxury that most of us can’t afford or are told by management that we don’t deserve.

Many of us come from disjointed family backgrounds. I lost my mother to cancer when I was seventeen. My father and I had a contentious relationship. In the late nineties, after graduating college, I stumbled into restaurant work by accident. My first job was in a second-rate theme restaurant in Times Square that was a discombobulated mess. It was a sucky job and I made no money, but the staff was made up of misfits like me. Like so many subsequent restaurant staffs I’ve been a part of, we were a band of gypsies—unsure what to do with our lives so we pitched our tent in the restaurant business while we figured out how to find the Yellow Brick Road. For many of us, we never figured it out and our restaurant family became a surrogate.

One gets the feeling that Chef Bourdain walked a similar path. He steadfastly defended his restaurant family against malfeasance, speaking out in support of undertipped servers and immigrant dishwashers. To restaurant professionals, the world is divided into two groups: People who dine out and the rest of us. There was never any question who Tony sided with. He was a lovable loser who grew up in our neighborhood. He made it big—which made us proud—but he never forgot where he came from.

Once you’re indoctrinated into the restaurant mindset it’s hard to work anywhere else. Unlike corporate environments, there’s a proprietary nature to what we do. A line cook has her station to manage; a waiter’s domain are his tables; the bartender presides over the bar like a judge’s bench. The disposable nature of our responsibilities makes us feel less indentured to our jobs. No matter how badly you fuck everything up, the restaurant will open again tomorrow. Yesterday’s transgressions are easily forgotten because restaurants don’t think linearly about success like a normal company thinks about building its business. A restaurant’s lifespan is a slog forward not a steady climb. Most of us just hope we make it through each night alive.

Of course, we find a way to survive and will likely retire to a neighborhood bar to share a few pints. The bartenders know us. They’re family. We might vent about the assholes who terrorized us in the dining room but the conversations are usually far more provocative. Restaurant staffs consist of some of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. When you see someone you’ve worked with in a previous job, no matter how much time has passed, you pick up right where you left off… just like you do with family members.

Through the years, I’ve lost restaurant friends to drug use, alcoholism and suicide. Chef Bourdain was always forthright about his struggles with controlled substances in the past. Our hearts ache because we know the perils of life in the restaurant business—the pressure, the thanklessness, the financial hardship. As we know from reading Kitchen Confidential, restaurant life is not nearly as glamorous as people think.

Be a Hero. Tip the Kitchen.

In a moderately upscale Yakitori restaurant in Tokyo, a thick plexiglass divider stood between me and the chefs like the bulletproof windows that protect bank tellers from robbery. I watched as the chefs leaned over the smoldering binchōtan coals behind it, tending to their skewers like gardeners. The smoke from the grill was grey and thick like a coal mine but the chefs would not leave their crops unattended.

When the parade of skewered food was finally over, I summoned the waiter. Discreetly, I asked if he would bring another bottle of the same sake, pour a glass for me and bring the rest of the bottle to the kitchen to thank the chefs. As I finished my meal, I raised a glass to them and we shared a brief “Kanpai” before they returned to the Zen garden of chicken sticks. I wondered, as I toasted to their brilliance, why acknowledging the kitchen wasn’t something I did more regularly at home.

The controversy over tipping customs rightly questions whether tips should be shared with the kitchen. It’s a hot topic of conversation right now in hospitality circles, but as we search for a workable solution an important question arises: Why doesn’t anyone ever tip the kitchen?

One answer is obvious—guests aren’t given the opportunity to designate a gratuity for chefs. Leaving more for the kitchen may seem like an added extravagance to diners who are already fatigued by the rising cost of restaurants. However, considering how many people are blown away nightly by delicious food, it’s a wonder that so few people ever make even a small gesture to thank the people that made everything taste so good.

Situating the kitchen out of the guests’ view severs the possible connection that diners have with the people cooking for them. Cooks themselves often feel uncomfortable even setting foot in the dining room because they know that their presence breaks the fourth wall. For various reasons, most restaurants don’t want you to see what goes on behind the kitchen doors. It’s part of the illusion.

The magic of a restaurant is that beautiful food just appears without your needing to see the blood and sweat that went into making it. But even in open kitchens it’s rare for a guest to acknowledge the cooks. It’s ingrained in us that we are responsible for paying servers but most of us never think for a moment about doing the same for kitchen staff, even though cooks as a whole are paid considerably less. It’s reminiscent of the theater, where the audience applauds the actors while all of the tech people—lighting, sound and props—who are integral to the show’s success are ignored.

In the past, kitchen jobs have been looked down upon as vocational and unworthy of the same recognition given to servers, bartenders and sommeliers. But the restaurant business has changed. Many of today’s line cooks have gone to culinary school and spent years cooking in top restaurants, preparing complex dishes that require more training and expertise. These jobs are now highly specialized and deserving of more monetary rewards. Of course, diverting money from the tip pool seems like an obvious solution to paying cooks more. But early attempts to share the wealth have been fraught with problems. It may take years for our industry to find systems to balance pay in such a way that makes everyone happy.

In the meantime, when you have an amazing food experience, send a manager back to the kitchen with a cash tip or some other offering as a way of saying thanks. Buy a gift card from the restaurant where you’re dining and give it to the cooks, who rarely have an opportunity to dine where they work. If you feel comfortable, see if someone will escort you back to the kitchen so you can thank them personally. Chefs genuinely appreciate when guests are grateful, even if there aren’t material rewards attached.

Without a viable solution to tip sharing, restaurants should consider an optional tip line for the kitchen to give guests the opportunity to reward chefs. Of course, it may create confusion about the typical customs but “hospitality included” models are confusing for guests too. How much of my bill actually went to rewarding the staff for service? Let’s face it, most restaurant owners cannot be trusted to pay their staff equitably. If that was the case, there wouldn’t be so many stories of underpaid cooks at some of the most profitable restaurants in the country.

Before you get all grouchy about being asked to tip more, just remember that the cost of your meal is kept artificially low by the substandard salaries of the kitchen staff. Since it so rarely occurs, even a small gesture to thank the kitchen will go a long way. So, be a hero. Because magic doesn’t make the food so delicious, the chefs do.