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.

We Need to Stop Judging New Restaurants So Quickly

New Restaurant Opening

In our feverish race to be the first to dine at the latest hot new restaurants, it’s easy to forget that every restaurant has a lifespan—an arc of development—that’s inevitably more awkward in its infancy. A restaurant needs time and experience to mature like a human life does. It needs to learn to stand and walk before it can run. Newborn babies are adorable, but they often throw up all over themselves.

Now more than ever amidst wage pressures, rent increases and rising food costs, the restaurant industry needs us to be a more forgiving, empathetic audience. One visit should never define our opinion about any restaurant. It’s like going out on one date with someone new and telling everyone that he or she is a bad lover when you never even kissed.

Anyone who works in hospitality will tell you that opening a new restaurant is a nightmare. The kitchen inevitably melts down, people wait too long for their food, servers order the wrong dishes, steaks come out overdone, line cooks walk out in the middle of service. None of these issues are excusable, but they happen more often in the early going. 

Of course, new restaurants should do everything in their power to be ready on day one to offer great food and service. Most do. But the same food or service should be even more finely-tuned six months to a year later. Chillax, your Instagram account can wait. 

New restaurants

Critics rush to file opinions even more compulsively than civilians do when a trendy chef breaks ground on a new project. They crawl over each other to be the first to publish reviews, often while a restaurant is still in an embryonic state. It’s easier to forgive shrewd critics than merciless foodies; at least critics have the inherent excuse that it’s their job.

But the mortality rate among newly-opened restaurants would likely be lower if critics showed more restraint by delaying their reviews until these restaurants are given time to work out the kinks. Gratuitous slandering on crowd-sourcing sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor doesn’t help matters any either. This interim period when a restaurant first opens is critical to its future. It’s the time when we should be the most patient not the most ruthless.

If you don’t feel compelled to dine at a new restaurant again because your first experience was so bad, fine. But it isn’t fair to call it terrible after only one visit. If you do decide to go back, though, try to wait at least a month before you return. Start by telling your server or a manger that you dined there when it first opened and had a disappointing experience. Lay your cards on the table. Ask the staff for recommendations and show openness to enjoying the restaurant the way it is intended not how you intend it to be. 

Great restaurants will capitalize on these opportunities to win guests over. Bad ones will make the same mistakes all over again. It works the same in reverse. Your first experience at a new restaurant might be mind-altering while your second visit may be disastrous. Either way, we shouldn’t make judgements until we take the necessary time to ascertain that a restaurant is disciplined or complacent about its own excellence. It’s impossible make this calculation fairly after just one meal. 

Is Restaurant Etiquette Dead?

A well-heeled guest recently beckoned me, her waiter, to the table to urgently ask what apparently she thought was a very important question. “Why is that woman over there wearing a hat?” she asked scornfully, nodding toward a young woman wearing a cream-colored winter cap festooned with a stringy pom pom on top.

Sensing that I was flummoxed, she stared deeply into my soul for an uncomfortable moment and disdainfully pulled back on her crown of braided blond hair. “Hmmpf,” she muttered quietly to herself, “I guess times have changed, but that isn’t very classy in an elegant restaurant like this.” She seemed a bit young to be such a faithful disciple of Emily Post.

I didn’t disagree that it seemed out of place for guests to wear hats in the dining room, but I also wasn’t about to walk over and pull the hat off this poor woman’s head either. Is that what she expected me to do? Whether the woman wearing the hat was, in fact, cold or just making a fashion statement, it seemed inappropriate for either of us to intervene for the sake of defending some antiquated social mores.

It’s true, times have certainly changed when it comes to restaurant etiquette. Perhaps that’s a good thing. After the fury of the moment subsided, the woman asked for the check. She and her companion had plans to see the ballet. I hoped for her sake that no one in the audience had the nerve to show up in jeans. The usher might get an earful.

After she left, I thought about how much time she’d spent at the table on her cellphone. She discharged it often throughout the course of her meal to take photographs and videos of the food and some of our table-side presentations. Of course, it’s commonplace these days for guests to film everything, but what’s more intrusive in the dining room of an upscale restaurant: the incandescent lights of a cellphone screen or someone’s harmless headgear?

restaurant-etiquette

I served another couple recently that was so consumed with the social media ramifications of their meal that they lowered every plate of food they’d ordered onto the banquette to meticulously photograph each one. They MacGyver-ed an iPhone swaddled in a linen napkin with its flash on as a makeshift studio light and snapped portraits of each dish using a second iPhone. The parties seated around them looked on incredulously, distracted by their odd behavior.

One evening, I witnessed two elderly guests sitting next to each other wearing identical eyeglasses that had dual spotlights attached to each hinge like they were about to inspect diamonds or descend into a coal mine. To onlookers in the dining room, it may have looked like the restaurant was being invaded by extra terrestrials.

Deploying digital technology this way has always clashed with the analog charms of a restaurant, but the two are inseparable now. Parents anesthetize their young children with makeshift home entertainment centers—propping up iPads on the bread basket and sealing their young ears with noise-cancelling headphones to quarantine them from any human interaction whatsoever.

Staffs of fine dining restaurants are resigned to being filmed without permission. Guests consider us part of the scenery. But imagine if the same people decided to film their doctor giving an exam or their lawyer taking a deposition. Having the nerve to do so would be outrageous. But why is a restaurant experience that much more of a spectacle than a trip to the dentist?

It’s partially our fault. The restaurant industry balked at the opportunity to take a stand in the early innings of the smartphone invasion. It should have treated them the way theaters do, insisting that attendees keep their phones in their pockets while they’re seated or at least implore them to use discretion. Instead guests act like boorish spectators at a rock concert.

Unfortunately, hospitality ideals make it difficult to enforce house rules without offending people. Suggesting that someone is dressed inappropriately, misusing their phone or being too loud can result in public shaming online or negative reviews on crowdsourcing apps like Yelp. Defending controversial policies can seem elitist and exclusionary. It puts restaurant management in a difficult predicament. Most restaurants these days have to choose their battles very carefully. No matter how much integrity there is behind our desire to set a standard for etiquette in the dining room, it’s a battle that we know we can’t win anymore.