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.

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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.

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The Pretty Face At The Door

With gender inequality under scrutiny, the restaurant industry has been forced to take a long, uncomfortable look at itself in the mirror. The reflection hasn’t been very flattering. Despite all of this overdue introspection, though, we’ve ignored the part of a restaurant that has the worst gender imbalance: The Host Stand. Stationing attractive women as hostesses at the front door is one of the oldest and most misogynistic conventions of the modern restaurant and yet, by all accounts, its prevalence hasn’t provoked nearly the same outrage as the subjugation of female chefs in the kitchen.

Go into any of your city’s top restaurants and invariably you’ll be greeted at the door by a young, attractive woman. If a man greets you, he is likely a maitre d, who has greater responsibilities like managing the reservation book, configuring seating arrangements and overseeing guest relations; he will rarely leave the podium to shepherd guests to their tables. Of course, there are many female maitre d’s in the industry too, but you won’t see many of them flanked by male hosts in the way that gaggles of hostesses often surround male maitre d’s like Charlie’s Angels. Unlike their male counterparts, female maitre d’s will often have their authority questioned by male patrons who see a woman’s face at the door and assume she’s just a hostess.

As we delve deeper into the dysfunctions of our industry and its antiquated attitudes toward gender, it’s about time we question the standard practice of displaying hostesses as showpieces. Whereas most other positions in the restaurant are measured by competence, hostesses are hired and judged primarily by their looks. Since restaurant managers are overwhelming male, female candidates for door positions are often scrutinized like beauty pageant contestants. Restaurants like The Coffee Shop in New York City are notorious for only hiring models to work as hostesses. Of course, the visibility these women receive may open doors for their modeling careers but what about the hard-working, non-model applicants who were discriminated against?

Restaurants tend to recruit college-age women looking for part-time income. Hostess jobs pay poorly but they attract students who have classes during the day and can only work nights. Whether they admit it or not, restaurant managers (even female ones) will often hire more attractive women with less restaurant experience over less attractive women who have more. Management may also enforce strict dress codes for their hostesses like requiring they wear heels on the floor or specific-length skirts and dresses. These strict uniform guidelines rarely apply to male staff members.

Young women with limited professional experience can struggle dealing with inappropriate behavior by male supervisors or patrons. Hostesses become defenseless targets when male VIPs or investors leverage their preferred status to solicit favors or special treatment. Since hostesses are trained to be obsequious, their affability is often misconstrued as interest. Rejecting the attention of an important male client or refusing to comply with a male supervisor’s demands may threaten their job security.

In one of the most public cases of restaurant harassment, Martha Nyakim Gatkuoth—a 25 year-old Ethiopian runway model who worked as a hostess at Tavern On The Green—filed a lawsuit in 2008 alleging improprieties by management that resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement. According to the complaint, female hostesses were pressured to perform sexual acts by management and threatened with punitive action if they refused. After the Manhattan District Attorney dropped the criminal case, the E.E.O.C. intervened on behalf of over fifty workers who corroborated her story of institutionalized abuse before the case was settled out of court. It’s hard not to look back on this case as a harbinger of the #MeToo movement but also wonder why it took so long for women like Ms. Gatkuoth to have their voices heard.

As long as we continue to objectify hostesses and train them to be docile, their voices will continue to be muffled. If we want women to be featured more prominently in restaurants, then we must acknowledge the fact that their most visible role is a passive one. In the same way that management has lagged behind in hiring more women in key FOH positions, restaurants need to diversify their door staff to include more men. Changing the gender dynamic at the entrance of a restaurant sends a strong message to guests that the owners care about hiring the most qualified people, not just a pretty face.

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