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. 

It’s Time to Retire These Waiter-isms

The San Francisco Chronicle’s new restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, wrote a wonderful essay recently citing a melange of words she vows never to use in her restaurant reviews. This got us thinking about all the flaccid phrases and tired terms waiters peddle around the dining room every night that should be expurgated from the lexicon. In the spirit, we’ve compiled a list of things waiters should stop saying to their guests. 

“Have You Dined with Us Before?” – This phrase has become a common waiter crutch to suss out first time diners, but it has also become comically overused. A simple “May I help you with the menu?” would better cut to the chase. Greeting the table with this question can also come across condescending—as if the diner will be lost without the server’s road map for placing a proper order.

“Served on a Bed of…” – First of all, there is no such thing as a food bed. In fact, there is nothing remotely mattress-like about a pile of Brussels Sprouts. It’s perfectly sufficient to say a dish is “served with” something. Why does conjuring pieces of furniture paint a better picture? We don’t eat beds, so why should we use the term to describe a dish?

“Medallions” – Servers use this word to describe pretty much anything that is cut circular. The thought of eating an actual medallion is not even appetizing. Bottom line: this term makes everything sound like banquet hall catering food and waiters should remove it from the vocabulary of menu descriptors. What’s next… Doubloons of Hakurei Turnips??

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“Housemade” – It can be exhausting sometimes listening to servers describe ingredients on the menu as “Made in House”—Housemade Pancetta, Housemade Tartare Sauce, Housemade Cheesecake. It’s obviously a term meant to make the food sound more homespun and appealing, but nice restaurants should make everything in house without having to call attention to it. Also, the proper English is to say homemade.

“Pan-Seared” – This term began popping up in the late 90’s as a sexier way of describing the way certain fish and meat are cooked. Apparently, guests were supposed to be impressed that the chef was using a pan to sear something. Todays diners are more savvy about food so maybe waiters can leave the pan part out now. Let’s just go with seared.

“Cuts the Richness” – This phrase is often deployed by servers when recommending a wine pairing. It’s meant to suggest that the wine has good acidity, but it’s totally unnecessary to speak in such abstract terms. Waiters love to overcomplicate the description of things because they think it makes them sound smarter.

“Our Signature Dish” – The notion that chefs must have “Signature Dishes” has stifled creativity in restaurant kitchens. In the era of social media, groupthink has homogenized the way people order and waitstaff couching its recommendations around what is popular reinforces these bad habits.

If Your Waiter Could Yelp About You

Let me start by saying I never Yelp about my guests. Ive been working at this restaurant for a long time—WAY before you read about it on Yelp—and most people consider me an excellent waiter. I get great reviews all the time, so I can only assume since you were such a problem when I waited on your table last Friday night that there must be something lacking on your end.

First of all, your Open Table guest notes said you were a VIP. I guess maybe my expectations of you were a little too high from the beginning. The minute I approached the table I knew it was going to be a long night.

“Welcome to the restaurant,” I said cheerfully. You didn’t answer. I set the wine list on the table in front of you but you were too busy on your iPhone to bother acknowledging me. It’s obvious that impressing your friends on Instagram with still life portraits of napkins and cutlery is more important than considering the menu. 

“Can I bring you something—”

“Tap water no ice,” you interjected dismissively, “and some bread right away.”

I guess this must be how Open Table VIPs act, I thought to myself. After I poured the water, you ordered a Casamigos Margarita and asked if the bartender could make it with agave nectar. Does this look like a Mexican restaurant? Sorry, señor.

“Fine, fine, fine, just NO sugar. I’m Paleo,” you said.

Your friends at the table must’ve been really impressed by your story of how you saw George Clooney in an elevator once in Beverly Hills. I wasn’t. Even George knows Casamigos is total basura. Why do you think he sold the brand? Maybe you should go back to Cocktail School and learn how to order a proper drink. 

Like clockwork, you start waving me over like you were hailing a cab after I already checked in with you five times to see if you were ready. Of course, NOW you’re in a hurry and need to order RIGHT AWAY. Maybe if you tell me one more time that you have Hamilton tickets I’ll feel a greater sense of urgency. Probably not, though, because I’ll be too busy in the service station ridiculing you to my colleagues. I told them you must have given all your money to Lin-Manuel Miranda because you obviously don’t have the funds to order a proper two-course meal.

When your food arrived, it must’ve looked like I was enjoying standing there waiting for you to move your iPhone while I tried to serve your Abalone Crudo. It was hard to fight the urge to tell you right then and there that you pronounced Abalone wrong when you ordered it. It was obvious to me that you thought you were ordering Tuna. That’s Albacore, Einstein. 

When I finished putting your plates down, I couldn’t believe you had the nerve to ask if I could divide your salad too? Do I look like your mommy? You want me to cut your food into tiny pieces and spoon feed you little bites while I make roller coaster and airplane noises? Don’t be such a baby. Use the serving utensils we gave you like everyone else. This is a fine dining restaurant, not hospice care.

Someone should petition Open Table to revoke your VIP status. There are so many diners better than you. Even that guy with the bad hairpiece and the emotional support animal who always sits alone on Table 42 and drinks Beaujolais puts you to shame. He comes in all the time—ten times the VIP you’ll ever be. Do you hear me, Open Table?

After all that, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when the busboy cleared your table and you asked me to bring you a toothpick. You seriously can’t wait until you leave to grab one at the door on the way out? I’m sure your dining companions got a real kick out of watching you pick your teeth while they considered the dessert options. Real classy. Of course they declined dessert because the sight of you poking and prodding your gumline doesn’t exactly scream “Hey… Let’s have a slice of Key Lime Pie!!”

The highlight of waiting on you was delivering the check. Obviously, you never asked me for it, but I dropped it anyway. I figured you were inconsiderate of me all night so it only made sense that I return the favor. Your ten percent tip was just the icing on the cake. Maybe if you tipped respectably, I might not have resorted to shaming you on Yelp.

Oh… and just in case you thought I didn’t see it, I’ve already read the salacious one-star review you posted about your experience and I have two words for you: Fake News. Your “alternative ending” was worthy of an episode of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Honestly, I can sleep at night knowing that the odds of your ever sitting in my section again in this restaurant (or in any other restaurant that could potentially employ me in the future) are slim to none. If it was up to me, you would never be allowed back into this restaurant again—unless maybe you’re ordering take out.