Categories
Restaurant Life

Breaking Up With The Restaurant Industry Is Hard To Do

The millions of us who’ve lost restaurant jobs because of the pandemic are feeling unloved. With Valentine’s Day approaching, any amorous thoughts we have about rekindling with our ex-employers are tempered by the heartache of having been dumped by an industry that never truly loved us. The more time we’ve invested in this tumultuous yet committed relationship—in my case, twenty long years—the more the break up stings.

First you think to yourself, I should’ve seen it coming. But how could you have known? You were too busy working all the time—we all were—religiously prioritizing the needs of the restaurant above our own. Now you feel confused. Lost. You blame yourself. As time passes, you start to feel cheated. 

You remind yourself that you don’t really miss restaurants, you just miss the “idea” of them. Your friends tell you it’s time to start seeing other industries. You deserve better, they tell you. But it still hurts that restaurants could so easily dispose of you when it seemed like what you had meant something.

You promise yourself you won’t get back together after everything that’s happened, but you know you’re not strong enough to resist their worldly charms. The flexible schedule. The adrenaline of the dinner rush. The money. You know the restaurant industry will welcome you with a warm embrace, like you’re the only person who does your job so well. But within days you feel like a piece of meat again. No matter how hard you try to make it work with restaurants, they’ll never respect you.

The sense of abandonment many of us feel is a sobering reminder of how little value our deep knowledge of the culinary arts has when we have nowhere to display it. It’s like being a pastor without a church or a congregation to bear witness. We’ve dedicated our adult lives to facilitating joy for others, delivering multitudes of hedonistic pleasures to complete strangers. In our time of need, shouldn’t it be our turn to be on the receiving end of the generosity?

Restaurant-Industry

Charles Prusik, a veteran of the restaurant industry in New York City, considered this question in an essay he published recently on Medium. In it, he questions whether true hospitality can exist in a world where accommodation is increasingly transactional. He writes:

“Here, I think, is the lie, the myth, at the heart of any restaurant that is the source of so much tension and strain between us restaurant employees and you, our guests: that when you visit our restaurant, you should expect the very same treatment as if we were welcoming you into our home. It’s a myth we’ve been perpetuating, perhaps with good intentions, but where it’s gotten us is an increasingly untenable position. Sure, some of us put in so many hours that it does seem like we live at the restaurant, but it is in every meaningful way clearly NOT our home. It’s our job. And while you are our guests, the transaction, the exchange, the social compact that we have entered into is something entirely different. Since you are not visiting us at our home, you cannot in any way return the favor.”

In most capitalist societies, it’s not unusual for people to be treated like they’re worthless at work. But in restaurants, daily reminders of your expendability have become accepted as the norm. Entitled guests, insolent chefs, and petulant managers often derive sadistic joy from belittling hourly workers. A restaurant paycheck, no matter how ample, rarely provides the necessary salve for injured egos.

But to be waylaid in the midst of a global pandemic? It’s the ultimate dispersion. For some, it’s a reality check. Sometimes you can’t see the writing on the wall until you run right into it. The disruption caused by the pandemic may portend a more widespread reckoning, a pivotal moment in the viability of hospitality work as a legitimate career. The restaurant industry seems underprepared for the inevitable depletion of its human resources. 

In his essay, Prusik tries to get at the heart of why the industry’s collapse will be so difficult to repair. Behind the walls of our restaurants, he writes, we describe the way a restaurant functions using mechanical terms that connote manufacturing, but, in reality, the organism is more anthropomorphic.

“We say things like “The kitchen was firing on all cylinders,” “Thanks for pumping out those drinks for me,” or “Man, we’re really crushing it this week and it’s not even Thursday.” The trouble with that analogy lies in this — when machines break down, everything grinds to a halt until you fix the problem — change the stripped gear, clean the oil filter, add more gas. Restaurants don’t have that luxury. They’re less like machines and more like the human body—an endlessly complex and incredible feat of engineering that begins to break down from the moment it is created.”

Prusik reminds us that the public has taken the restaurant industry for granted for too long. We’re all complicit in this failure. He punctuates this assertion with a simple but apt analogy: 

“The last twenty years were the equivalent of a twelve course chef’s tasting menu with pairings and a trip to the wine cellar for brandy and cigars after dessert, and you just stiffed us on the bill.”

The restaurant economy was stagnating before the pandemic. COVID-19 put it on a ventilator. Many prognosticators expect that pent up demand will slingshot the business forward into a “Roaring Twenties” scenario akin to the euphoric aftermath of the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918. But this ignores some of the basic realities that today’s restaurants face when it comes to growth.

It’s impossible for restaurants to multiply last year’s sales unless they can find a way to multiply the amount of chairs and tables in their dining room. Restaurant space is finite (and oppressively expensive), which means that growth can only come from volume—faster service, tighter reservation intervals, and operational efficiency. Perfunctory service isn’t just about profitability, it’s become integral to our ability to survive.

Restaurants that manage to survive will be forced to implement austerity measures that are likely to take a severe toll on the staff. The lowest paid positions will be expected to make the biggest sacrifices. If any staff members dare to complain, they’ll be reminded how lucky they are to have their jobs back.

For those who’ve spent years working in restaurants, it’s getting harder to hide the bruises. How can we love working in an industry that doesn’t love us back? The endless cycle of bad restaurant relationships erodes our self-worth. But victims of abuse can also reach a breaking point where they realize it isn’t worth the suffering. They find the inner strength to move on.

This is the precipice many restaurants workers are arriving at now. We’ve known all along that restaurants never really loved us for our minds, they only lusted for our bodies. But the sex was never really that good, administering hospitality just one giant fake orgasm after another. So as the restaurant industry digs itself out of the rubble and reaches out to former staff to “patch things up,” it may find that more than a few of its former lovers won’t be returning the phone calls anytime soon.


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Categories
Opinion

Pete Wells Should Step Down As NYT Restaurant Critic

The New York Times has stood as the standard bearer for food writing since Craig Claiborne took on the mantle of restaurant critic for the newspaper in 1957. In the ensuing years, the Times critic became a kingmaker—as restaurants boomed so did the critic’s power and influence. New York Times restaurant critics are revered like monarchs, an exclusive fraternity that is mostly male and entirely white.

Influential and iconic women like Ruth Reichl and Mimi Sheraton have graced the pages of the Dining section, but their tenures are dwarfed by the litany of men who’ve served since Claiborne, among them Bryan Miller, Frank Bruni, William Grimes, Sam Sifton, Pete Wells, and others. A person of color has never occupied the food critic’s chair in the history of the New York Times.

It’s long past time for that to change.

As the restaurant industry confronts the sins of its past, the food media struggles to come to terms with its role as an enabler. The Times’ standing as a culinary ombudsman—a chronicler of the intersection of food and culture—feels less surefooted in recent years. While other big city papers like the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have deepened their commitment to diversity by adding critics like Patricia Escárcega and Soleil Ho, the Times has stayed the course.

Pete Wells
Craig Claiborne began reviewing restaurants regularly for the Times in 1961

Term limits for food critics make sense regardless of optics. No matter how good a writer is, the tyranny of one individual’s palate can be oppressive. But why would anyone willfully step down from one of the most prestigious jobs in media? After vacating the critic’s role, both William Grimes and Frank Bruni have continued their careers at the NYT in other capacities. Almost ten years at the helm, there must be a graceful exit strategy that would be mutually beneficial for Wells and his publishers.

In my two decades working in New York City restaurants, I can say, unequivocally, that a visit from the New York Times food critic is one of the most stressful experiences for a restaurant staff. Photos of Pete Wells are plastered on the kitchen walls of restaurants throughout the city to ensure that everyone, from the hostess to the dishwasher, will recognize him. His photo might as well be posted above the urinal in the employee bathroom, a constant reminder to everyone of his unilateral power.

Once a staff member identifies Wells (or any sitting critic), there are typically “code red” protocols that result in everything else going on in the restaurant grinding to a halt. Screwing up a random table can be remedied with giveaways, but mucking up Pete Wells’ meal would cause irreparable damage.

In his “Critic’s Notebook” this past week, Wells penned an essay arguing that restaurant workers deserve better treatment. His article cites a recent exposé on Eater written by Hannah Sellinger, a former employee of David Chang’s restaurant Momofuku Ko, that vilifies the work culture at Ko and alleges the staff fell victim to chronic abuse at the hands of Chef Chang. From the start, Wells tempers the impact of the damage, crediting Chang’s public admission of his abusive tendencies before these accusations came to light.

Aside from Sellinger’s dossier, Wells invests no time interviewing other victims that might have provided more texture to the dysfunction within Chang’s empire. He insists that guests deepen their concern for the people serving them, but in centering Chang’s redemption arc rather than the effects of his violence, Wells is guilty of the behavior he’s condemning. Without hearing from more of the victims, we’re left wondering if maybe the whole Momofuku situation wasn’t just blown out of proportion by overly-sensitive staff. It’s nothing new. All abused restaurant workers are accustomed to having their feelings dismissed by solipsistic chefs and megalomaniacal owners.

No matter how nasty Chang’s improprieties are, Wells insists on making him the protagonist of his own perversity, told in third person. “Until recently, when we heard stories like this,” Wells writes, “they were told by chefs. Screaming and pot-throwing were things they endured in their younger days, part of the dues they paid.” As a reader, we’re left waiting to hear Pete dish on the other side of the story, but his softball treatment of Chang makes him appear undeserving of a comeuppance.

Wells also ignores the duality that exists between critic and chef, having contributed like many others to the culture that glorifies “rockstar” chefs like Chang. Perpetuating the bad boy myth has added fuel to the fire. In the end, Wells’ essay feels like nothing more than pulling up the shades while it’s still dark outside.

New York City is a panoply of food cultures, and yet the Times only contextualizes its restaurants through a white lens. Are white critics better interpreters of how New Yorkers eat? Certainly not. It’s also safe to assume that blanketing food criticism in whiteness results in many non-Western flavors being misunderstood.

In 2018, the Times dispatched Tejal Rao to cover the emerging restaurant scene in Los Angeles. Wells rarely ventured beyond his jurisdiction but caused a stir the year before when he issued a scathing zero-star review to Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s fast casual chainlet, Locol.

Looking back on his review of Locol, Wells’ observations are condescending and look past the mission of the restaurant’s owners. Unimpressed with one of the restaurants $7 chili bowls, Wells writes, “Supermarkets sell canned chilis that are seasoned more persuasively.” For seven bucks, it seems like a stretch to expect food to be both delicious and persuasive. He praises the ambience within the space. “Before noon on a weekday,” he writes, “you could hear Snoop Dogg advertising the health-giving properties of gin and juice.” OK, boomer.

Compared to his fellow critics, Wells tries a little too hard to democratize fine dining. Although in a New Yorker profile from 2016, he described himself as “too comfortable in expensive restaurants to be a real populist.” Despite the job requiring him to evaluate so many fancy places, his body of work suggests he clearly prefers rustic over glamorous.

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William Grimes left his post as restaurant critic in 2003 but continues to write for the New York Times

In Wells’ defense, he has consistently brought attention to restaurants on the fringe and included certain marginalized cuisines in the conversation that were ignored by his predecessors. But he doesn’t approach it with the unadulterated joy of Jonathan Gold. He famously bristled about other tables receiving favorable treatment at Daniel while he was there to review it (he even sent in decoys to validate his theory). His decision to revoke a star seemed punitive and petty.

The same was true when he skewered the waitstaff of Per Se for neglecting to pick up and replace his guest’s fallen napkin. Whether intentional or not, his distaste for complacency in established restaurants often comes across as entitlement, or perhaps, if we look further beneath the surface, a symptom of white privilege. History suggests that white critics have a tendency to favor Eurocentric culinary traditions and anglicized hospitality standards.

Earlier this week, Korsha Wilson reported for the Times on the dearth of opportunities for female Black chefs in high-end restaurants. Though she doesn’t explicitly say so, it’s easy draw a direct line between the enduring whiteness of NYT critics and the barriers to proper recognition for Black chefs. Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation was forced to publicly confront discrimination in its annual awards, cancelling plans to broadcast this year’s event remotely after no Black chefs were among this year’s honorees.

In 2018, Chef Eduardo Jordan of June Baby in Seattle was the first Black chef in twenty years to receive a three-star review from the New York Times, issued by Wells. A Black chef has never been awarded four stars by any NYT food critic. With a few exceptions, every four-star review issued by the Times has been awarded to fine dining French restaurants or upscale American restaurants anchored in French technique.

Wells may share in the blame for these structural failures, but none of this should detract from his prowess as a writer nor his strength of character. But admiring him or his work doesn’t mean he’s the right person for the job at this moment in history.

A recent thread on Twitter by a close associate of Danny Bowien describes Wells’ relationship with the chef as too cozy to be objective. This is consistent with the chumminess with David Chang that’s described in Wells’ New Yorker profile. A truly incorruptible critic shouldn’t behave like a football referee giving the star player a friendly pat on the tush every time he makes a nice play.

The New York Times has a responsibility to its readers to reflect the diversity of the community. Providing resources to non-Caucasian food critics would likely broaden the culinary horizons of its audience and increase the likelihood that BIPOC chefs are properly recognized to attract potential investors.

The pandemic presents an opportunity for the perfect coda to Wells’ stewardship of the critic’s desk. He can walk away from the game like a decorated athlete in his prime. If he chooses to stay, it’s difficult to imagine that the calls for diversity will deafen over time. Leaving now would also make a bold statement that he recognizes how his own open-ended employment is an impediment to any diversity initiatives the NYT administration may implement now or in the future.

There is no shortage of qualified Black and Latinx candidates in food media worthy of a bigger platform. When the pandemic finally subsides, the public will need help navigating a dramatically altered dining landscape. The restaurant industry will need critics to be true advocates, not just sycophants for the Thomas Kellers, Eric Riperts, and Daniel Bouluds of the world. There couldn’t be a better time for Pete Wells to relinquish his seat. Yes, even the New York Times needs to turn tables.


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