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Opinion

Chefs: Stop Naming Restaurants After Yourselves

I was scrolling social media recently when I came across a post about a new restaurant I’d never heard of in San Francisco called Eight Tables by George Chen. I almost laughed out loud because the restaurant’s name sounded more like a cologne or a line of home furnishings than a place to have dinner. The food looked amazing, but I couldn’t get past the absurdity of the name, and the statement it makes, whether intentionally or not, about George Chen, the restaurant’s prefect of tables and, I presume, its chef.

The arc of progress is slow, and it would seem that society hasn’t quite fully moved on from branding chefs in the way we so often do musicians, athletes, artists, and fashion icons. Restaurants have become powerful engines for profit. Look no further than the major acquisitions of several restaurant reservation services, like Resy by American Express and Tock by Squarespace. JP Morgan, the investment bank, raised eyebrows recently when it bought Infatuation—the once upstart food blog that also includes the pioneering restaurant guide, Zagat—for an undisclosed sum. These large corporations recognize that partnerships with high-profile chefs can be a conduit for providing unique culinary experiences to status-hungry, affluent clientele. They also understand that the bulk of the profits they reap from these acquisitions will be made outside the restaurants not in them.

Cooking shows turned a chef’s name and image into promotional tools. Reality TV then took it a step further by transforming the kitchen into a gladiator arena—Iron Chef, Top Chef, Master Chef, Chopped. The spectacle of charismatic chefs jousting could be leveraged to unlock unlimited commercial opportunities—jarred tomato sauces, ready-to-eat frozen meals, spice rubs, bronze-clad cookware, donkey sauce.

Where chefs once insisted on end-to-end control over new projects, licensing agreements became more common. Chefs began to monetize their names by associating themselves with satellite restaurants overseas or shilling for third-party products. High-end hotels have become like sugar daddies, generously fronting money to help young chefs widen their footprints without assuming any added financial risk. But, in exchange, these chefs often forfeit integrity to become marketing tools hotels use to keep their rooms full. The hotels are only paying for the chef’s name, they could care less about the food.

Naming restaurants - Joel Robuchon

The late chef Joël Robuchon in front of his eponymous restaurant at the MGM Grand.

Eponymous restaurants may have once been trendy in the fine dining world, but the public has grown weary of attention-seeking male chefs swinging their dicks around. Restaurants named for famous chefs feel increasingly anachronistic: Jean-Georges, Daniel, Robuchon, Ducasse. It isn’t only a habit of Michelin-starred French chefs. There’s Nobu, Masa, Narisawa, Gaggan, Martin Berasategui, Tim Raue, Günter Seeger. It’s mostly dudes, but female chefs are guilty of it, too: Restaurant Hélène Darroze, Core by Clare Smyth, Raan Jay Fai, Anne-Sophie Pic.

If we peel away the layers of the restaurant industry’s systemic problems, the egoism of chefs is still one of the most corrosive forces. The decision by chefs to name restaurants after themselves sends a subconscious message to the rest of the team that their work is about boosting the chef’s profile and not the restaurant’s.

Naming a restaurant is a personal decision, but naming it after yourself is a selfish one, according to Top Chef alum Lee Anne Wong, the owner of Koko Head Cafe in Oahu and the culinary director of Papa’aina in Maui. She names her properties carefully to reflect their purpose in the places they serve.

“Restaurants should be about food and the culture,” Chef Wong told me, “not about one person who built their wealth on the backs of everyone else.” Koko Head is the name of crater on the East Side of Oahu popular with climbers, and Papa’aina translates to “eating table” in local Hawaiian language.

Chef Eric Rivera in Seattle chose to name his restaurant Addo, which means “inspire” in Latin. “I wanted it to stand on its own whether it was me at the helm or not,” Rivera said. “Evolving over a period of time and starting with humble beginnings, Addo is still growing and changing all the time. This is something that I wanted it to be known for, not me.”

Rivera has been consistently outspoken on social media about chefs who use their platform to promote themselves instead of recognizing the contributions of their teams. “The restaurant is a product of the employees, guests, and things going on outside of it,” he added. Rivera seems to take his responsibility as a shepherd more seriously than he does his role as a chef. “I’m just there to make sure it can all go forward.”

Chef Preeti Mistry, a cookbook author and former chef/owner of Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, is torn about the issue of chefs naming restaurants after themselves. “My experience with a lot of women chefs that name their places after themselves is that they regret it,” Mistry said. “They become THE [restaurant name] and it feels a bit overwhelming if they’re not the types that love the limelight.”

Preeti Mistry is troubled by male chefs who name their restaurants after women.

It bothers Mistry more when male chefs name their restaurants after women and use the name to advance their own careers. “Male chefs give their places feminine names to make them seem more ‘attractive and inviting,’” Mistry said. “You go to a restaurant with a woman’s name, and it turns out the restaurant is run by all men. And their reasoning is: ‘Oh, it’s my grandma’s name.’”

“Back in the early ‘00s, I remember a cook in London who told me he was going to name his little meat pie shop: Molly’s Pies,” she recalled, “I asked him why Molly? He said because nobody wants to buy Jimbo’s Pies.”

Mistry’s new podcast “Loading Dock Talks” frequently tackles themes related to the exploitation of women and BIPOC chefs in the restaurant industry. “I think it’s very disingenuous—using their male privilege to get ahead and then using a woman’s name to make their business seem more appealing with no real effort to uplift women beyond “mascot” or objectification.”

I vividly remember attending a staff meeting years ago where the well-known chef/owner told everyone ‘It’s my name on the sign outside, so everything that we serve here ultimately reflects on me and my family name.’ At first, I admired his sense of pride and accountability. But upon reflection, I realized he was being selfish in centering himself in a conversation about collective excellence. Expecting the staff to take pride in its work is one thing, but a staff’s primary concern should never be about edifying one chef’s reputation.

This chef-centric approach may be unsustainable as the restaurant industry evolves to be more inclusive and more accountable. The pandemic has taught many chefs hard lessons about retention as they struggle to recruit staff and repair frayed relationships with furloughed employees. For chefs today, having a devoted team is more important than ever. Earning that devotion has become increasingly more difficult, and raising wages by a dollar or two likely isn’t enough to move the needle. In a post-pandemic world, restaurant professionals want appreciation, and the old ways of sacrificing their well-being for a paycheck are over. As the industry rebuilds, the message to chefs with big egos is clear: It’s not about you anymore. Name your restaurants accordingly.


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Opinion

Restaurants Need To Stop “Killing With Kindness”

Talking back to guests is a cardinal sin in the service industry. Even in the face of the most meritless grievances, we’re trained to show deference. We’re taught to “kill them with kindness,” no matter how entitled they behave or how ungrateful they may be of our accommodation. But no one ever explains why the aggrieved parties need to “die” at the hands of our elevated concern, or why this bloodless, psychological warfare always inflicts more damage on the servers than the served. Our silence always hides the pain.

It’s arguably the hardest part of the job: You’re required to be nice to people who don’t deserve it. Kitchen staff notoriously resent servers for making more money, but most cooks still relish in never having to interact face-to-face with slovenly guests. By definition, front-of-house are pacifists. “It comes with the territory,” they’ll say—imperialist territory settled long ago where working class people are powerless to defend themselves against the privileged.

These social constructs—rooted in colonialism, misogyny, and racism—have always plagued service jobs, making it unacceptable for a server to challenge a paying guest’s authority. One thing that will never change about restaurant work: If you’re unable to remain stoic in the face of disrespectful guests, then your employment in the service industry is untenable. That’s just a fact.

I’ve written about these kerfuffles before—including one story where I followed a table of businessman outside of the restaurant after they didn’t tip me. Over the course of two hours, I’d guided them through the menu and offered erudite recommendations; service was seamless. When I dropped the check, they asked me to summon the attractive young hostess at the door (their words) to minister their game of credit card roulette, where everyone puts their credit cards into a pile, and someone selects one at random to pay the check. “I’m the guy to talk to about bringing food and drinks not pretty girls,” I joked awkwardly. They continued to press the issue, and I refused to be complicit. They left unhappy, feeling spurned, because I wasn’t willing to play along with their silly game and decided unanimously to leave me no tip on an $800 dollar check, split evenly on four corporate cards.

Killing-With-Kindness

I decided to speak up for myself, something I was trained not to do. When I confronted them on the street, I asked if they were disappointed with my service. They said yes. I asked if it was because I didn’t summon the pretty hostess for them. Yes again. I told them I found it offensive that they thought brokering female attention was part of my job. They grumbled off and climbed into their Uber black car. I stood on the street, still without a tip, but feeling like at least I’d recovered some shred of dignity.

As expected, my manger’s primary concern was how the owner would react to news of a staff member offending guests by questioning a tip, no concern about the fact that his staff had been disrespected. Difficult guests are always treated like collateral damage, like statistical outliers that must be tolerated regardless of the extent of the damage they inflict. People are dicks, and sometimes the dicks sit in your section.

What I’ve learned through these confrontations—the majority of which I’ve walked away from peacefully—is that some guests enjoy taking advantage of a tipped worker’s impotence when it comes to questioning authority. I vividly remember another protracted argument with a guest who insisted that his well done filet mignon should have been juicier. After delivering an impassioned dissertation on how to properly cook a well done steak, he demanded that the chef come to the table to examine his arid beef, as if the chef had nothing better to do in the middle of service than attend his Masterclass on meat temperatures.

When a situation spirals out of control, the server is expected to call for managerial support. It’s something that’s never settled right with me about resolving conflict in restaurants. Why should waiters have to run and tell mommy and daddy every time a guest mistreats them? Bullies exploit their victims’ weaknesses, and they don’t respect tattletales. Restaurant staff are trained that the moment you lose your cool, you’ve let the guest win. But what if we didn’t think about it in terms of winning or losing but instead as a matter of dignity over degradation? There is no honor in allowing people to disrespect you.

The evolution of this hospitality dogma, rooted in unicorn ideology like the “enlightened” brand peddled by the Danny Meyer School and its disciples, equates service with salvation. But restaurants exist in a different world today, and continuing to obsess about making every guest experience “soigné” is not only unrealistic, but it’s also taking its toll on the mental health of our workforce. Too many restaurants allow themselves to be held hostage by their own piety.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, we need to shift toward a more mindful paradigm of what defines great service, one that values the well-being of the people providing it as much as it does the guest experience. This necessitates a more authoritative approach toward policing guests’ behavior, like enforcing masking or vaccination mandates, for example. The industry should normalize staff speaking up for themselves calmly and constructively, even when guest interactions become turbulent. Killing these guests with kindness only incentivizes bad behavior.

Every restaurant has a handful of difficult guests, serial perpetrators of mischief that are universally reviled; they send food back, complain about the music, make absurd requests of the kitchen, and condescend to the staff. Even when those people are repeatedly untoward, management will still decide that accommodating them is worth the anguish its causes the staff every time they visit.

If management refused to accommodate unappreciative or abusive guests, it would send a strong message to the staff that it needn’t be a punching bag for inconsiderate customers. Sadly, workers are more often treated like children by management, in the same way that some parents never let their children speak for themselves. Restaurant owners have historically regarded staff welfare as a secondary concern. If a staff member offends someone by speaking up for him or herself, management is more likely to punish that employee than audit the conduct of the guest.

This past year has been filled with epiphanies, but one I’ve had recently is that we need to start empowering restaurant workers to resolve their own conflicts with guests, management, and even owners. Working in a restaurant shouldn’t necessitate powerlessness. Staff are expected never to criticize the owners, even when they institute unfair policies or treat staff inhumanely. We can never engage in confrontation with guests, even if provoked. Silence is part of the job. But maybe that explains, at least in part, why the industry is having trouble recruiting staff. A year of autonomy has made a lot of people reconsider whether the terms of working in a restaurant are agreeable anymore. Many of us have determined we’d rather work in an environment where we don’t feel bridled, where we can comfortably speak up ourselves, and where kindness doesn’t involve having to kill anyone.


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