Restaurant Life

The (Few) Things I Miss About Working In Restaurants

I had a server recently who had such virtuoso command of the table, such mastery of her craft, that I could only sit back and admire her skill. She greeted us with the perfectly calibrated balance of cheerfulness and poise, recited specials eloquently, answered menu questions with aplomb, and recommended featured cocktails—including a selection of “adult slushies,” so convincingly that I ordered one as if I’d been hypnotized. I wasn’t the slightest bit embarrassed as I slurped down something that tasted like a sugary, guava-tinged frosé.

While under this waiter’s spell, a perverse thought crossed my mind. She floated by the table again to check back on our entrees, and I found myself daydreaming about her corralling a table of feral guests and hogtying them with a stealthily sadistic charm. Even the most rabid patrons would be no match for such a competent and confident server. I couldn’t stop thinking about how thrilling it would be to see her dog-walk rude or entitled people.

That was always one of my favorite things to do with troublemakers when I waited tables. There’s a special joy you get waiting on unruly guests—when you so skillfully conceal your contempt that they can only marvel at how warm and hospitable you are. I miss being so damn good at my job that no one, not even the most ornery douchebag, could possibly knock me off my center. When you take those people’s money, the grift is euphoric.

Having had some time away from restaurant work now (I was a fine dining server for two decades), I would describe the healing process as very similar to going through a difficult breakup of a long-term relationship. In this case, it’s not totally clear who broke up with whom. The pandemic was a catalyst for our divorce, but it’s safe to say that neither of us really ever loved each other in the first place. We both put on a convincing act for over two decades—an exhausting marriage that probably should’ve ended years ago. I’m still not quite sure how we managed to stay together so long. I guess the sex was good, occasionally, and when it wasn’t, the money made up for it.

Most of the reasons I have for enjoying working in restaurants, however, have nothing to do with the work itself. I certainly don’t miss coming home smelling like grilled meat or having to launder my white shirts three times to get the random sauce stains out. There’s a special camaraderie among a restaurant staff that’s difficult to explain if you’ve never been a part of it. Even when those bonds are tenuous, they’re still much stronger than conventional workplaces where colleagues are quarantined behind their desks like windowless animal shelters. In restaurants, you work in open trenches like a soldiers in a platoon. It’s always us versus them, and we instinctively protect our tribe.

Working in restaurants

There’s an impermanence to working in restaurants which makes it more tolerable than other careers. Restaurant jobs are disposable—we try them on like outfits and get bored with them easily—although it’s become a far more serious profession in recent years. Unless you get sucked into management, most restaurant people aren’t looking for long-term relationships. When a restaurant wants a deeper commitment, we usually break up with them and hook up with another restaurant that’s willing to respect our need for space.

As glorious as life after restaurants has been for me at times—a recovering hospitality professional—I do miss some things about my restaurant career. I miss staff meals. No, not the food. It’s usually atrocious. I miss breaking bread with fellow staff every night, and how it fortifies the deep bonds we share. The staff meal table is where you learn about each others’ dreams and passions, stumbles and failures, relationship drama, or just work gossip. We call them “family meals” for a reason. It’s like having dinner with your adopted family every night. Love them or hate them, they’re your family.

That camaraderie carries over to the end of the night, which I also miss—the never-ending late night bar crawls, punctuated by round after round of drinks you buy for each other. The worst shift can always be ameliorated by a raucous night out with the staff—whether it’s cheap beers and pickle-backs or a full-fledged dinner that starts at 1am. We appreciate good food, and we aren’t afraid to treat ourselves when the moment is right. We’ll never feel guilty about blowing an entire night’s earnings with our mates after work.

I miss learning. Outsiders think working in restaurants is vocational, but the best restaurant jobs are academic—where restaurants function as universities of flavor that educate staff about food, wine, and spirits. Working in restaurants teaches you to respect good food. You’re exposed to wines of the world, craft cocktails, ingredients you’ve never heard of, and recipes that help you become a better home cook (and you don’t need to work in the kitchen of a restaurant to learn those lessons).

I hate to admit it, but there’s even a part of me that also misses the connection with a table of appreciative guests that value the knowledge and passion behind great service. The artificial nature of a server’s warmth can often inhibit this bond, but appreciative guests can always disarm disgruntled waiters. As much as disaffected guests would often ruin my night, a fun table could always enrich it.

My restaurant career wasn’t all glorious, of course. No one’s is. But it’s easy to look back and dwell on the most dreadful parts: coke-head managers, derelict owners, entitled patrons, and sore feet. But, at the end of the day, I know I could never have survived as long as I did unless there were many aspects to the job that thrilled me. Although I have no plans to rekindle my romance with restaurants any time soon, I can’t lie, I miss some of the fun times we had together.

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Current Events

At The James Beard Awards, Diverse Winners Stood Proudly

In 2004, I’m a little embarrassed to say, I went to the AVN Awards in Las Vegas. To those unfamiliar, it’s the Academy Awards of the porn industry. Yes, I said porn. Don’t judge. Though I’m certainly no novelist, I had an idea for a novel at the time that involved a road trip and a porn star, so I took a week off my restaurant job to find some inspiration on the road. I hopped on a dingy Greyhound bus with a notebook and traveled across the country, culminating with my walking the red carpet at the Porn Oscars. (Spoiler Alert: I still haven’t published a novel.)

The experience inside the auditorium at the AVNs was not at all what I expected. Though the categories were almost laughably raunchy and uncomfortably specific, no matter who won, the acceptance speeches almost always centered around the commitment to producing excellent work. The seriousness with which the winners spoke about the craft of working in adult entertainment left me feeling differently about pornographic films and the people who make them.

I thought of my trip to the AVNs this week when I attended the James Beard Awards at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Restaurants have also become a form of entertainment that requires an enormous amount of self-abasement from the people who perform in them—not all so different from porn, to be candid. (Full disclosure: I served on this year’s Awards committee for Restaurant and Chefs for the first time.) As a restaurant worker for two decades, I always feel at home in a room full of restaurant people but, on this particular night, it felt more like the room where it happened.

As an attendee, I’d like to share a few observations—independent of my work on the Awards Committee—because the feeling in the theater on Monday is something we should be working tirelessly to recreate going forward.

The talk on stage of improving our industry may not necessarily have been new, but the voices on stage certainly were. The years of the James Beard Awards marginalizing chefs of color gave many of these statements a nervy quality that felt like a pressured champagne bottle being uncorked with a quick rip. Notable chefs, like Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacao in Philadelphia who won for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic, delivered a portion or all of their acceptance speeches in languages other than English.

Martinez, who is openly undocumented and a champion for the rights of undocumented immigrants, spoke slowly and carefully about the immigrant labor that fuels restaurants across America. You didn’t need to understand a word of Spanish to follow her speech. Others, like Mashama Bailey, who won the national award for Oustanding Chef, highlighted the importance of diversity while being among the few women and chefs of color who had ever won a national Beard. “Today a little Black girl or a little Black boy can see themselves as a future Outstanding Chef,” Bailey told the audience.

James Beard Awards Winner Mashama Bailey
Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah accepts the award for Outstanding Chef

By the middle of the presentation, the elephant in the room was stampeding down the aisles, letting out piercing wails with its tusks rearing skyward. Alerts on our phones announced a tornado warning outside, borne from a fleeting but violent storm that seemed to come out of nowhere. Emergency notifications buzzed like angry locusts throughout the theater as the lights came down. The two events didn’t feel coincidental at all. A storm was brewing inside, too.

Despite the innumerable challenges of the past few years that have decimated the restaurant industry, winner after winner stood tall and spoke proudly of their perseverance. They stressed the importance of improving the work environment for their employees, addressing endemic abuse in the kitchen, acknowledging immigrant labor, and ameliorating longstanding racial and gender imbalances. 

What I saw, however imperfect (as all awards programs inherently are), points to the potential future of what culinary recognition can look like. In the past, I’ve been a vocal critic of the JBF Awards and have argued that the gratuitous pageantry undermines the important work of chefs by turning a supportive community into a competitive one.

But with a more mindful charter and the stewardship of a more diverse community of people committed to deliberating mindfully, medals should end up around more deserving necks. Chefs like Erick Williams of Virtue in Chicago, who spoke eloquently after winning the award for Best Chef: Great Lakes of the many great Black chefs before him that the James Beard Awards have ignored. “I didn’t get here of myself or by myself, “ Williams said, “I got here by way of my community, by way of my culture, by way of my family, by the way of many trailblazers that were looked over, that were discarded and that were discounted. That allowed me to have a path … and the confidence to produce food day in and day out that feeds the mind, heart, spirit, and soul.”

There were other moments that felt like unchartered waters. Robynne Maii, the chef of Fête in Oahu—who seemed to glide onto the stage wearing a woven crown like the goddess Athena—won for Outstanding Chef Northwest. It was Hawaii’s first win in the regional category in nineteen years.

Sean Sherman of Owamni in Minneapolis accepts the award for Best New Restaurant

Owamni, the community-minded Minneapolis restaurant that celebrates indigenous cuisine, took home the Award for Best New Restaurant against much bigger names from much bigger cities. The night wasn’t without white winners, of course, but—at least this year—their wins felt somewhat deflating. We were happy for them, but maybe not quite as happy. If there were any gatekeepers present, they were having trouble finding their gates.

Perhaps the exception was Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, who was awarded Outstanding Restaurateur. Bianco was emotional, as we all were. He stammered a bit, struggling to find the right words to describe how it felt to be a part of an industry he so deeply loves. “I started a pizzeria in 1988,” Bianco said, “I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing then, and I don’t know what I’m doing now. But what I do know is that I’m grateful.”

He welled up as he introduced a Black colleague who joined him onstage and explained how this gentleman had started working with him twenty-five years ago, eventually becoming a partner in the business. As Bianco left the stage, the two embraced, and you could feel the brotherhood, earned over two decades of blood, sweat, and tears. It didn’t really matter what color any of us in the audience were. We all wanted more of these stories, and it felt good to celebrate so many different flavors that we knew were all delicious.

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