Restaurant Life

Is There Life After Restaurants?

I’ve worked in restaurants longer than Tom Brady’s played professional football. I’ve certainly contemplated retirement over the years more seriously than Brady, but now we’re both retired (Update: Tom already un-retired). I can remember countless conversations with coworkers exchanging fantasies about getting out of the industry. Restaurant work is quicksand for some of us, and a resume with only restaurant experience can make it challenging to liberate yourself.

For the greater part of two decades, I’ve tried desperately to nurture my creative self while soldiering through the grind of putting food and drinks on strangers’ tables. Working full-time in a restaurant, even when it was lucrative, has often deflated these ambitions.

I could never have predicted my restaurant career would end in forced retirement. The pandemic cost me my job, but I was already feeling disenfranchised from the industry. Like many others, my time away from restaurant work over the past two years—however impoverishing—has restored my sanity. As a newly sane person, I could never return to working in restaurants if it means accepting the old onerous terms.

Is there life After Restaurants?

While it’s hard to blame every owner for mass lay-offs, the relationships that many service industry professionals had with their former employers were already tenuous before we were let go. It was almost comical that we were expected to return to our jobs no questions asked after being disposed of so unceremoniously. The “nobody wants to work anymore” narrative trumpeted on financial news and political media was a fabrication promulgated by greedy owners. Most of us would’ve returned to our jobs if there’d been sufficient outreach by our former employers. The longer the pandemic lingered, the harder it became to plan our lives around an uncertain return.

I do miss parts of the job. The adrenaline rush of a busy restaurant is invigorating. Early on in the pandemic, I experienced debilitating fatigue everyday around 4-5 pm, the time an average dinner shift would’ve started. My internal clock was conditioned to slam an espresso and gird my loins for a hectic night. Now my engine is kaput, and I feel like taking naps every evening. As someone who once thrived on the chaos, my featureless life now is both pathetic and wonderful.

Kitchen staff often describe the rapture of being in the weeds. Most cooks prefer busy over slow; they’d rather work harder and faster than languish behind the line. Battling through the elements and weathering the storm is how cooks earn their stripes. It can become addicting. Restaurant people need constant stimulation to stay fueled. We thrive off the kinetic energy.

I miss the camaraderie of a staff, the sense of common purpose. The way it forces you to never be lonely. Restaurant work teaches you to coexist and be productive with people even when you have nothing in common. You forge deep bonds through shared endurance. Even when team members despise each other, they still have each other’s backs when the first table is seated. We put our vendettas aside in service of a smooth and lucrative shift.

What I don’t miss? Having to overcompensate for the gracelessness of guests. A party that’s impossible to please—whether they’re sending food back, complaining about the music, or demanding a different table—always makes it harder to keep the deserving people happy. I’ve so often struggled to adequately care for a full section of tables because one group among them is behaving boorishly. The apprehensiveness toward enforcing common decency makes staff unduly timid, especially in fine dining settings where entitled guests think that spending exorbitant sums excuses lack of social graces.

Restaurants focus on miscues because they strive for perfection. But if failures are scrutinized, successes must also be celebrated. Sadly, praise is scant. A restaurant staff is too often judged by its least satisfied customers, when the least satisfied people in your restaurant are often the most miserable people to begin with. It’s ridiculous to expect a staff of trained hospitality professionals to shoulder the burden of other people’s misery. Under constant duress and unable to rebuke ornery guests, a restaurant staff often takes out its frustration on each other.

Two years into a once-in-a-generation public health crisis, the job has never been more difficult. Even before the masks and vaccine checks, making people happy was already more challenging than ever. Great hospitality is to welcome people and show them a good time, not to counteract their proclivity for disliking things, including masks and vaccines. I’ve taken care of so many tables in my career where I’m certain that nothing I or my teammates could’ve done would’ve made them happy. Nothing. Many of us learn to predict the meritless complaints before they happen, but that doesn’t always mean we can forgive ourselves when guests leave disappointed. The industry needs to change this mindset.

Leaving restaurants has made me have second thoughts about its existential purpose. Especially the fine dining sector which has become an oligarchy, contributing virtually nothing to society other than to make affluent people feel more important than they are. The pandemic has put a chokehold on independent restaurant businesses, and the public seems ambivalent to the casualties piling up, including treasured fixtures of their communities. It speaks to how desensitized we’ve become to the decay in the dining landscape and to how much our appreciation for great restaurants has eroded over the years. The idea of a “ghost kitchen” alone should be Freddy Kruger-style horrifying, but it isn’t because we’ve spent years becoming further and further removed from the people that cook our our food.

We’ve become more selfish patrons, approaching restaurant visits as pure hedonism. But restaurants don’t exist purely to please us. They stand as pillars of the community—no different than churches, schools, and park districts. But so little is expected of restaurant customers besides their money. Our relationship with restaurants has become increasingly platonic, leaving businesses feeling unsupported and struggling for survival. As a restaurant owner, if you pivot your business enough times, you end up going around in a circle. Meanwhile, restaurant food has become just another convenience like dropping off the dry cleaning or hiring a dog-walker.

This is why I can’t participate anymore. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how much the social fabric of our communities is torn when we lose access restaurants. Absence should make the heart grow fonder. But it hasn’t. Independent restaurants are closing at alarming rates, Congress is still dragging its feet on desperately needed aid, and the market caps of multinational restaurant companies like the parents of Applebee’s and Olive Garden are trading at all time highs. Is this the dystopian future people want? I honestly have no idea who these people are, but I definitely know I don’t want to serve them anymore.

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Tom Colicchio Wants To Serve You Pizza In The Metaverse

If you had Tom Colicchio hawking NFT pizzas on your 2021 bingo card, let me be the first to congratulate you. Chefs endorsing products is hardly new, but historically they tend to promote legacy brands, copper-clad cookware or trusted names in kitchen appliances, over more speculative commodities. A chef without a reputation is just a cook. What does that make a chef who cooks virtual food?

Throughout his career, Colicchio has a distinguished track record of charitable giving and activism, but he certainly hasn’t shied away from opportunities to profit from his likeness since Bravo’s Top Chef, now in its 18th season, hit the airwaves. He pops up on my Facebook feed regularly shilling for a line of frozen prepared foods from a company called Ipsa.

Through his work with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which he co-founded, Colicchio’s played an active role in mobilizing federal support for restaurants impacted by the pandemic. In that time, he’s worked closely with politicians like Chuck Schumer to bring awareness to the plight of the restaurant industry and used his platform to advocate policy changes that help struggling small businesses.

But his battle cries for independent restaurants have gone silent lately and curiously replaced with techno-babble designed to appeal to crypto investors and NFT collectors. Ahead of launching a business venture called CHFTY Pizzas with former Top Chef contestant Spike Mendlesohn, Colicchio’s been using his Twitter feed to convey (what he would like us to believe is) a budding interest in NFTs.

What’s unclear is who convinced Tom to sacrifice his reputation to stump for NFTs, and how much they’re paying him to join the crusade. Also, why would he be so willingly to slough off his reputation, built over years going back to his days at Gramercy Tavern to peddle potentially worthless crypto-paraphernalia? The simple answer is money. Colicchio will eventually abdicate his throne on Top Chef and bass-fish away his remaining years on the North Fork of Long Island somewhere. Is this NFT hustle his Ocean’s Eleven? One last big con before he hangs up his cleaver for good?

These days, PR and digital marketing are clever when it comes to concealing the commercial interests of their spokespeople, blurring the lines between endorsers and influencers. This makes it more difficult to detect whether someone is being paid to promote a product or paid to pretend they value the product organically to influence consumer behavior without the nuisance of a traditional advertisement. The latter requires a credible backstory to make it more potable. In this case, Colicchio was deliberate in announcing his NFT venture after weeks of calculated hash-tagging and tweeting about the potential of NFTs to avoid arousing any suspicion. The food media barely noticed until his silly crypto pizzas started popping out of the oven.

Even in the most flattering light, it’s impossible to see Colicchio’s interest in NFTs as anything other than a new revenue stream for Tom, Inc.. To be fair, that doesn’t make him any more evil than, say, the Winklevii, Gary Vaynerchuck, or Beeple either. He has a right put his name on whatever products he pleases, whether it’s a physical spatula or a spatula in the metaverse.

But skepticism is warranted about the staying power of NFTs given the sheer number of unicorn investments that have swooned and crashed in the Digital Age. Markets have become increasingly manic as euphoria overrides reason, exacerbated by rapidly advancing technology—the “flash crash,” Reddit trader mobs, meme trades, and the countless pump-and-dump schemes with dubious alt-coins like Dogecoin.

Early adopters of cryptocurrency have certainly been rewarded for their faith, but does anyone truly believe that Shiba Inu coins or Crypto Punk NFTs are a more stable long-term investment than shares of established tech companies like Amazon or Google? Bitcoin plummeted nearly $10,000 USD in one hour last weekend, and, despite its meteoric rise, it’s still one of the most fragile places to park your money.

The soaring value of crypto is driven more by FOMO than fundamentals and, like most other flimsy get-rich schemes, the harder they come, the harder they fall. The banker bros driving the boat always find a way to jump ship with bags full of money when the hull collapses while everyone else drowns.

Success in the crypto space is predicated on shoving coals into the blockchain fireplace to keep the flame blazing hot. Any signs of smolder can bring down the whole house of cards, potentially creating the biggest Black Swan event the financial world has ever seen. Most crypto bulls and NFT wonks understand this risk and work tirelessly to keep the hype train rolling. They have to, most of them are pot-committed.

There may be genuine merit in leveraging the blockchain for restaurant-related operations like protecting a chef’s intellectual property, ticketing events, cultivating unique culinary experiences, or even payment processing. But using the technology to convince people that digital pizzas are valuable is low-hanging fruit.

The pandemic has spurred deep introspection within the industry about how we should define a chef’s work. There are role models emerging everywhere—like Paola Velez who founded Bakers Against Racism, Edward Lee who started the Lee Initiative to empower BIPOC restaurant workers, and José Andres who’s traversed the globe with his World Central Kitchen feeding communities devastated by natural disasters. The collective soul searching has led to an industry-wide audit, with chefs and restaurateurs placing greater emphasis on fostering healthier workplaces, engendering diversity, and sustaining more ethical business practices.

At this precipice, the restaurant industry needs reliable ambassadors, not snake oil salesmen. Colicchio’s conduct, however benign, undermines the serious work of other chefs. It’s akin to sports heroes behaving in a way that’s “bad for the game.” This assessment is, of course, subjective, but we all have a right to call out chefs for doing things we feel reflect poorly on our industry. From my vantage point, hoodwinking people into buying pizza-themed NFTs is predatory. Based on the response so far, if this is the future of cheffing, a whole lot of people are telling Tom to pack his knives and go.

Aside from his leadership role with the IRC, Colicchio was just recently appointed to the incoming New York City mayor Eric Adams’s food policy transition team as a contributor. Is someone who spends his days convincing his nearly one million Twitter followers to invest in pizza cartoons really the best choice to be a food policy advisor in one of the largest cities in the world? A city where many of its residents can’t afford actual food and whose communities are often victimized by the irresponsible energy consumption that trafficking NFTs propagates?

Chefs are rarely consulted on food policy issues, so when they are we should expect them to give their undivided attention. At the very least, they need to be cognizant of how their personal business decisions reflect on the food and beverage industry as a whole. Of course, times are changing. Chefs must learn to evolve, too, without fear of implementing new technologies or embracing change that will lead the industry forward. But unless you’re floating around in the metaverse, Tom Colicchio dishing out slices of virtual pizza to his adoring fans is nothing more than empty calories.

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