Monday, April 30, 2007

George:"What is it that you do for a living, Newman?"

Newman:"I'm a United States Postal Worker"

George:"Aren't those the guys that always go crazy..."

Newman:"Sometimes...Because the mail never stops. It just keeps coming and coming and coming. There's never a letup. It's relentless. Every day it piles up more and more, but the more you get out, the more it keeps coming. And then the barcode reader breaks, and then it's Publisher's Clearinghouse Day..."

"I'm not saying it's right...but I understand..."--Chris Rock

A day in the life...part 2

4:00pm--a quick drive home and change of clothes leaves me with roughly 40 minutes of cherished solitude. As the restaurant is closed to the public and I plan to be back by 5pm, emergency possibilities are limited and I leave my cell phone in the car. Now, I am not a huge fan of TV as a rule, but it does come in handy during these mid-afternoon breaks [when I get them] and in the dead of night when I am home and trying to block out the horrors of the evening just ended. Obviously, however, these aren't exactly the "prime time" viewing hours and I rely heavily on TiVo. As the pace of my TiVo recording far outpaces my viewing, today I take a few minutes to thin the herd of waiting programs before the system memory gets full and I miss the chance to record some upcoming favorites. A commercial-free Simpsons, most of a Family Guy, and diet sodas #15 and #16 later I am back in the car

5:10pm--back in the restaurant....several guests already in the lounge using alcohol to block out the horrors of their days just ended, as well as a party of 8 with a 5:30pm reservation [first available of the evening]. The 8 is demanding to be seated early because, the host tells my simpering maitre d', "I see waiters and I see tables and people are already DRINKING, there is no reason for us to have to wait". This maitre d', who is my second-in-command in name only, and not much more in reality than an unattractive male hostess, would normally cave in but sees me watching him out of the corner of his eye. The party of 8 continues to wait.

Popping into my office, my assistant gives me a thankfully positive report on lunch, lets me know that none of the 7 voicemails waiting for me sounded urgent to her, and watches with me as my hung-over young waiter dashes past my office window [that looks out on the kitchen] en route to the bathroom to expel the stubborn remnants of Mexico's finest.

two quick phone calls from the beverage director and restaurant manager of our other property.

The beverage manager is having a problem with one of his salesmen who is not giving him or the property the respect they deserve--even though a new restaurant, it is already very busy as well as the little sister of one of the most prominent properties in town. The salesman is treating our manager like a newbie running a pizza parlor--trying to ransom allocated items with "suggested" companion items or holding them back entirely while dropping his discount rate and tacking un-ordered stuff on the deliveries. I give my associate two suggestions--he can tell the salesman that I am unhappy with the way the program is being run and am threatening to take it over myself. This should scare the salesman straight--he will realize that I will bring along my own salesman and that he will lose a top-rated new account and the attached income. This scenario also allows my associate to retain his public autonomy and forge a useful, if false, sense of alliance with the difficult liquor/wine rep. The second option is that I throw the salesman off the property--simpler and more straightforward but likely to create a situation whereby my associate is constantly being asked by successive people if his decisions have my blessing, and the distributor people will automatically include me in their dealings with my associate. I am in favor of the first option, but leave the decision to him and time to think about it.

The restaurant manager's problem is a trip down memory lane. He and I have known each other for about six years, and have worked together nearly eighteen months. He is intelligent, charming, and efficient--but he is not me--meaning our respective employer has not come to know and trust him over the course of nearly a decade. Our new restaurant has made its name and great initial success on seafood in a town where "seafood" means catfish, crawdads, and tilapia--we built the cowtown version of Aqua. It is packed nightly with people eating what one of our regular guests described as "vacation food", meaning fish and shellfish that cannot be self-caught via nearby river, stream, or bog. This unqualified newborn success is owed in great part of the competence of my manager friend, but he is not hearing it. What he is hearing are the facts that the restaurant was nearly $1 million over budget opening [before he was even hired]and that the monthly fedex bill for fish deliveries is nearly $30,000.00 not counting the cost of the fish. He knows they are full every night, and that both revenue and check average are well beyond predictions, but what he is hearing is that he is running a wasteful restaurant, and that things need to be corrected. My advice is simple--calm down, have a good night, and we will talk [and drink] after the shift and I will give him some tips. Diet soda #17 and half of #18 went down during the converstaion.

5:40pm--still thinking how nice it would have been to have had someone to call when I was starting out, I grab my jacket and head to the floor. Once guests are seated in the dining room they become my single focus, and I can't get anything else done. As I walk toward the front I pass the seated 8 and hear the host telling his server that "they deserve something extra for being made to wait so long". Nearing the front desk I make the maitre d' admit to having read and understood the notes I placed in the system regarding limits while I was on the phone--watching Open Table from my office I could see him taking all comers and risking smooth operation later on in the evening. I inform him that no more reservations will be taken between 7pm and 9pm unless they go through me personally. I make sure that he sees me check the pending arrival counts each half hour and write them down--the implication being that if they go up any more during prime time that I will know I was disobeyed. We are already dangerously over-booked in four slots--all he cares about is the extra money this may generate for him tonight. No thought whatsoever about the big picture.

6:30pm--I am rolling. For the next three hours I am in a constant state of motion throughout the entire property. However, before I get into my groove, I have a face-to-face stand-off with my "best friend" with the inpromptu party of 26, who wants to wait to order. So far this guy has given shit to the valets, the maitre d', the hostesses, and the bartender--his guests are all arrived, they are in a good mood and ready to go, but this 5' 5" bundle of self-importance decides to go Napoleon on me for putting him "on the pay no mind". My little buddy thinks he's marching through Paris, but he's actually at Waterloo--my lounge is full, someone needs a wine suggestion, and the drug rep hosting one of the private functions is flagging me down from across the room. Little Guy wants to wait--fine. I inform him that the hostesses will pick up the menus now, and bring them back at 8:45pm. Now, I need this guy's tables back no later then 9pm, but he doesn't know that. All he knows is that he's important and has a brand new Cadillac and I am a head waiter who can't be allowed to get the best of him. He informs me that if that's the best I can do, he has to find himself a new favorite steakhouse, to which I express disappointment, then ask whether he wants to eat now, at 8:45pm, or if he plans to find that new favorite with his 25 guests right now? The order is in 8 minutes later. I am at diet soda #22 or #23 but am not sure--what I am most concerned about is that I am on my last 6pk--I grab my pad and put "buy soda" at the top of the page.

Early evening dickheads out of the way, I go on to open roughly 45 of the nearly 70 bottles of wine ordered in the dining room, using that unobtrusive time at the tables to guage how things are going with various parties. I chat with regulars at our bar and in our lounge--clear glasses, replace napkins, ask after children, buy the occassional round here and there. One of our best guests stops in just to give me $100--we did a great job with his wife's birthday party during the previous week, but he forgot to see me on the way out--he is apologetic. I am more honored by his courtesy in making the special trip than I am the benjamin, but am delighted with both. The guy with the 8-top hits me with $50 on the way out, announcing largely that the "birthday dessert made up for the unacceptable wait"--once again I love the $50, but am equally delighted with the fact that we charged for the dessert and that this tool felt it worth $50 to grandstand in front of his guests. I routinely pit stop at our front desk, adding to the hellos and goodbyes as guests move past and joking with the hostesses to keep up morale--under the best of circumstances, hostesses are hard to come by and good ones harder to keep. Mine are the best, but hate to work with the incompetent maitre d' and require constant diversion to keep their spirits up--I change my $50 from Mr. 8-top and split it between the two girls. I save Napoleon $25/btl on his wine selections by suggesting equally good but cheaper bottles.

7:30pm--I have sweated through my collar right on schedule, and the expanding moisture is working its way outward--on a busy night it can get halfway down my back. You try walking twelve miles a night in a business suit and dress shoes while at Restaurant DEFCON 2. Soda #24 is history--I pop the others out of the plastic rings, cut the rings open and throw them away, and promise to ration the last few cans.

8pm--kitchen is holding up well. A few steaks have gone back--one we undercooked, one we overcooked, and two were perfect, but not how the guests wanted them. We have a funky prep for our salmon entree that I hate and that causes me a fair amount of annoyance, but so far only one complaint. The drug rep who flagged me down earlier to tell me he was going to overflow his room and needed either a larger room or at the very least a table for 12 "nearby" actually ended up 6 people short of his guaranteed attendance. He is now just as angry over having to pay for the short six as he was earlier about us not being able to accomodate his extra 12. At least he's consistent.

8:30pm--The bottle of wine I brought from home for our anniversary guests is from a winery the guests visited during their honeymoon twenty-six years ago. The husband is speechless that I remembered the story from years ago when we were discussing wine tasting, and his wife bursts into tears. The bottle is very expensive, but was a Christamas gift to me from a distributor many years ago, and while a world-class wine it is not to my personal taste--I won't miss it. The guests themselves are wealthy, but not the type to drop the kind of money on a bottle of wine that purchasing this one from my list would require. In one moment, I forget all about Napoleon, the drug rep, and even my maitre d', as I am able to actually do the kind of thing that makes this business so wonderful. Dinners are going out to a number of large parties. I am splitting my time between checking on meals already served, helping to carry trays out, keeping the noise level down, and continuing to open bottles of wine. Drinks start to back up at service, and I come up to find the bartenders burning down the huge ice well after breaking a glass--while they are burning, orders are piling up. I direct them to fill clean buspans with ice, set them atop the bad ice, and work out of them till the end of the night--they look at me like I'm Galileo back from the grave, but I just don't need to hear anyone bitch about a late-arriving rob roy right now.

9:30pm--starting to slow down. I send home the opening bartender and a hostess, check on our valet parkers to make sure they aren't too backed up [nothing worse than waiting in the cold too long for your car to make you forget about a great dinner]--they aren't my employees, but I can have them reassigned, and it is a very profitable gig--they respect my concerns. Valet looks good, maitre d' tells me everything was a piece of cake, closing hostess fills me in on a few missteps when maitre d' walks away [nothing too serious], and then two guys at a cocktail table near the front door flag me over. The guys are good-natured, and buzzed. They hand me a napkin with a number count on it, line counts totalling 36. When I joke that I hope that isn't a beer count, they counter that they wish it was, but that in actuality that is the number of times the maitre d' greeted arriving guests with exactly the same phrase--word for word. I am embarrassed, though I know the guys were just goofing. They are local brokers who stop in on occassion, and knowing that as well as the fact that they are slightly over-served, I try a little joke. With a thick, vaguely Eastern European accent, I respond "thank you to tell me what I already know..."--a line from the "Citizen Kane" of stockbroker movies--"Wall Street". They get the joke, break up laughing, and I escape.

10:00pm--I am trying to wrap things up so that I can get over to our other restaurant--while I am rarely there during service, I am technically it's general manager, as all the other managers report to me. I promised to have a drink with my friend the restaurant senior, and also need to meet about some menu and wine changes as well as staffing. My feet hurt, as they have most nights for the last six years or so, and I have a headache--when Napoleon flags me down from the bar, the headache gets worse. Steeled for another assault I approach, only to have him put $200 in my palm and apologize--everything was great, my guests loved it, I dropped the ball with the party, I know you did your best, etc. etc. I make a mental note as I have many times before to steer clear of anyone who needs to be hammered to be decent.

10:30pm--say goodbye to our anniversary guests, collecting the husband's extremely generous gratuity in the process. I make sure the wine steward is up to speed with remaining service on the floor, hand him half the money I collected while opening wine [making his night in the process], tell the maitre d' that I am leaving but will be returning [to keep him honest], close the kitchen, make sure the chef is already at or en route to our other property, and, grabbing lonely last diet soda #29, head out to my late night staffer.

1:30am--with a placated if still slightly frustrated restaurant senior in my wake, I leave our sister restaurant after a few beverages, and with the bonus result of a very efficient manager's meeting concluded in addition to my personal talk. Back to my restaurant to confirm proper closing, and then one last nightcap at a neighborhood place that somehow manages to stay open an hour later than everyone else. I am both exhausted and wide awake.

2:20am--home, changed, and watching TV in bed, diet soda #30 on the nightstand. Right before nodding off around 3:30am I double-check my alarm and write one last note on top of the pad I have had nearby all day to chronicle my events for this post--"buy soda".

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Time to make the donuts..."--Michael Vale, the actor from the Dunkin' Donuts commercial

A day in the life...part 1
7:30am--alarm goes off, and continues to go off for about six or seven minutes before I finally find the energy and awareness to turn it off. Immediately fall back asleep and wake up five minutes later realizing that if I nod off again I won't re-awaken till about 11am. Physically roll myself out of bed onto the floor to facilitate my successful rising and shining. Bedroom to kitchen for the first two of roughly 18-25 cans of diet soda I will consume throughout the coming day and night--both cans are gone within about four minutes--the caffeine no longer has any affect on me, I'm just thirsty [maybe even slightly dehydrated for some alcohol-related reason].

Kitchen to my home office for the computer. Check my company Outlook to get end-of-shift reports from managers at both our restaurants, and review my own revenue and performance e-mail from the previous night to see if I omitted or overlooked anything. Already have two new e-mails for prospective private dinners--very important people, very important event, VIP, VIP, blah blah blah [Don't ever tell people how much you matter, let them find out for themselves]. Check personal e-mail--this is where the senior manager at our other property, who technically reports to me and is an old friend of mine, will often communicate any "unofficial" news I may need to know sans the politically correct Outlook format. Next I check the Open Table feed from both restaurants [which I both love and hate] available through a link to my home computer, taking note of a number of notable reservations of various kinds.

Shower, change, feed pet and one more diet soda gets me to about 8:30am--ready to roll. I am blessed with a heated driveway and live on a fairly well-used street, so I rarely have to worry about bad weather commuting during our short but brutal winters. I grab a special bottle of wine from home which I will offer later to regular guests of ours celebrating their anniversary--I know they will enjoy it, they deserve it for their loyalty, and I already have more wine than I will ever drink and won't miss it.

9:00am--I live less than two miles from my home restaurant, and by now have settled into my luxurious closet of an office. Two voicemails waiting for me--one from the building manager about a squeeky belt from our make-up air compressor, the other about yet another private event. On this particular day I will field another 25 private event inquiries by phone and receive ten more like-minded e-mails as well as nine or ten other exchanges regarding details for previously booked events.

Before I can pop the top on diet soda #4 my assistant [who has been in the restaurant doing paperwork and answering phones since 8:30pm] tells me a regular guest of ours is on the phone with a "small" request--he wants to bring his office to dinner for an impromptu celebration tonight--26 people. He is suddenly my best friend and greatest benefactor [about $100/month, not terrible but certainly nowhere near the top of the mountain], and knows the restaurant lay-out better than I do myself--he knows we can find an area--as a matter of fact, "just put us in that private room". Well, the private room has been booked for three months, and at 8pm when he wants to dine we already have 80 reservations ahead of him. I am brusquely dismissed after offering 6pm or 9:30pm in our man dining room while he rushes off to find satisfaction with one of his other "best friends" at another nearby restaurant. Twenty minutes later he calls back and takes the 6pm with the requisite--"what's going on in town tonight? I never have these kinds of problems--I'm a regular".

While I was on the phone with our regular guest, two other calls have been sent to my voice mail. All day long I will fight to actually do things and get real things accomplished while also speaking to nearly 500 people between the phone, the restaurant floor, and my staff. Because of this, I am often rather spare with my words when interacting with our staff--many of them understand why, but some believe me arrogant or stand-offish toward them. The truth is that the amount of talking I do is very daunting to me, and I often try to save words when interacting with our staff.

11am--servers are arriving for lunch, and my assistant [also my luncheon supervisor] leaves my side to fire up the dining room. I have managed to get through the financials from the previous day and confirm a preliminary balance-out with our controller--this means no money hunt, which can be very time-consuming. That is good, and something off my list--what is not good is that a cook is missing, three cases of lettuce have arrived frozen and useless, and a server scheduled for that evening is attempting to call out "sick". While a poor liar anyway, this fellow is clearly also near-sighted. This unobservant fellow had missed the fact that I was in the same bar as he after the shift last night [though I arrived much later] and had caught sight of him ardently romancing a bottle of Patron. The server is told that he will remain on the schedule for the night, but that if he couldn't make it I still wished him the best of luck in the future. In other words, show up or you're fired. This guy is young, good-hearted, and a great server--he also drinks too much and drops "x" three or four times a week and I am losing patience. When I hang up the phone I throw away the empty can from diet soda #8

12:00pm--My very pleasant wake-up call to our executive chef regarding his missing cook has generated results in the unexpected arrival of the man himself--sleepy-eyed and pissed off at me because his cook didn't show. Annoyed after my conversation with the disappointing server, I am in no mood for this guy's groggy prima donna act. After a few uncomfortable verbal exchanges, I agree with him--it's my fault the guy didn't show up and my fault that someone else wasn't called before the executive chef. So from now on, I tell him, I will oversight all of his potential hires before they are approved as well as making sure none of his schedules are final or posted before I sign off on them. This guy is very talented, runs two very demanding kitchens with great success, and we usually get along very well. I have great confidence in him, which is why I agreed two years ago when he asked me if he could finalize his own hires and schedules without my approval [I am his boss]. Before he can wipe the stunned look off his face or respond, I apologize again, mention that he probably has orders starting to come in, and head back to my office for paperwork, party-work, the phones, and prep for a staff meeting.

1:30pm--Lunch mostly over, I confirm that the audio visual equipment being delivered for a private event that evening is indeed on its way and review a number of liquor and wine deliveries that were delivered and checked in late morning. I note a number of wine list changes that will have to be made before service and e-mail one salesman with a delivery error and pick-up request. Walking back through the labyrinth of our kitchen, I notice several lightbulbs out or failing, loose potatoes on the floor from a torn sack, and a tower of bevnap cases stacked in front of a fire exit. As I head through the dining room to get light bulbs, I see my mostly-finished lunch staff sitting at a booth within sight of the two remaining tables--not cool. As soon as they eye me they all jump up, with the exception of one surly slug of a middle-aged, burnt-out lifer. This guy won't make May still on the schedule--he's OK with the guests and could have a long tenure with us if he wasn't the classic bitterman, angry over the course of his life and prepared to make everyone else as miserable as he. For the hundreth time I mention to them that they are welcome to relax if everything is finished, but that they shouldn't be where the guests can see them. While heading to storage, I also notice several bulbs out in the main dining room

2:15pm--guests are gone, 10 foot ladder is out on the main dining room floor, and bulb changing has commenced. We are in an old, classically-styled downtown office building and the restaurant has cathedral ceilings--I have never felt right asking anyone else to climb the rickety, very-tall ladder to do this job. Kitchen lights are easier, and my directions about cleaning up the other problems have been followed.

3:00pm--plot private parties and large parties in the reservation system, assign the servers their stations for dinner and their opening side work. This is a job left to others in many restaurants, but I find it essential to our success that my "forces" be perfectly deployed each evening to accentuate their strengths and so I do it myself. I place my hung-over server in a small station farthest from the kitchen and the computers--he won't ruin anyone's experience with so few tables, but he will be in agony all night long. I also leave directions for an alternate set-up in case he doesn't show up.

3:20pm--chef wants to talk to me. He wants to apologize for being a dick earlier, and wants to make sure that I wasn't serious about taking away his autonomy with hiring and scheduling [he doesn't say this directly, but the gist is obvious]. I tell him that I don't plan to make any immediate changes, and then I give him some advice. He has been short-staffing and hiring under-experienced people to keep his payroll and labor rates down and thereby maximize his bonuses. When I tell him this plainly, he stares at me like I have his office bugged. I tell him that while our product to the guest has not suffered yet, it probably will fairly soon. I tell him that right now the only direct result is sloppy work, a sloppy kitchen, and an unreliable staff that adds ten hours to his own work week covering stations. I suggest that he return to hiring the best, paying them the going rates, and returning to his mainly oversight/teaching role during service. What he saves in returned dishes, waste, and training costs will more than make up for the extra payroll and labor. We will have better product costs, happier guests, and his bonuses will grow for the right reasons. I know I'm right, he knows he's caught, and I leave to go home and change for dinner service...

3:40pm--As I leave for home with diet soda #14 riding shotgun, my day is roughly half over. Stay tuned...

Friday, April 13, 2007

"...sick and tired of hearing about the holocaust"--Jesse Jackson

"Hymietown..."--Jesse Jackson

"We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business"--Al Sharpton

"I'm outraged..."--Al Sharpton

It is time to stop all of this. All of it. The tabloids, the fan mags, the 24-hour news channels times six, the paparazzi, reality TV, wikipedia--all of the invasive, vapid bullshit that has exploded in growth over the last decade like a giant tumor feeding on humanity's vicarious negativity.

Sometimes a celebrity gets drunk. Sometimes a celebrity gets fat, divorced, sideswiped, shaven bald, cheated on, caught cheating, caught saying something stupid, becomes addicted to adoption, etc. Leave them alone.

I am immensely proud of the fact that I thought the winner of the first "Survivor" was an old TV actor from the 1970's series "Battlestar Galactica"--I was a little concerned when I heard that he went around naked and had tax trouble, but that was the extent of my interest. I have better things to do, to watch, to listen to, and to donate my precious time to, and so do you.

People say stupid shit all the time, and people of note are not excused from this predeliction by virtue of their fame. The bottom line is that until liberal federal judges succeed in totally destroying the US Constitution, we can still say whatever we want to say whenever we want to say it.

One caveat to this: I demand quid pro quo from the celebrity world--if they are allowed the privacy which they all demand and which is their right to have, they must revert to private citizens once their glamorous workdays are concluded. You can't beat up a photographer, demand your privacy as an "artist", then give a speech to 10,000 South American leftist radicals calling for the overthrow of the US government. If you don't want to be followed down the aisle of your local Piggly Wiggly with a video camera, then get take off your "fur is murder" T-shirt and say no to "Meet the Press". If you want to be pitied because your maid stole one of your sex tapes and marketed it on e-Bay--no problem. I will give you my pity as long as you don't pop up at the head of any protest marches. Use your celebrity as a soapbox and you are fair game for whatever invasions the public can dream up.

Besides, who gives a crap about what Sean Penn has to say about anything anyway? He is remarkable for two things--one great film role in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and tagging Madonna before she turned into Margaret Thatcher. George Clooney should stop giving speeches and concentrate on making an "Oceans" sequel that doesn't appear to have been directed by Hunter Thompson. Maggie Gyllenhall and Rosie O'Donnell???--the unattractive sub from "Secretary" and a Marlon Brando impersonator have no place on my TV screen defecating from the mouth on the subject of world events.

They can continue to talk if they want to--that is freedom of speech. All I am saying is that they should be prepared for the consequences. After all, if I decided one day to throw on black-face and shuffle up and down the aisles of my restaurant singing "Old Black Sambo" at the top of my lungs, that would be my right--just as it would be the right of my employer to fire me, just as it is the right of Don Imus' employer to fire him, and just as it is the long-overdue right of Rosie O' Brando's employer to fire her [think of the money they would save on the breakfast buffet alone!]. I don't believe I would ever do such a thing--the black-face make-up would play havoc with my delicate complexion, I don't know the words to the song and would probably have to substitute "Cotton-Eyed Joe" [which misses the whole point], and my girlfriend's father, who is black [he insists he is a black American, not African-American] would assuredly beat me to death in short order--but it would be my right to do it nonetheless.

It is our right to offend people. It may not be courteous and it may not be RIGHT, but it is A RIGHT. What should not be allowed to continue is this growing culture of outrage, complete with professional garment renders who fly first class to the sight of any perceived injustice [where there is media interest] to start screaming for blood and sacrifice, purporting to champion the rights of the "offended".

Next time Jesse Jackson pops up in front of the TV cameras in his shining armor, the crowd gathered before him should start chanting "hymietown" in the hopes that he may finally face the hypocrisy that birthed his public persona. Any words spoken by Al Sharpton should be broadcast only after playing the recorded public statement by the family of Tawana Brawley stating that the reverend's opportunistic involvement with their daughter has ruined their lives.

In an excellent halloween episode of "The Simpsons" giant advertising icons come to life and terrorize Springfield. They are defeated by an advertising jingle that convinces the residents to ignore the rampaging signs, logos, and trademarks--"just don't look, just don't look..." Without the inhabitants' attention to give them energy, these marauding monsters die, and we have this same power within all of us.

Stop with the reality TV and this ghastly human circus will finally go away--right now 150,000,000 of us are addicted to seeing people embarrassed on national TV--that's pretty sad. The tabloids and their whorish siblings the fan mags eat up thousands of trees and millions of brain cells for no positive purpose--how many times does one need to see Paris Hilton's ass?

Worst, the constant apologizing--the familiar creed of "if anyone was offended by my words, even taken out of context as they were..." I cannot remember the last time I said something I did not mean. I have certainly made statements that on review could be deemed rash, insensitive, or inappropriate--but I meant them. The problem is that no one in the public eye
means anything that the say anymore. Every uttered phrase is a marketing tool specifically designed to pander or appeal. As a result, when errors are made the resulting gaffes take on exponential importance as they were already born miles away from the truth. The further fact that some individuals enjoy the media's support and can get away with these blunders time and time again while even the slightest foible of one less favored is immediate breaking news makes it even more ludicrous.

I call shenanigans on the whole system. I am outraged, and I demand an apology, and I want someone fired--I want the firing put in the Congressional Record, and then I want Sandy Berger to smuggle the original pages out of the National Archive in his pants so that I can have them framed for my office wall. Tell him money is no object, the Chinese will pay.
"What better to seduce than food and wine?"--Chef Thomas Keller

I am in envy of the handful of big, brawny super restaurants that have combined great service, great food, and a striking physical plant [or location] to create huge money fine dining successes. When I say huge money, I don't mean that they are in the same neighborhood as our $10 million in annual sales, either. No, I am talking about the icons--world-famous restaurants that occupy the rarified air that starts at $15 million in annual sales and just goes up from there. Tavern on the Green, Chicago Chop House, Bern's Steak House, Peter Luger's, Le Cirque, Valentino, Commander's Palace [with their poor, devastated wine cellar], and just lately the upstart Prime 112 in Miami to name some of the most well-known. These places are glorious machines, not churning out plates of food to faceless masses but rather regularly setting and surpassing high goals for culinary quality and service excellence while banking tens of millions of dollars in the process.

These big, independent fine dining restaurants have my respect and my admiration, but not my heart. My heart has been stolen by another, as I have been seduced by the mysterious and intoxicating [in more ways than one] American Michelin Three-Star.

Over the last year I have dined in three of the finest restaurants in America, and they have left me both profoundly amazed and sorely humbled. Profoundly amazed at the depth of talent and the nearly flawless execution that permeated every aspect of all three visits. Sorely humbled by the realization that I do not have the knowledge or skill to ever approach that level of near perfection. I simply do not know how to get people to perform so well: to dedicate themselves so completely and truly embrace the selfless heart of real hospitality.

I dream of restaurants like these. Chef Keller's properties each have fifteen tables in their main dining rooms, while Restaurant Michael Mina might have twenty-five. By 6:30pm each night my collar is soaked through with sweat as I careen through my sixty tables and 6,500 square feet of guest area at top speed trying to avert catastrophe. Constantly over-reserved, under-staffed, and pressed for time I am the drover of a runaway mule train heading for a jagged cliff with a steep fall--every single night. My counterparts at these temples of indulgence glide about like eagles on the high thermals--not splattered with food, not soaked with perspiration, not muttering a steady stream of curses under [hopefully] their breath. They are sober, steady, serious, and supremely concentrated--they treat everything with the utmost importance, but they actually have the time to do so--the time to not cut corners, to not jury-rig, to not have to hope "no one notices". In short, the time to do things right. And, as an added injury, at the end of the day they harvest roughly the same revenue we do on one fifth the number of guests.

When I left Restaurant Michael Mina I wanted to ask if they needed a busboy. When I left The French Laundry I wanted to ask if they needed a gardener. When I left Per Se I was so drunk that I foolishly staggered over to the bar at The Porter House and had more wine--but, the next morning in the midst of my hangover I wished that I had asked them if they needed a dishwasher.

Oh yeah, I am seduced.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works."--Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street"

I started my long twisted path through the hospitality industry just as many other lifers have both before me and since--as a busboy working weekends for extra money while I was in high school. As time went on I started working during the week as well, and the weekend shifts became doubles. The money [all $30 or $40 per shift of it] was intoxicating. I was my own man with my own money and almost no time to spend it. I fell in love with the dynamic nature of the hotel restaurant in which I worked--a perpetual motion machine with endless needs and endless requirements--a theatre rife with endless opportunities for both achievement and disappointment. I paid attention, learned when I could, and worked hard--when I left home for college I was the weekend breakfast "maitre d'" in addition to being the King of the Busboys.

I travelled far from home to attend an excellent university on the US East Coast. I had it all planned out--college was something I "had" to do--I needed a good degree from a good school in order to move on to the "next step" whatever that was. At the time I believe I had narrowed my prospective career choice down to a possibility of three: financial analyst, architect, or possibly male model.

Besides the necessity of the degree however, college seemed otherwise a huge waste of both time and money, and so knowing everything [just like every other 17-year old], I formulated my plan of attack. I had some AP credit from high school, I used CLEP tests to bypass alot of the required basics, and then I hit the jackpot--I discovered the world of independent study courses. Not only could I proceed at my own pace and schedule, but each course was an extra credit AND I could work almost full time and try to pay for school as I went. That was my plan, and I am sure that the look on my face once I finalized it was very reminiscent of the look on Napoleon's face just as he put the finishing touches on his invasion of Russia--what could go wrong?

As it was, the frigging plan actually worked--I staggered across the finish line like a zombie less than three years later with a bachelor's degree in business administration, no loans, and a really good job with a prominent hotel company that ran some of the city's finest properties.

In hindsight, I moved too quickly. While I have a few great friends to this day from my college years, most people have more. I attended a world-class university in a vibrant city brimming with all the world had to offer and yet I barely stepped foot on campus or explored the town around me. This school at the time had a nationally ranked basketball team, but in nearly three years I of attendance only saw twenty minutes of one game in person before my beeper went off and I had to leave for an emergency at work. This time I was again my own man with my own money AND a college degree and still no time to enjoy it.

I had decided during college that I lacked both the patience and the mathematical skills necessary to become an architect. It was also painfully clear that I lacked the washboard abs and body type for my #2 choice male model. So it was that I set my sights on Wall Street and financial world domination.

For two months I was recruited by various firms for a variety of postions in the worlds of banking and brokerage. All of these opportunities seemed to be the very keys to the kingdom of wealth and power--after about FIVE years, that was. As it turned out, most of these positions would have represented not just the next step in my professional evolution, but also a huge pay cut when compared to my "lowly service job".

As always with me, I followed the money. I returned home, hung up my bachelor's degree in a cheap plastic frame, and got a restaurant job. The lure of that instant monetary gratification affected me no differently than it affects the legion of lapsed "professionals" that currently work with me on a nightly basis. Scattered amongst my staff are two master's degrees, one academic doctorate, one juris doctor, and a doctorate of veterinary medicine. A some point all of these former white collar professionals came to the same realization that dawned on me nearly twenty years ago. They realized that they could make the same money [if not more] working in a nice restaurant as they did in their first careers while working half the hours and leaving each night with bulging pockets.

This thing of ours [to paraphrase some Italian friends] can capture an individual when they are young as it did with me. It can also draw people in when they are mid-stream in life, as with many on my staff. When I was a waiter and bartender years ago, guests would often ask me what my future plans were, intimating that my restaurant job HAD to be a stepping stone to whatever "real" job I was studying for. Now, many guests ask me if we are hiring.

My resident veterinarian [a bartender] and my resident attorney [a server] had worked in restaurants while going to school, and both decided to come back home, so to speak, after each spent some time talking to clients of theirs. They had clients who always paid in cash and always seemed happy and relaxed, much more so than they themsleves or any of their always exhausted, stressed-to-the-max friends. After a little friendly questioning it became clear their clients made comparable money for about half the work, not to mention no insurance or threat of lawsuit constantly hanging over their heads.

Not only can greed be good, it can also be less stressful.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

"Cocaine's a hell of a drug"--Rick James

What is up with the "return to 1983" that is sweeping through the country in general and my industry in particular. I've had more geeked up employees in the last six months than in the previous six years.

And do you idiots really think you're fooling anyone? You may as well wear the vials with the little spoons around your neck like in "Scarface"--fucking ridiculous.
"You love nothing. The human parts of you are incomplete. You are as dead as you are deadly"--dialogue from "The Lion in Winter". Prince Richard speaking to his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

I fired someone last night--someone who has had it coming for a long, long time. In December I had a meeting with this person, who at one point I had considered as a possible successor, and let him know that I had no more exceptions left for him, and that as a final courtesy I was going to let him find another job and quit rather than face the ignomity of being dismissed [not a well-liked employee--his dismissal would have been cause for the staff's celebration and his condiserable embarrassment].

This is a guy who came from a nationally acclaimed restaurant where he had been a valued employee for years and who enjoyed my considerable endorsement for many months. Whatever happened to him, and I found out later that personal and chemical issues were primarily responsible, he devolved while in our employ to a miserable, rude, and bitter shell of himself--offensive to both guests and staff alike. However, like an idiot, I still held out hope that he would rebound, see the incredible opportunity offered him, and recognize the unique nature of the property to which he had come. At one point in a private meeting with my employer I rebuked demands for this fellow's termination by reiterating my support and protecting his continued employment with threat of my own departure. All he needed was time, I thought, and yet another good talking to. Apparently, not so much.

He was, of course, as disagreeable in departure as he had been in employment. I often wonder if any of those I fire ever look back with embarrassment at their behavior, if any of them really analyze their employment and go, "man, I had every opportunity there, got more than my share of favors, and I really let those people down", or do they just go get drunk and talk about how much I suck.

I'm pretty sure I know the answer.