Saturday, September 22, 2007

"The worst solitude is to be destitute of sincere friendship"--Francis Bacon

"Grand, gloomy, and peculiar, he sat upon the throne a sceptred hermit wrapped in the solitude of his own originality"--Charles Phillips

The Phillips quote is a description of Napoleon I, and I have come to enjoy it. I am thankfully a good deal taller than the late emperor and not nearly so grand nor even fractionally as historically significant--but I understand the mood that the description evokes. I have not yet met my Waterloo, but I hope it comes soon--this decade-long march is beginning to lose both color and purpose.

I must be two people--the one that runs my restaurant and the one that I am outside those walls. Many people have a professional and personal persona, but few have the professional one so dominate their lives as does mine. It is a matter of hours really--when 80 of them each week are spent suited--sweating, struggling, and bailing water--the personal me quickly finds itself the bit player in my boring two-man show.

I don't really mind the imbalance most of the time, because I am fatally flawed--the very quintessential workaholic. Where I am given pause however is at the border between the two people, where the personal and professional have daliance.

Most of my employees do not like me. Most respect me [which is all I really ask], but few find me to have any redeeming qualities on a personal level. I, after all, am the person who catches everyone, the person that foils plans, the person that prosecutes broken schemes, the person who professionally executes the capitally-unfit for service. My staff listens for my swift footfalls upon the tiles of the kitchen floor. They look over their shoulder to confirm I am not lurking. They avoid my office as if it were that pit in the desert from Return of the Jedi.

You see. I am the dick who makes such a big deal out of everything. The guy who doesn't understand that it hurts to work with a hangover. I'm the one who won't agree that it is too expensive to dryclean the uniform tie that they did not pay for, and that it is not ok to wear it filthy in order to avoid that expense. I am the one who won't allow them to carry their cell phones and use them "out of sight", and further and even worse I am the absolute piece of crap who has the gall to declare that texting is indeed "using the phone", and similarly banned. I am, in short, the monster that forces these hapless souls to actually do their jobs in proper and consistent fashion.

All this is standard operating procedure for anyone who does my job, and I accept it without pause. Where I differ a little bit, however, is that I do not trouble myself to pretend that our collective relationship is anything other than what it really is--all business. I have a manager friend that will have after-shift drinks with his employees and then be hurt the next day when his bartender buddy tells him that all those he bought rounds for started bashing him the minute he left. I do not go to birthday parties or 4th of July gatherings and force conversation, or cluster with other managers like the nerdy guys at the Sadie Hawkins Dance. I let them talk, let them have their fun, let them be friends--and I stay out of it.

As I have mentioned before--I have bailed people out, paid their rent, bought caskets for their deceased relatives, found them good plumbers [and paid the bills], and sent them on their honeymoons. I have sent them to concerts for Christmas and served them huge feasts on or near holidays. I know how hard our jobs are, and I try to lighten the mood and the load whenever I can. I do all this with as little mention and personal involvement as possible--because a fake, forced thank-you is far more bothersome than no words at all.

A conversation that ceases as soon as I come around the corner gives me not a second's pause. A group that moves their drinking elsewhere when I show up at the bar are given credit for their convictions rather than disdain for their intolerance. These lines are clear cut and obvious, just the way I like it.

Presently there are three people in my restaurant with whom I have a strong personal connecton. Two are associates, one new and one of long tenure--both are invaluable and both bring a smile to my heart [if not always to my face] whenever I see them. One is a staff member, and for the first time in more than seven years this one is a staff member who is also my girlfriend. While "no dating the staff" has been my mantra since before Bubba started hosing down his interns, this one was just irresistable.

Among the others, there is as much gold as there is flotsam and jetsam; but within that greater group consistency of action must rule the day. As much as I appreciate the good feelings and wishes and acts of friendship from the good ones, I will keep it all at arm's length so as to avoid the eye-rolling, finger-crossing, plastic words and motions of the rest.

Heavy lies the crown and sceptre, or micros card and plunger as the case may be.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

"When the game is over, the king and pawn go into the same box..."--unknown

"We are ever dying to one world and being born into another..." Thoreau

"When you hear that my body has ceased to exist, please do not feel sad. Just look deeply and see that my life and work continue in so many friends, so many young people, in their own ways and through their work. I will continue in everyone and everything I have ever touched. I have nothing to fear and nothing to regret."--Sister Chan Khong

If you work in a restaurant like mine long enough, your guests will start to die. Obviously [or hopefully] not all of them, but in my type of restaurant the clientele just tends to be more mature. We aren't a hospice by any means, and there are plenty of young people at our tables [more and more each night that are younger than I], but we still serve a big chunk of wealthy older folk. These more "seasoned" guests range from the just retired to the barely breathing and for the most part they make the same general impressions as any other guests--there are the awful, the bad, the unassuming, the good, the great, and the epic, all in percentages relative to those of the younger clientele.

The shining stars among these older guests are some of the finest people one can ever hope to know. It has been my great honor and privelege to have met and gotten to know scores of these wonderful individuals over my career, with some of the very finest among them touching my life over the last decade.

Dinner out is a ritual for many of these people, treated with reverence and given special consideration even if the process is repeated six or seven times a week [and it often is]. You are their "Monday night place", their "Wednesday steak", or the "Saturday tag-along" where the alpha male among each clicque of rich old people brings the same group to the same table in the same restaurant at the same time every Saturday, his treat. The best of them are witty, genteel, mannered, and charming. They have an old-world elegance that is enriched with an understanding of the modern world and an interest in keeping current. The man who has a 1972 Eldorado in pristine condition also owns a Mercedes s550 and his wife, wearing her hair the same way since Nixon was President, is likely to be decked out in Dolce & Gabbana.

They are highlights of your otherwise difficult evenings. They are generous, but the money doesn't matter after a while--they are nice, and genuinely happy to be in your restaurant and even to be around you. They are just good people who know how to behave, and you go out of your way to make everything perfect for them.

But, as I said, they are old. As time goes on, they get older. Their swift gaits eventually become more measured, until one day they are aided with canes. The canes sometimes give way to walkers, and from there often to wheelchairs. One day, they just don't come anymore.

I have held back tears as I watched an 80 year-old man grimly face our front stairs, determined to master his new prosthetic leg rather than enter our side doors in a wheelchair.

I have routinely dropped everything and put myself hopelessly in the weeds in order to walk my most favorite guest from his car to his table. This man, once hale and fit, eventually became so frail that getting anywhere without a fall was a victory. Ever keen of mind, even as his body wasted, we would make small talk and pretend things were just right as I nearly carried him through our dining room. Until my dying day I shall remain eternally honored that he would allow only me to give him this aid in public.

This great man finally found himself in dire straits, faced with a harrowing decision. Face a surgery that would probably restore much of his quality of life, but one that was also extremely dangerous due to the weakness of his body. After speaking with his wife, he decided that if he was to continue to live, he wanted to live right, and he signed on for the procedure.

At 9:11am on 09.11.07 this wonderful man was called home to his Maker. His poor body, unable to endure the rigors of the procedure, surrendered one of the most wonderful souls I have ever encountered to an eternity free of pain and infirmity. I have no doubt that the welcoming group waiting to usher him through Heaven's gates was both impressive and enthusiastic.

For those of us who have decided to do this permanently, a certain amount of connection is necessary. Remembering names, birthdays, favorite tables, regular drinks, steak temps. etc.--all very inportant--these are the things that make us different, make us better, and make us someone's "home away from home". Sometimes, though, that connection all by itself becomes much, much more. I miss many of these people as if they were my own relatives, passed on but not forgotten. I feel their absence, and I selfishly regret their departure. Since Patriot's Day, it has been a good deal worse than usual.

Eternal rest grant unto Them O Lord, and let Perpetual Light shine upon Them. May Their souls and all the souls of the Faithful Departed through Your mercy rest in peace. Amen.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

"anything worth doing is worth doing well..."--unknown

"It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be the same..."--Ray Kroc, blender salesman turned restaurateur

"Don't be afraid to give your best to what seemingly are small jobs. Every time you conquer one it makes you that much stronger. If you do the little jobs well, the big ones tend to take care of themselves..."--Andrew Carnegie

Many restaurant bloggers seem to have a dim view of their employers and places of business. I certainly understand, as is evidenced here, about the cathartic nature of expressing oneself in the vacuum of cyber-space. I also admit that the ability to stand in clear view and fire away without having even the slightest concern about a counterattack or fact-check can go beyond liberating and verge on bashing.

I regularly read all of the restaurant and bar blogs that I have so far discovered. I am impressed and humbled by much of that writing, both work-related and creative, and I take great solace whenever I'm able to read firsthand accounts that in some cases so clearly mirror my own experiences. Some of the stories on Waiterrant, Restaurant Gal, Clublife, Lobster Blog and many others are like distant train whistles to a lost hiker--they let me know that I am neither alone nor crazy.

I have a mental picture of what each writer looks like--so far three of them have offered small, incomplete peeks of themsleves either on their sites or their myspace pages and I am 2 for 3. Right on with waiterrant and clublife, way off with restaurant gal [my mental image of her was as a small, dark-haired woman maybe a bit on the frumpy side rather than the tall, ash-blonde and clearly younger woman that just surfaced on her site]. The Red Lobster guy I just picture in a white robe with wings and an halo--any guy that could work for that company for a decade is a far better man than I. I also have personality profiles to go with the faces, and they are as overwhelmingly positive as my reviews on content.

With one exception. There is one blogger who typifies a template for the classic restaurant hack constantly bitching about why everyone sucks but him. His often sickening commentary serves to perfectly illustrate the stunted point of view and remarkably short memory almost always connected to the classic "screwed-over" restaurant employee.

The "who" of him doesn't matter, because he is interchangeable with any one of a million other douchebags wearing a bistro apron and owning far more attitude than skill. The example of him matters because by describing him, a clear delineation can be made between those people who are in a bad job versus those people that are just bad for the job they are in.

To work in my industry successfully, one must be willing to take responsibility. I understand that this looks like an incomplete thought, but it is the closest I can come to succinctly describing the heart of what we do. There is a business and an organization. There is management, ownership, and there are co-workers. There are rules, regulations, guidelines, and policies. There are guests. There are all manner of myriad and never-ending variables both positive and negative surrounding you at all times.

In the end though, once the first person hits a chair in your section, stool at your bar, or bell at your pick-up window--it is all you. Your responsibility. There's help if you need it, but ask for it too often [or more importantly need it too often] or come to rely on it and you will quickly go from sketchy to laughingstock to untrusted to unemployed. Every one has a bad night, but put too many of them in a row or try to slip blame and here comes "sketchy" again.

For the runts and the stragglers it quickly goes from "what do you need?" to "what's wrong now?!" to get the fuck out of the way!!".

If you are responsible, you can more or less say whatever you want--your words may not be heeded, but your opinion will still be respected. Bitching is de rigeur from those who are responsible, whining from those who are not is an invitation to an ass-kicking [usually verbal, though not always].

If your current place of employment is so poorly suited to you--so ill-conceived, poorly run, and badly executed that you daily and constantly lament the fact that you are working there, that is the perfect indication that you should work elsewhere. Leave, quit, transfer, retire...whatever...just go away--it is possible that the sigh of relief you heave may be matched by those of your former co-workers and superiors.

I understand bad restaurants, owners, and managers. What I don't understand are those individuals that continue to stay in what they will endlessly describe as a totally untenable situation. When I was 21 I got a stop-gap job as a waiter in a middle-of-the-road Italian restaurant. The business was steady and the money was good, but the owner-operator was a lunatic--a compulsive gambler with a triple penchant for cocaine, whores, and confrontation. After I had been there about two weeks he called an employee meeting which he purposely held in an upstairs prep kitchen. The room was tiny, and never cooler than 100 degrees. Once everyone was crammed in and perched atop cooking equipment, crates, and boxes the screaming commenced. When he got to the point of announcing, "there's 11 motherfucking doors in this restaurant and I'll be happy to throw each and every one of you pieces of shit out all 11 of them", I knew it was time for a change. My offer of notice was vigorously refused, and I beat it on down the road.

If the managers are pinheads, get another job. If the maitre d' fucks you on the count every night and the owner or manager won't react, get another job. If the sidework includes picking up the owner's dry cleaning and peeling potatoes [above Italian restaurant had us clean and chop case upon case of romaine], get another job. If the stations are too small and the guests constantly offensive, get another job. I am not saying these things are right, they are not right by any stretch of the imagination--I am saying that such is sometimes the way of the world.

My counsel is not to quit every time some little thing doesn't go your way. My position is that if the normal operation of the restaurant totally depresses, infuriates, and/or stupefies you, then you yourself need to be the instrument of change.

A few posts ago I wrote about the impending termination of a server and I mentioned that he was a huge know-it-all complainer, just like the blogger in question. Whenever he wasn't buried in the weeds [in other words, whenever he did not have a table], he could be found holding forth in Shakespearean fashion on our poor plating, badly designed side stations, unfair sidework, impractical uniforms, incomplete procedures, and incompetent management to list a few of our shortcomings. When I fired him, he professed it to be a personal vendetta, just as I knew he would and mentioned how unfair my action was. When I brought up his massive, nightly billet of complaining he feigned ignorance, citing the fact that, "I love this place, and everyone loves're the problem here!" My mild retort, that the average length of employment for a member of my staff was nearly four years and that I would have to commend all those others on being able to stand me for so long, met with a characteristic blank stare and a little ruffling of hair as the comment flew over his big, fat unemployed head.

My situation as a young waiter and my erstwhile server's departure, albeit forced, illustrate the same solution for what I hope are the two diametrically opposed ends of the spectrum. If you find yourself a crewman on the SS Clusterfuck, abandon ship as soon as you realize where you are. Similarly, if you are at work and look around to see a humming, effective machine with everything and everyone meshing, gliding, and executing but you, consider the fact that you may be the problem. It doesn't mean you're a bad person [though usually it absolutely means you're a bad person], it just means you are in the wrong place.

As for "bad" blogger, I cannot be positive which scenario he is faced with--but he sure sounds to me like a square peg annoying the shit out of everyone while languishing in a round hole.