Restaurant crews are usually pretty attentive about, if not obsessive on, being mannered but notably lax in their attentions to societal norms. I’m not impugning anyone’s character, and not just because I’m lax in my attention to societal norms. It’s just that we inhabit a slightly more off-kilter timeframe than most. We work when most eat and play, and we eat and play when most work.
I spent years as a real estate agent working a nine to whenever I needed to but mostly five job, but previous years of working at meal times left me unable to eat when everyone else did. You develop habits. I eat lunch at the time of day when the lunch crowd leaves, and have even when given the opportunity to be part of the lunch crowd.
It gets insular. Restaurant industry folks become friends if for no other reason that when we have free time, the only others that do are other restaurant industry folks. A mindset sets in. It’s not us vs. them, but there is definitely an us. We’re the ones you can call at one am because we are just making dinner.
Some of us opt out of that. I only work in the daytime now. You get kids of school age and you want to see them. That doesn’t happen when you are going to work when they are getting home from school. But those without kids have cash and no reason to get up in the morning. There are bars that exist on late night post-shift restaurant patrons.
We’re not all that piratical at DeVinci’s. I’ve mentioned on these electronic pages that years ago we caught a beer delivery guy trying to cheat both us and his company so we blackmailed him into providing a regular keg to the employees at his cost. That was about the most criminal I’ve witnessed here, but that was in the nineties. That was a different group. A really fun group, but a different group.
I’ve worked in a semi-black market way before. I was managing a fine dining place and on Valentines Day, our linen napkins didn’t show. The delivery never came. I called around to other places asking to borrow some here and there – not an unusual thing for restaurants to do – and no one was willing to part with any.
The owner of one place said no, but I had an employee who was friends with his head waiter. I had him call the head waiter and we worked out a trade. They were short on a decent house cabernet, so I gave him a case and a half for two hundred napkins. We swapped back after the next delivery. No one was the wiser.
The really deviant stuff you read about in Anthony Bourdain books happens, but it’s been my experience that it happens predominately in fine dining. Drugs were never my thing. I had my appendix on the verge of bursting when I was eighteen and the doctor shot me full of Demerol. I went from the most intense pain I’ve ever felt to bliss in a pinprick. It was glorious. I knew when I came out of that haze that it was something I never dared enter into again. But I’ve seen disaster stories. All in fine dining, and several ending in death.
It may be that because you generally make more money in fine dining, it’s easier to maintain an expensive cocaine or whatever habit. I don’t want anyone to think that I am casting aspersions on people that work in higher-end restaurants. I was one. Some of my best friends were or still are among them. I just think they are exposed to more temptation.
I’m already rambling so let me run off on a quick tangent about cocaine. I’ll rope myself back in in a sec.
When I was living in Savannah, I had a job at this incredible place, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been in much less worked for and it was highly regarded – Beard Awards all over the place (now they’ve replaced their Beard display with their Nobel Peace Prize nomination from the Dalai Lama, but that’s a whole other story.) The owners didn’t care what you did in your free time, and I’m pretty sure one of the owners spent a bit of his days off smoking pot, but they did get an insurance break if new employees were drug tested. It was a joke. As I mentioned, such were never my thing, so I took my test within a week of getting hired, but you were given three months to take it and it was a one-time deal. Stop getting high for a week or two, take the test, and no one cares anymore.
They hired this beautiful woman to be hostess. She was twenty-two and a student majoring in fashion at Savannah College of Art and Design so she was well dressed and came with a kind voice and an easy repartee. Everything you would want guests to encounter when they walked in. Except she was apparently an idiot.
Less than a week into her employment she came in a few hour before opening. One of the owners and I were tasting through a few wines. She walked over to him and said, “I’m really embarrassed about this.”
She couldn’t have been that embarrassed, because she didn’t ask me to leave or to talk to him in private.
“I’m really embarrassed about this. But I just took my drug test this morning, and last night I snorted a lot of cocaine.” We didn’t know what to say. She had eleven weeks left to take the test and she decided that after a night of hardcore blow she’d be the early bird? “I’ll just quit. I’m sorry.” And she left. The owner and I just stared at each other. A week later he pulled me aside with a disbelieving smirk on his face. The results of her drug screen came in. She passed.
So back to what I was trying to get at.
Stories about cocaine and sex and all that are repeated because salaciousness garners an audience and people like to be listened to. Anthony Bourdain wrote great books, but he wrote them from a place where he was the hard drug user, so his surroundings were that of a hard drug user and would be if he sold balloons.
I think the reputation for piracy comes because good waiters and chefs see a goal, not a process. To me this is best illustrated by an example of the opposite. I was in a chain casual place. We were travelling and it was what was available. I was standing near the bar, and a waiter asked the bartender why her drinks were taking so long. The bartender told her that the drinks needed limes and she had to finish slicing the lemons before she could get to the limes so the drinks were going to take a minute. She couldn’t just set the lemons aside for a moment. I know that sounds weird, but I’ve come across a lot of people like that.
That bartender was a restaurant employee, not a restaurant person. I differentiate because she was told by her trainer the order in which to perform. The guest and the final product were secondary to process.
Back when I was in a hiring position, I would hire someone with no experience over someone with ten years of corporate chain work under their belt. It’s hard to untrain process.
The business is naturally chaotic. Nothing is going to go perfectly as planned, and you have to improvise if your goal is the guest having a good experience. We don’t get it right every time. Nobody is perfect. But we don’t make you wait until we are ready. Our efforts tend toward the guest.
I hope this isn’t coming off as a worship of the restaurant man like some Soviet-era hagiography of the worker, in this case the food service employee. It’s not meant to be. Most of the people I’ve worked with have taken the job in a transitional period of their lives, but the successful ones share a mindset.
We aren’t pirates. Maybe rule breakers.
It probably helps to be a little devious – or as Bourdain calls it, criminally minded – but that isn’t necessary. Those that do well have an independent streak. They’re told to do X and Y to achieve Z, but grasp all that matters is Z. They are people that put down the lemons to slice a quick lime because that’s what the just-ordered drink calls for. It’s people that realize that a last-minute call to a linen distributor isn’t likely to garner results, but that for a bit of wine your linen problems are solved. They are willing to abandon routine.
Those are the type of people I get to work with here. Restaurant people.