Two years ago, after an extended hiatus from the restaurant business, I decided to plunge back in, and found it to be a much, much different place…
Boston, Massachusetts – September 2013
After recently arriving at the conclusion that at the time, after a long run given my age, I had no interest in dealing with the world of route wine sales anymore, I made the executive decision to make my “triumphant” return to the front of the house. Though the primary motivation behind this was to get out of my “enraged in the car all day, obliterated every night by 8 PM” pattern that had developed, I also will admit that I missed working evenings. Additionally, I like knowing when to show up at work, and when work is officially over, rather than the perpetual blurred lines of the wine business.
Most of my life decisions happen with astonishing quickness and finality, almost as if I don’t want any risk of second-guessing myself or making an informed evaluation of the situation. No, I need all of my efforts to be completely based on impulse, letting the cards fall where they may. This being said, I was in a bit of a rush to procure restaurant employment so I could give notice at the wine job, and I stumbled upon a trendy new Cambridge eatery that just happened to be hiring.
I will admit to having my blinders on, not wanting to see any flaws in my plan of escaping the wine world. I let some big red flags go unnoticed, which resulted in the shortest tenure of my life, lasting a total of 2 days.
Looking back, it all started with:
Red Flag #1 – Referring to a try-out shift in the front of the house as a Stage
Most commonly employed as a term to describe an internship in restaurant kitchens, and often recklessly at that, the stagiaire is usually performing an audition of sorts. It is idiotic to call following someone around on the floor for a half-shift and occasionally chatting with managers a stage. This is right up there for me with people abbreviating the title of sommelier to “somm.”
Early on in my “stage,” I witness:
Red Flag #2 – Restaurant owner treats staff as if they are incompetent 3-year olds
She prattles on and on about what a “privilege it is to work here because I’m pretty sure that you make good money,” and “how much press we have received from major publications” before flipping out about someone not doing a good job sweeping their station. She swears often, but it feels completely forced, as if she is trying to act out a caricature of what she believes is the “hard ass, tough love” kind of manager. It makes me nauseous, but I let it go out of spite (to myself). Plus I don’t want her to know she is having any effect on me whatsoever.
At the end of what feels like the most tedious pre-shift meeting ever, it happens:
Red Flag #3 – At the end of the meeting, they collectively “bring it in” by clapping loudly
Holy fucking shit! Are you kidding me? This is the maraschino cherry on the world’s biggest shit sundae, in my mind.
Still, when told that I was being offered the job, my need for validation trumps reason and I accept. I promptly give notice at the wine job, which is, to my relief, received quite amicably. To show good faith, I attend a staff meeting at the restaurant to sample new menu items that are being rolled out, even though I haven’t technically started yet. It is then that I experience:
Red Flag #4 – The owner treats new menu tasting as a privilege, not a right.
After going into a tirade about how “you people were the ones who wanted this meeting” and how “we don’t technically need to do this,” the owner proceeds to warn everyone that this is basically their last chance to “ask questions about these dishes.” Seriously? First of all, having to come to work for a mandatory meeting on your day off is NEVER a privilege. Second, fuck you AND the horse you rode in on.
Though I leave incensed, I still keep convincing myself that this is somehow going to work itself out. I take a week off between the two jobs and go up to Maine, to clear my head. By the time I return, I am feeling positive once again and show up for my first day of training to learn about:
Red Flag #5 – A two-week training period for servers
I suppose that, with all of the other bullshit, this should not have surprised me. Still, this is utterly ridiculous. If you put yourself on that much of a pedestal, assuming that learning how to wait tables at your contemporary French/American restaurant takes two weeks, you had better be Thomas Keller (in which case I probably would still think it was excessive). I understand starting people with smaller; less important sections on the floor until you’ve assessed their abilities, but two weeks of straight training (and training pay) for someone that you were confident enough in to hire in the first place?
My first day of “training” brought everything flooding back, but I tried to remain positive, reminding myself that “my ego writes checks my body can’t cash” to the point where “my body is perpetually in a state of overdraft.” It quickly becomes apparent that they intend for me to put in two solid workweeks of training, which would be fine if I were getting started at NOMA, but in this case, and with the amount of FOH experience that I have (for better or for worse), this is entirely unnecessary. Still, I press on, all the while being “trained” by this jabroni who is clearly threatened by my presence, and keeps going way above and beyond at every opportunity to demonstrate that he is “probably the best server here.” I refrain from informing him how very little that means in real life, opting instead to listen to his stories about getting laid by random customers and how much money he makes.
After literally following this kid around for 6 hours, which if you aren’t actually doing anything feels like an eternity, I sit down with one of the managers to begin tasting through wines by the glass, etc. It is during this time that I discover that said manager is actually taking my old job at the wine distributor, and suddenly his barrage of very specific questions starts to make a lot more sense. Honestly, I’m happy for him and I toast his success over several shots of Jameson at Trina’s Starlite Lounge shortly after.
Still, I press on, showing up for training shift number two the next day. In an effort to make some kind of reasonable conversation with the veteran idiot from the day before, I bring up that I had been to Trina’s last night, and had a few more than I had expected, to which his response is “You’re kind of a boozehound, huh? I mean, I’ve heard you bring it up like 3 or 4 times now, and you know that kind of thing isn’t going to fly with the owner.”
It takes every ounce of my willpower not to repeatedly kick this asshole in the balls as hard as I possibly can, but after a few deep breaths I am able to compose myself. I choose the mindless activity of polishing wine stems to center myself. Thirty minutes later I am enjoying staff meal when one of the female servers begins to harass Veteran Idiot, referring to the fact that he has a (clearly white) friend nicknamed “Wu-Tang.” He immediately gets defensive, to the point where it seems that he may burst out into tears, and I cannot help from laughing out loud. I also cannot help but wonder what the Christ I’m doing sitting at this table right now.
All bets are off as the owner, who was absent yesterday, begins to host the pre-shift meeting. She runs through her usual barrage of “why everyone but me is a fucking moron” before we begin discussion of the night’s specials. I actually start to feel ok about interacting with the staff for a few minutes; before any semblance of feeling good is completely dashed by a 40-minute discussion regarding how poorly everyone has been “clienteling” and getting notes on regular customers. The subsequent “Let’s bring it in!” pushes me over the edge, and I am only able to muster three or four claps of my hands before retiring to the employee bathroom to furiously text my friends in search of a new job.
After three minutes, I am unable to find new employment but also painfully aware that I cannot play restaurant with these people for another second. This is not to say that there aren’t a few reasonable people working there, it’s just that the ones who aren’t particularly brutal. I post myself by the back exit, and when one of the managers that I actually like walks by I stop him, explain that I am grateful for the opportunity but it is simply not a good fit, hand over my apron and put an end to the madness. On my walk to the car, I feel great despite knowing that I’m going to be kind of destitute financially over the next couple of weeks. I also remind myself that I was going to be on training pay for 2 weeks anyway so who cares?
A few days later, I line up a new job downtown that is much more my speed. I have come to realize that I have no desire to work anyplace “cutting edge,” anyplace trendy. I want to be someplace that has a proven track record, and is consistent. I don’t care if it is featured on Eater or anything like that – I prefer that Yelp reviews of the place be few and far between. I just want to go to work and do my job well at this point in my life, I don’t want to interpret anyone’s vision or be responsible for this and that.
The restaurant industry has become a ridiculous place, plagued by paranoid restaurant owners who recklessly overstaff in an effort to avoid bad Yelp reviews, which can, it should be pointed out, be penned by literally anybody. It is difficult to find an establishment that doesn’t pool tips (a practice that rewards inexperienced and incompetent servers and penalizes those who are good at their job), and it has even become common to be expected to tip out the kitchen, when their compensation should be solely the responsibility of the employer. That’s how the business works, if you don’t want to deal with the general public you work in the kitchen and make less money, whereas the floor and bar are more profitable but involve much more social interaction.
I’m curious to see when this bubble finally pops, when the public’s enthusiasm wanes and they move on from the “star chefs” and other nonsense to something else entirely. Until then, a flurry of restaurants will continue to open and cannibalize one another in a za’atar-induced frenzy, the upswing hopefully being that only the truly great ones will be left standing in the end.