Friday, May 22, 2009
The wine goddess and I have this ongoing argument. The kind that when you get into it, you know it’s completely pointless and that one of you - the one feeling most mature at that moment - should sound the beep beep beep, this truck is backing up sound and leave the scene. Some days both parties dig their heels in, checking their footing to make sure it’s good and secure.
The quicksand in our argument trap is that she thinks that most chefs are - wait, how was it? oh, right - arrogant, hot-headed, ego maniacal narcissists. I think I have that right. It’s a common front-of-the-house critique of the back. She tells me that she doesn’t think this of me, of course. Just most everyone else to ever put on a chef coat, in the history of people putting on chef coats.
The converse of this opinion is that bandied about by the back of the house. Namely that most servers are lazy, selfish, money-chasing suck-ups. I think I have that right, too. It’s a common back-of-the-house critique of the front. I don’t think this of her, of course. I just think this of most everyone else to don a servers uniform, in the history of people donning servers uniforms.
We can all point to plenty of admirable examples of altruistic, humble chefs and hard-working, generous servers. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of them. Behold the nature of stereotypes. There may be some sizable truth in them, but their indiscriminate use necessarily throws a lot of innocents under the bus.
I haven’t worked in the restaurant business for 5 years, so perhaps I’m out of touch. But when I did, I felt that these stereotypes, these attitudes that sit so thinly veiled beneath the surface are almost built into the poor design of the restaurant machine.
Work with me through this clunky analogy: When a car is built there are many hands involved, all the way along the assembly line. It’s cliche, I know, but everyone is doing their part to get the car built. What if, imagine, at the end of the line, the person who took that car and delivered it to the customer, and yes, dealt with their bullshit, just as the car-builders might deal with the factory manager’s bullshit, was the one to receive the entirety of the payout for a job well done. Imagine how that arrangement might cause some team dynamic “issues”, to say the least.
What I want to know is when and who, in the history of restaurants, decided that it would ever be a good idea to separate two highly interdependent working units into two distinct camps? It seems so obvious to me that cooks should be given the same monetary incentives to get good food out in a timely manner that servers get to seal the deal and handle the people and their issues.
My sturdy chef clogs are dug deep into the trenches of this argument.
To be fair, there are some houses that “tip out” the back of the house, my local favorite place sends back 3%. This is very much appreciated, I’m sure, and can help to add a buck or two to a typical cook’s hourly which is around $12, in these parts. At the end of the day it’s a good symbolic step but it still leaves me shaking my head. The problem is that any major systemic changes would have to be tackled in most restaurants, or places risk losing their front of the house staff to restaurants where they can earn more. It’s the American way, I know this.
Consider this thought: What if you went into a restaurant and at the conclusion of your meal, your check had two tip lines, one that said kitchen and one that said service. Some nights the food is horrible and the service wonderful. Your tip would go to the right person. Similarly, sometimes the food is great and the service dismal. Now you can feel somewhat better that your tip has gone to the 50% of the equation that got it right.
"That would never work!" says April, "What server is going to stay in a job for so little? Servers get paid minimum wage."
Consider a different, much more radical thought: What if restaurants paid all their staff an hourly wage based on experience, hard work, and seniority. All tips that come into the house are pooled, the restaurant owners take some to reimburse themselves for paying everyone a living hourly wage. When tips are over a certain percentage, they get distributed equally to every single person working in the restaurant, because - every single person in that restaurant has a hand, a big hand, in the enjoyment of that customer who leaves a tip.
Would good servers work in places set up like that? After the precedent of getting the lion’s share of the gratuity when they deliver that proverbial car to the customer, who can blame them if they didn't?
Interestingly, for all our attitudes about each other’s professions, April and I chose each other. Fodder for the therapist’s couch aside, I think that, in the end, we don’t want to think these things of each other’s professions. We want to be the one to not only defy the stereotype ourselves but to think better of the other half of our team.
When April mumbles “typical chef” under her breath about some (admittedly) ego-crazed, knife-wielding megalomaniac, I want to agree with her, but I don’t because I want even more to change this paradigm. I want to toss up the front and back of the house pieces and have them fall down in completely new arrangements.
And, okay, yes, he was a total asshole. A complete narcissist! But, shhhh, don’t tell her I said that.