A Few Brief Words On Hospitality

Excerpt from Uncle Tony’s Revenge

What is hospitality? Answering that question proves to be so much more challenging than one would think. I recently revisited The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down: An Informal History Of Hospitality by Jesse Browner. It’s an excellent book on the subject and stretches close to 200 pages. I was hoping to find a concise summation of the term that I could reference here. The fact that I didn’t find that perfect passage speaks not to any failing on Browner’s part as a writer but to the fact that the question “what is hospitality?” is as deeply philosophical as asking “what is free will?”

Browner writes:

No one could argue against the basic premise that when you cook for someone you seek to please them. It would seem self-evident that a guest’s satisfaction must be the only response acceptable to an attentive host. “To entertain a guest is to make yourself responsible for his happiness so long as he is beneath your roof,” says Brillat-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste. That sentence embodies the very essence of the traditional view of hospitality and its obligations. But of course, nothing — not even happiness — is ever as simple as it seems.

Not simple indeed. Can true hospitality exist in a restaurant? Ask a hundred different restaurant operators or professionals and you’re likely to get a hundred different answers. Hospitality is one of our oldest human institutions. We have to go as far back as Ancient Greece to try to get at the truth of this question. The etymology of the word is instructive here. Our current English word was taken from the Old French hospitalité which has its root in the Latin hospes meaning “host”. What is striking is that the same word hospes was also used to mean “guest”. The same Latin root of hospes also gave the word hostis which came to mean “stranger”, and later “enemy” and is the source of our English word “hostility”.

Okay, maybe that doesn’t exactly clear things up but it does prove my point. From the very first, the idea of hospitality has been about an exchange between human beings, often ones meeting for the very first time. In ancient times, before modern ideals of law and order, that exchange was fraught with peril. Looking at restaurants today, I’d suggest not much has changed on that score.

The institution of hospitality predates capitalism by about several thousand years. For most of human history, hospitality has been about welcoming guests to your campfire, to your hut, castle, or home and treating them kindly, feeding them well, and having some reasonable expectation that the person or parties who acted as host, if they performed those duties fully and graciously, would receive an invitation from their guest to themselves be hosted and enjoy the same fine treatment. In that sense, hospitality has always been of a transactional nature, but the exchange of goods beyond food, drink, and lodging, including money (once it came into existence) was not at the heart of hospitality.

So can true hospitality exist in a restaurant setting? I’d argue no. Here, I think, is the lie, the myth, at the heart of any restaurant that is the source of so much tension and strain between us restaurant employees and you, our guests: that when you visit our restaurant, you should expect the very same treatment as if we were welcoming you into our home. It’s a myth we’ve been perpetuating, perhaps with good intentions, but where it’s gotten us is an increasingly untenable position. Sure, some of us put in so many hours that it does seem like we live at the restaurant, but it is in every meaningful way clearly NOT our home. It’s our job. And while you are our guests, the transaction, the exchange, the social compact that we have entered into is something entirely different. Since you are not visiting us at our home, you cannot in any way return the favor. We are agreeing to feed you, house you, if only for a few hours, and yes, we’ve prided ourselves as an industry on treating you as kindly as we are able. But what’s in it for us? If you want to continue to buy into the myth that you are guests in our home, well, you better start acting like it. As far as our workers go, you’re not really even paying full price for their labor — no one is. On top of that, any of us could tell you stories about bad behavior on your part that would make even your own grandmother throw you out if you did it at her house. We don’t have that luxury. It’s not our home, it’s our business and it can’t exist without your patronage, but that gives you no right to hold an entire industry hostage to your every whim simply because we cannot afford to piss you off.

Any restaurant you walk into is staffed by your fellow human beings, who have continued to do their best to graciously serve you food that has been carefully prepared and wines that have been thoughtfully chosen, in spaces that have been exactingly designed, all with the object of providing you maximum pleasure. And you are entitled to exactly none of that. All of that is a service. That’s what this is after all truly — it’s the service industry. Your misguided sense of hospitality has no place here any longer.

Let me put it another way that even the Karens and Kens of the world can understand. In medieval times, hospitality meant that when one army accepted the invitation of another to dine under their roof, no blood would be shed. Well, in restaurants today, we’re the Starks, you’re the Freys, and every single night is the Red Wedding.

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