The Kitchen Confidential Generation Confronts The Restaurant Apocalypse
Come midnight tonight you’ll find me in my kitchen. The counters will be stained with chicken blood. Tall, alabaster candles will adorn every surface, reaching for the ceiling like skeletal fingers. I’ll be sitting cross legged on the floor, burning bundles of rosemary and Marlboro Reds. In front of me, an altar ladened with negronis and jamón ibérico de bellota. The Stooges’s Fun House, or maybe Richard Hell and the Voidoids will blast from the stereo speakers. My focus will be a portrait hung on the wall in a midnight black frame; my hero, my patron saint, Uncle Tony gazing pensively at a cocktail on the bar in front of him. If I stare long enough at the deep furrow of his brow, the Nazca lines of his face, perhaps the secrets he’s learned in death will reveal themselves.
The white bone of knuckle stands out as I grip my gris-gris scepter, a skewer of chicken feet clawing the sky, nails still intact, like the yakitori they serve in hell. Around me, intricate designs, drawn in Maldon sea salt, curls and eldritch symbols that should have been used to season a standing rib roast or spaghetti con bottarga. But my need is great. Desperate. All consuming. In a strained voice, quivering with fear, I begin to invoke the Elder Gods. Brillat-Savarin! Apicius! Bocuse! Sen no Rikyū! Leah Chase! My guts roil and churn, but I must press on. Reading backwards from the book of Ruhlman, the horrible sounds coming from my raw throat like a Diamanda Galas album dropped into a Vitamix, I speak the summoning words. The candles flicker and then sputter out. The kitchen is plunged into darkness as the playlist kicks into a driving Queens of the Stone Age track. All else is silence until the windows explode inward, shards of glass of butchering my face. Blood in my eyes, blood in my mouth. As I approach the gaping hole in my wall, a nefarious scent reaches my nostrils — Époisses, fryer grease, vetiver, and what can only be the stench of the grave.
What comes through the broken window is a horror beyond measure, all the more terrifying for I have summoned him here. Long limbs appear first, probing, cautious, unfurling, as a spider bursting from an egg sac. Then the head appears followed by broad shoulders. The face I know so well is stretched in an evil, satisfied grin, like the cook that just made it with the waitress in the walk-in. He pulls the rest of his bulk in and rises to his full height, towering over me. As he approaches, rusty chef knife in hand, my bladder lets go. Urine pools around my feet like warm chicken stock. His wild gaze locks on me, and my heart beats furiously, as if it knows I have but seconds to live. I can’t believe that they would have buried him in chef’s whites but that is what he’s wearing now. Underneath the blood stains, I realize I can almost make out the name of the doomed soul he collected them from. Batali? His Wüsthof slices across my ribs and the red, red crawbby of my guts spills onto the floor like a burst Haggis. I slump onto the tile. The zombie corpse of Anthony Bourdain stands triumphant over my limp form, the kitchen floor awash in piss and blood. As my vision goes dim, he catches my eye one last time. He lets out a laugh like a death rattle. His lips pull back from his teeth like desiccated chicken skin, and as I breathe my last he has the final word.
Live From The Restaurant Apocalypse
The beginning of the end fell on a Thursday afternoon. On March 12th, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo jointly announced that all public venues, including restaurants, with less than a 500 person occupancy limit would need to reduce their capacity by 50% beginning on Friday, March 13th at 5 PM. Look at those dates again. The entire NYC restaurant industry was asked to transform their businesses overnight.
Imagine the scene, you are the General Manager of an all day French cafe in Tribeca. It’s 2 PM. Lunch is winding down. There’s only two tables left. A pair of NYU professors that come in for lunch once a week are at Table 33, most of the way through their steak frites and a bottle of Pomerol. There’s a couple on a date that requested the banquette in the corner, even though it seats eight. They’ve just finished their créme caramel and Gustavo the lunch server is dropping off their coffees. They ask for two calvados and Gustavo acknowledges the order with a smile and a nod. Inwardly, he’s fuming. He was hoping to get out early. It is clear this table is camping out and his relief, Angela — the first dinner server due in, already called to say she’s running late because her babysitter had car trouble.
You’re in the office working on next week’s schedule, and trying to avoid making eye contact with the giant pile of invoices on your desk that still need to be entered into the restaurant’s inventory management software when Chef Hilario bursts in.
“Bossman” he says, “you gotta come see this”.
“What’s wrong chef?”
“Lurch is on the tv saying we gotta go to half full starting tomorrow?”
Your stomach drops into the soles of your burnished but scuffed loafers.
“Ok chef” you say. “Let’s go see exactly what kind of shit sandwich de Blasio wants us to eat.” You follow the chef back to his tiny desk, which is really just a piece of plywood stacked on top of milk crates from your produce vendor. He pulls up the video on his iPad that he keeps in house to watch fútbol highlights after service.
One agonizing, soul-crushing press conference later, you stagger up from your tiny windowless basement office to the bar. Rob, the head bartender, looks up from where he’s trying to fashion a presentable cocktail from the sample bottle of lychee vodka that the liquor rep dropped off yesterday.
“You ok man?” he asks as you grip the bar like a sailor about to be tossed overboard.
“I’ll have some Mezcal please, Rob. The Del Maguey Tobalá.”
Rob looks askance at you, knowing immediately something is up. You never drink on the job and now you’re ordering the most expensive booze in the house — $32 for 2 oz. Steady barman he is, he pours the drink without further comment. As the flavors of the mezcal begin to dance across your palate, campfire, mango, cinnamon, you collect yourself. You exhale deeply, reaching for the calm center that has powered you through so many previous shitstorms. Like last Friday when the point of sale system went down during the middle of the dinner rush and Jesus, one of the line cooks, walked out in frustration, taking his brother Jaime, your best dishwasher, with him.
“Well Rob,” you say, “we’ve got some heavy lifting to do.”
Those of us who work in restaurants tend to make a lot of analogies to the mechanical when we talk about the work we do, whether it’s huddled in the back service station scarfing down Reese’s peanut butter cups for a mid-shift burst of energy, or running through the dinner service play by play alongside post-work burgers and beers. We say things like “The kitchen was firing on all cylinders.”, “Thanks for pumping out those drinks for me.” or “Man, we’re really crushing it this week and it’s not even Thursday.” The trouble with that analogy lies in this — when machines break down, everything grinds to a halt until you fix the problem — change the stripped gear, clean the oil filter, add more gas. Restaurants don’t have that luxury. They’re less like machines and more like the human body-an endlessly complex and incredible feat of engineering that begins to break down from the moment it is created.
If you’re a new restaurant owner and you’ve spent hundreds of thousands, or even more likely, millions of dollars taking over the Sichuan spot on the corner and turning it into your temple to vegan Moroccan cuisine, you are rightly proud of your gorgeous new kitchen with gleaming ranges and powerful burners, of the lowboys featuring pull out shelves with built in mise trays, of the floral accents on the tile backsplash. You’re also proud of your sleek dining room with the Blu Dot chairs and the lacquered oval tabletops and the Zalto stemware. If this is your first restaurant opening (and god help you if it is) you will soon learn that, from an equipment standpoint, Day One is the best day you’ll ever have. Owning and operating a restaurant is a masterclass in entropy. Twelve months later, even though your original plan was to be a dinner only spot, you’re now open for lunch and brunch on the weekends. You need to be open as many hours a day as possible to capture as much revenue as you can. Long hours. Hard hours. And the gorgeous restaurant you still owe the architect for? Wouldn’t you know, after all those busy services, it all starts to break down at the same time. The pilot light in the bottom right oven has always been testy, the floral backsplash has looked like shit from the first time it got dirty and those built-in mise trays? The sous chefs bust your balls every night about what a bitch they are to clean. On top of it all, the motor in the wine fridge just burned out — $5500 for a new one, and the AM server dropped an entire rack of brand new wine glasses while trying to get them polished and into service. And you were short on glasses to begin with.
Most restaurants today don’t make much profit. If you’re looking to turn a profit on a new business venture, you’d have better luck sending your grandmother door to door asking the neighbors for their spare Bitcoins than with opening a restaurant. Just to keep the lights on, most restaurants need to be busy. Doors always open. Maximum number of butts in seats per night. Doing real volume. Most of the systems in restaurants today were created to serve this all consuming need. Oh yes, there are systems upon systems, and most of them are kept behind the curtain, Wizard of Oz style, mostly for your benefit.
Restaurant workers are used to solving problems on the fly as we saw during our check-in on the imaginary bistro, let’s call it Chez Chez. That’s life in a restaurant. Shit breaks during service. It goes wrong. When it does you fix it, or at least slap some duct tape on it. You get through service doing your best to hide from the public how much harder than usual you are working. Like last night when two server assistants called out and the restaurant’s primary investor showed up with twenty of his friends for an impromptu wine dinner. He had one somm and one captain all to himself, leaving the rest of the restaurant half-staffed. That’s the part that we’re used to, and it’s not easy. There’s a reason there are studies out there showing that working in restaurants can be more stressful than working as a neurosurgeon. We have to keep the doors open. Always. So, when de Blasio left a Michael Symon-sized Cleveland Steamer in the middle of our dining room, what did we do? We rolled up our sleeves and got to work cleaning it up.
Back at Chez Chez (don’t blame me for the name. The owner’s wife came up with it.) our capable GM is springing into action. He’s calling the owner to discuss an action plan. They’ve got only two real options. One: close for dinner service tonight, which would really hurt because there’s already 80 covers on the books — the best night Chez Chez has seen in weeks. All those guests would have to be called and given the bad news. Conservatively, at least ten would take this as a deeply personal insult and promise to never again dine at the restaurant. And all that lost revenue… Nope. If you’ve worked in restaurants, you know that Option One was DOA. So it’s Option Two: reconfigure the entire restaurant before dinner service. Which begins promptly at 5:30 PM. And the clock is ticking. So, all our GM has to do is marshall his staff, come up with a plan to physically remove half the tables from the dining room, figure out where to store those extra tables for the foreseeable future in a restaurant stunningly devoid of ample storage space, and then get the tables moved. Easy you say? Well, then he’s got to figure out what level of gesture to make to the few tables still lingering from lunch as an apology for the chaos that’s about to unfold around them. Send them an extra dessert? Comp the whole meal?
He’s also got to:
Redesign the entire floorplan in the point of sale system
Communicate the new table numbers to the entire staff
Adjust the reservation book to account for the new reduced seating capacity
Figure out if there are any reservations for tonight that he can’t accommodate and call those guests to apologize
Figure out which staff members to call off/or send home now that he’s operating at half capacity
And that’s just in the next few hours. It also doesn’t include his regularly scheduled tasks, like printing dinner menus with today’s changes, getting those items updated in the POS system, restocking the wine fridges, and ordering beer which needs to happen in the next half hour before the order cutoff, or else he’ll run out over the weekend. Oh, I forgot to mention, his assistant GM is on vacation this week, so there’s literally no one else for him to turn to. He’s got to get it all done, and he does, because he’s a restaurant professional. This is the kind of shit that he does every day. He usually manages to do it with a smile on his face. Most of the time, that smile is even genuine.
Back in March, all over the city, similar scenes were playing out. The FiDi restaurant that I worked at at the time was one of the lucky ones. We had a large dining room, a separate private dining space and a large staff, not to mention our tables weren’t bolted to the floor (a common enough occurrence in Manhattan where sky high rents mean every available inch of space must be fully utilized). Tables were schlepped from the dining room into the PDR. The next day, the reconfigured restaurant opened to the public. If you weren’t following the news religiously, as many of our guests were not during those early days of the pandemic, then you’d never know anything had changed. But it sure as hell wasn’t easy.
If only it had ended there.
All that restaurant shifting madness that took place over March 12th and 13th? It was all for naught. It was just two days later on March 15th when the mayor ordered a full indoor dining shutdown to begin on March 17th.
It’s another kick in the teeth, but our GM rolls with it. He consults with his owner to figure out if they want to stay open for takeout and delivery. Nevermind that they’ve never even offered either of those options before. They decide to close temporarily, hoping to bounce back in a few weeks or whenever this virus passes. They make their plans for a March 17th closure. The GM takes steps to donate the food in the walk-in to a local food bank and goes about notifying his staff of their plan. Within less than 24 hours, Governor Cuomo moves the closure date up and all those plans, made quickly and under duress, get thrown out the window again.
And so it went through the spring and summer and fall. The programs that followed: expanded outdoor dining, takeout cocktails, and pivots to retail were a mere bandaid on the sucking knife wound that 2020 dealt to restaurants.
Now is the winter of our discontent. December has come and gone. No holiday parties, no large gatherings, no indoor dining, which as its fucking WINTER outside might as well mean no dining at all. There is no restaurant on the planet that was built to survive this. Some restaurants do 40% of their yearly sales during the holidays. Pop quiz: what’s 40% of zero? If the Biden administration passes any kind of direct restaurant relief package, it will likely not happen until February, or March at the very earliest. Cold comfort to the thousands of restaurants that have already shuttered and the millions of restaurant employees out of work.
This golden age of restaurants is over. The real question is will we ever see another? Not without a sea change on behalf of you, the public. How likely is that? Let me shake up my Restaurant Magic 8-Ball here, hmm… DON’T COUNT ON IT.
See, here’s my problem. Most of you still don’t get it. And it’s really starting to piss me off to no end. You’ve been taking restaurants for granted. Now that the restaurant apocalypse is here, you’re showing that maybe you never really cared about restaurants in the first place.
Now, maybe you’re one of the enlightened. You’ve been dining out in America for decades. You can remember a time before Ruth Reichl, before José Andrés, before David Chang, or hell maybe even before Cecilia Chang. You know, the bad old days when walking into a restaurant at random in search of a good meal had about the same success rate as walking to the nearest dumpster and eating whatever item happened to be on top. Back then, it was conceivable, if not likely, to be seated at a rickety, dirty table and handed a menu full of misprints and the highly questionable use of quotation marks. That is if you were handed a menu at all. Minutes or even hours could pass as you sat parched and famished in your own personal hell while waiters carried groaning plates of recently defrosted delicacies to every table but yours. All the parsley and lemon in the world couldn’t hide how bad the food was. The dining rooms were drab, the muzak blaring. The service, measured on a scale of male beauty from Steve Buscemi to Brad Pitt, usually ranked right around Sloth from The Goonies. The closest most restaurants had come to developing a “beverage program” was when they made the carefully considered decision whether to carry Coke or Pepsi products. Upset with the food or service? Want to speak to a manager? Odds are pretty good he was hiding out in some basement office doing cocaine that he bought using cash tips that were supposed to go to the staff. Or maybe he was passed out in the walk-in freezer which he had visited in hopes of pilfering a strip loin or two but instead found himself overcome in the small space by the concentrated stench of tomorrow night’s chicken special.
So you, Mr. or Ms. or Mx. longtime restaurant-goer, you know exactly how good you have it now. You know how the bar for restaurants has been raised and raised and raised again over the last few decades. You remember the bartender’s name and you always slip her a $20 to show your gratitude for the way she’s already making your usual cocktail even before you sit at your favorite spot in the corner. You appreciate the warm welcome from the Maitre d’ and the thoughtful question about your kids from the host team as they lead you to your table. You know your server or captain is an ambassador of the restaurant and only wants to guide you to the best experience possible. You appreciate the concise, fairly-priced, but adventurous wine list with choices from up and coming wine regions. You order the cheese course, you smile big, and you tip bigger. In short, you know what a privilege and a pleasure it is to dine out in America today. On behalf of restaurant workers everywhere, I offer you my deepest and sincere thanks.
To the rest of the vast restaurant going public, you know, the ones who, in the middle of a fucking pandemic still treat the server like a war criminal if they have to ask twice for lemons and limes to accompany their Pellegrino; to those overprivileged, underappreciative souls who dine out nightly and still tip 15% or less; to those who by their every action and interaction signal that they’d much rather it be the servant industry rather than the service industry I’d like to say, first, on behalf of restaurant workers everywhere:
Go fuck yourself.
What I am so pissed off about? To quote George Carlin at his angriest “the public sucks — fuck hope.” Since the virus hit, the vast majority of you are proving him right. New York City restaurant goers are a pretty entitled bunch as a rule. To a certain extent, we as restaurant workers, owners, and operators have enabled this, but with the best of intentions. Restaurateur Danny Meyer calls it “enlightened hospitality” — it’s the dressed up version of the customer is always right but it also goes beyond that.
Here’s an example Danny might offer: You’ve just finished a meal at Gramercy Tavern, one of America’s finest restaurants. It’s one of my favorites and where I took my fiancée on our first date. You’re walking from the back dining room out through the bustling tavern bar. As you approach the Maitre d’s podium at the front of the restaurant, you realize it’s pouring rain out. Cats and dogs. Mass hysteria. And you’ve forgotten your umbrella. Not a moment after you’ve finished conferring with your spouse about your best bet for getting home dry, a tall, thin young man in a Brioni suit and power knotted tie politely interrupts. He hands you a sturdy black umbrella with the restaurant’s logo and says “thank you again for dining with us.”
The same hospitality is there in the off-menu cupcake that shows up with a candle at the end of your meal, even though you only mentioned it was your birthday in passing to the bartender who served you a cocktail while you were waiting to sit for your reservation. It’s there in the polite smiles and gracious accommodations when your Mom asks to change tables for the third time and the hostess makes it happen. Does every restaurant operate with this level of foresight, caring, and attention to detail? Of course not, but it’s become part of the overall restaurant standard. It’s what has made dining out in NYC and across the country so enjoyable over the last few decades. It’s what those of us who have chosen to do this work professionally take pride in.
And you’re fucking it up.
How, you ask?
In a very real sense, you’re killing us. You’ve taken this goodwill we extend to every guest, this enlightened hospitality and you’re shitting all over it. We’re out here risking our life to cook and serve you dinner, with all the hospitality and grace that you’ve come to expect, and you get pissy when we ask you to wear your mask when you get up to go to the bathroom? We’re risking our lives in the middle of the worst health crisis in this country in a hundred years and you’re still complaining that your steak isn’t cooked perfectly to just a shade over medium? Want to know exactly how badly you suck? Most of us work for tips, an unfair, racially biased, and outdated practice that we’re still stuck with for now. And that’s no surprise to anyone. This is not a new system, but it’s what we’ve got and how we pay the bills. Ask any server, or any restaurant owner and they’ll tell you this horrible inescapable truth. Over the course of the pandemic, tipping has gone DOWN. I mean, what the actual FUCK?!
Take a long look in the mirror you entitled fucktwat. You shitbag. You scumsucking pussbucket. Then take a look at my face because you won’t be seeing it at your table ever again.
I’m done. I quit. I’ll never work in another restaurant again, and it’s because of you.
I’ve worked in restaurants for the better part of twenty years. From my earliest days as a dishwasher in my teens, I’ve called restaurants home. I’ve run award winning beverage programs and helped to open some of the finest restaurants in the New York area. The restaurant industry has been my home. It’s where I met my soon-to-be wife and my dearest friends.
Food and drink are my life. I could tell you stories about the great Nebbiolo-based wines of the Valtellina in Italy, or about what makes Island Creek Oysters from Duxbury, Massachusetts so special. I cried a little when Gourmet Magazine folded. If you dined at one of my restaurants, I gave you my all. I was the bartender who gave you the recipe to your favorite cocktail so you could make it at home. I was the sommelier who poured you a free glass of Sauternes because you just absolutely had to try it with your foie gras mousse. I was the manager who listened to your complaints and made sure that you left happy. In all of that, I was and am not exceptional. The restaurant industry is full of food-obsessed crazies like me who wanted to make sure you had a good time. Think of the last time you were in a restaurant and asked a question. About anything. Who makes your bread? Is this wine dry? What exactly was in that delicious sauce on the grouper? What the hell is a sunchoke? Odds are the first person you asked had the answer — even if it was the busboy. The general level of food and beverage expertise in a restaurant today is several orders of magnitude higher than any other time in human history. And we’ve always wanted to share that with you. But if you keep ignoring our pleas for help during our darkest hour of need… Well, I’ve already made my decision. I’m burning my apron on the way out the door. Bus your own fucking table.
Listen, most of us want to be home, safe with our families, eating a Kevin McCallister-sized sundae and binge-watching Netflix like the rest of you. We can’t because all levels of government have told us that we don’t matter. The airline industry employs around 750,000 people. So far, airlines have been bailed out to the tune of $25 BILLION. With another potential $15 billion on the way. The independent restaurant industry employs over 11 million people.
Total direct aid to the restaurant industry to date:
Zero dollars. Nada. Bupkis. Goose egg.
Thanks a lot America. Hope you had a good time. The last twenty years were the equivalent of a twelve course chef’s tasting menu with pairings and a trip to the wine cellar for brandy and cigars after dessert and you just stiffed us on the bill.
And you know better. You fucking know better. What’s that? You say you didn’t know the rules? You don’t understand how all this restaurant stuff works? I find that hard to believe. I call bullshit. You know the rules. I know for a fact that Uncle Tony already told you. I was there when he did it.
Before we go any further, it’s time to address the 6’4” elephant in the dining room. It is (rightly) impossible to sit down and write about restaurants and food today without acknowledging the towering oeuvre of Anthony Bourdain. Odds are pretty good you know who I mean. Restaurant workers sure as hell do. He’s our hero. Our mentor. Our voice. Uncle Tony. The void his death left behind seems insurmountable some days. Even if you don’t know the man, or his work, you feel and see his influence everywhere. In 2000, a then 44 year old Bourdain was Head Chef of Les Halles, a respectable but middle of the road French bistro on Park Avenue South. Kitchen Confidential, published that year, was a bawdy, revelatory exploration of restaurants. Sure, the sex and drugs helped sell it, but Bourdain’s underlying message registered. Food was cool. Restaurants were cool. Chefs, for the first time, were most definitely cool.
And I wanted in.
I’m not sure exactly when I first became aware of Bourdain, but it was likely sometime around 2003. I had just moved back home after a very expensive three-year vacation at the University of Southern California. My parents and I were settled in the living room — his and hers recliners for them and the couch for me. In my hand was a can of Steel Rail from Berkshire Brewing Company. On the ottoman before us was my mom’s warm cheesy clam dip and Ritz crackers. An episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations was on the TV. Tony had something special for us tonight: a two-part episode featuring Japan and China. He was in Osaka, standing outside a food hall decked out in neon and glowbulbs. Behind him, a mechanical clown that looked like a Japanese Buddy Holly dressed in a red and white striped suit spastically banged on a drum while he explained the concept of kuidaore. A rough translation would be “to bankrupt oneself through food and drink.” I almost spit out my beer.
Here it was! My purpose in life, affirmed and given a cool name by the merchant class of 16th century Osaka. Supposedly the ruling elite of that era were jealous of the wealth and success of the merchants and forbade them from making ostentatious displays of wealth, like dressing fancy or having giant homes. So, since you can’t take it with you, they spent lavishly on great banquets and feasts on the regular. Having ready access to great seafood, produce, and meat didn’t hurt either. And so Osaka became a culinary capital of the world. Meanwhile, back in Athol, Massachusetts, the young me was overjoyed. I had discovered a name for this feeling that had been building in me all my life.
Uncle Tony was showing me the way.
I quit my desk job in college administration, sold my car, and moved to New York City, just in time to catch the 2008 recession. (You know, the last time an entire American industry was on the verge of collapse. Glad it worked out better for them.) Compared to now, it was still boom times. With zero NYC experience, I had the great fortune to get hired off the street by my good friend Carolyn DeFir-Hunter, who was at the time GM of Convivio — the reopened and repurposed L’Impero from Chef Michael White and restaurant guru Chris Cannon. From the very first, I knew exactly how lucky I had been to land there. I had never tasted anything as mind blowing as the tortelli stuffed with amatriciana and sauced with cacio e pepe. Or the duck heart salad. Or the 2005 Guttarolo Primitivo from Puglia. The wine director at the time Levi Dalton, one of NY’s great auto-didact wine savants, became my wine mentor. All the magic and the opportunity that followed me through the rest of my career flowed from that first gig.
It was all because of Uncle Tony. I can say without reservation that besides my parents, my brother, and my partner, Anthony Bourdain is the most important influence in my life. By all rights, he should be the one here now, using all his wit and charm and humanity to sound the alarm on this crisis. But part of me is glad he isn’t here to see this. It would have broken his heart. And it would have sickened him, I think, because we wouldn’t be teetering on the edge of this precipice if everyone had truly learned from what he tried to teach us.
Kitchen Confidential remains one of the most important books on restaurants ever written. Taken on its own merits, it is at best a problematic text — rife with passages that romanticize or fetishize the misogynist, racist, and abusive tendencies of the chefs, cooks, and owners Bourdain worked for and with. But as Bourdain said himself in the introduction, what he wrote was a stylized, but entirely true depiction of where restaurants and restaurant culture stood in America in the 70s, 80s, and 90s:
I want the professionals who read this to enjoy it for what it is: a straight look at a life many of us have lived and breathed for most of our days and nights to the exclusion of ‘normal’ social interaction. Never having had a Friday or Saturday night off, always working holidays, being busiest when the rest of the world is just getting out of work, makes for a sometimes peculiar world-view, which I hope my fellow chefs and cooks will recognize. The restaurant lifers who read this may or may not like what I’m doing. But they’ll know I’m not lying.
He wasn’t lying. Say what you want about Uncle Tony, he always spoke the truth as he saw it. God knows what he’d be saying now.
Bourdain never hid the fact that working in restaurants was hard work, sometimes miserable, soul-crushing work. He often related how he fully expected an indignant end, stroking out mid-shift in some forgotten no-star joint in Hell’s Kitchen, slumping down to the greasy floor, next to the stove. Kitchen Confidential remains so essential today because it was one of the first times that a restaurant lifer pierced that veil of hospitality and allowed the inner workings of restaurants to be thrust into the light. Warts and all.
So what compelled me and a generation of my peers to follow him into the breach? Opportunity for one. Having spent time in an academic world, “the real world”, where I was denied job advancement opportunities for the sin of not having a college degree, the meritocracy of restaurants as Bourdain depicted it held a strong appeal. If you showed up early for every shift, put your head down and worked, and learned from those around you, you could get ahead. Prep cook to head chef, or dishwasher to Maitre d’ was a real and possible path of advancement. More than anything, those of us who read Kitchen Confidential and followed Uncle Tony to New York City to be a part of the center of the restaurant universe knew on some cellular level what he spent the rest of his career trying to communicate to you. That the sharing of food and drink is love. And love is the strongest force in the universe.
How does that translate to the restaurant world? That’s a complicated issue that we’ll come back to. For now, its enough to say that those of us who grew up getting the side eye from other kids because we showed up to the cafeteria with a pastrami and rye instead of a PB&J, for those of us who looked forward to the next visit to the local pizza joint as much as a trip to Disneyland, for those of us for whom that first bowl of pho or first bite of sushi was an epiphany, we recognized ourselves in Bourdain. And he in us. We were young, food obsessed, and disaffected with the school>college>job>retirement conveyor belt. We flocked to New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, to be with our own kind. (Here when I say “our own kind” I clearly mean anyone who had a deep love and appreciation of food and the people that grow it and prepare it and a burning desire to learn more about where it came from. But I am well aware that the preceding passages smack of white privilege so blinding that everyone but DT would need eclipse glasses to look at it. I fully acknowledge that and admit to it. We’ll get to all the terrible injustice and exploitation that is baked into the restaurant loaf in just a bit.) Over the next twenty years, we helped build the restaurant paradise that you’ve so enjoyed. It’s a world that Kitchen Confidential made possible. It was only the beginning of Uncle Tony’s journey and we were along for the ride. The trouble is, somewhere along the way, most of you got off the train. Or you completely missed the point. Which is the same thing.
Why do we hold Bourdain in such reverence? Why would I nominate him for sainthood in any religion that would have him? Because he never stopped writing, he never stopped asking the hard questions, he never stopped looking at the world around him and trying to humanize it. Sure, he started with restaurants, because it was the world that he knew and was comfortable in, and had the most to say about. But he grew beyond it. Over the course of multiple books and television shows, we watched Uncle Tony grow up. We watched him travel the world and be transformed by the journey. We watched as he told the truth about how when we go to the restaurant with the white male chef’s face and books plastered up near the entrance, it’s likely a guy from Puebla or a woman from Honduras in the back cooking “the chef’s” food. We watched as he followed those same cooks back to their homes, met their families, shared in the joy of their table. We watched as he increasingly spoke out on behalf of women in kitchens, and women everywhere. We watched as he fell in love with Vietnam, with Congo, with Saudi Arabia. From A Cook’s Tour through to Parts Unknown, we got to spend hundreds of hours with a man who showed us how to travel the world. Asking questions and listening to the answers. Open mind. Open heart. Open stomach.
I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the last season of shows he taped. I’m not sure when I’ll be ready for that but it won’t be anytime soon. Point is, those shows he did, those books he wrote, they were the legacy of a beautiful man. A questing, questioning soul who traveled the world and was humbled by the beauty he found there. By the grace and the true hospitality of being asked to join a family for a meal at their table, and not just any meal, but the best goat slaughtered, the best fish prepared, the choicest bits of meat, the ones that the family might not see but twice a year, humbly offered to the honored guest, Uncle Tony. Saint Tony. He always treated it as the blessing that it was and is. The communion of the human tribe.
Paging Alan Richman
Going back and re-reading the books, re-watching the shows over after his passing, two things become very clear about Uncle Tony. One is that his depression was always with him. In the very first episode of A Cook’s Tour, just before an incredible sushi meal in Tokyo, Bourdain says “I was going to say that I’m ready to die right now. But no, I’ll be ready to die after this.” How many shows does he mention death in? Most of them. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, go back and watch. Hell, make it a drinking game. Take a shot of booze or a down a beer every time he mentions death or dying. (It’s okay, I promise Uncle Tony would likely approve.) You’ll be shitfaced by the end of most episodes. This is not to make light of his death or the loss of his voice at the very moment it was most needed. In the midst of the worst health crisis of our lifetimes, I think we’re all of us much more intimately familiar with depression than we used to be.
The day of Bourdain’s death, I woke up to a text message from my mother. Since she never texts me, I knew immediately that something was dreadfully wrong. But I never expected to get that news. Not Uncle Tony. It couldn’t be. Later that day found me sitting alone in the empty restaurant I was running at the time, blasting Television’s Marquee Moon and trying to muster up the stamina to get through dinner service. Toughest service I ever worked. The tears never stopped flowing. I’ve gotten this far okay while writing this, but now the waterworks are starting up again. Back then, in that shift, and in so many shifts to follow, I took comfort in the work I was doing. Our work. Restaurant work. In some ways, every shift since the day he took his own life has been a little memorial to the man he was and to what he meant in my life, in the lives of the millions and millions of people he touched. And it is millions, might even be billions. His books and shows were translated into hundreds of languages and were best sellers across the globe. More importantly, they were best sellers here at home, you know here in the good old US of A, where maybe the only truth to “American Exceptionalism” left is that we take exception to everything.
Which brings me back to restaurants and the other thing I noticed rewatching Uncle Tony’s shows. As time goes on, there are fewer and fewer restaurant scenes. Or maybe there are the same number, but they’re more tightly edited, less expansive. By the end of Parts Unknown, there’s no question you’re watching a different show, a different format from A Cook’s Tour or No Reservations. Sure, the jump to CNN prompted Bourdain and his amazing team at Zero Point Zero Productions to make a lot of changes, with cultural and political considerations being given a much more upfront placement. But that surely isn’t enough to explain the markedness of the shift. So what gives? Did Tony fall out of love with restaurants? I think he did, at least at little.
And so have I.
The title of this section is inspired by a chapter in Medium Raw, Bourdain’s 2010 follow-up/update to Kitchen Confidential. That chapter is entitled “Alan Richman is A Douchebag” and the gist of it is Tony taking Richman, an “elder statesman” of food writing and restaurant criticism, to task for, amongst other offenses, penning a general takedown of the New Orleans restaurant scene a year after Hurricane Katrina decimated that most special of American cities. Total bullshit right?
Well, get your hip waders out, because, in the midst of the worst crisis ever facing restaurants, I’m about to do the same thing.
Should restaurants even exist? What purpose do they actually serve?
I can’t help but get existential here. I find myself where Tony was before the book deal. I’ll be 40 in September. I’ve been working in restaurants for the better part of twenty years. I’ve held every position in a restaurant besides cooking in the kitchen. Like Tony, even though I’ve now quit the business, I have a tough time picturing myself doing any other kind of work. But I’ll figure that out. For now, know that I’ve spent as much time as anyone alive today thinking critically about restaurants as an American institution. As I’ve already quit the industry in protest, I can give you the unvarnished truth, and it ain’t pretty…
The restaurant industry as it currently stands in America is inherently exploitative and unsustainable. This is true across the entire industry but is also true of just about any single restaurant, or any larger restaurant group, be it independent or not. This might come as a shock to you at home, given that sustainability has been the main buzzword just about every “locavore” or “farm to table restaurant” or really, any restaurant with a decent PR team claims to aspire to. The reality is that the massive proliferation of restaurants, both in NYC and across the country has acted as a kind of smoke screen, obfuscating the real challenges we face as an industry and as a nation. It’s been easy to look around and think, there’s just so many damn restaurants, we must be doing something right, we must have an amazing and robust national food culture. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Our food systems are in complete shambles. They’re strip mining our country, they’re making us sick, and restaurants have been the shiny bauble that’s held too much of our attention, the iPhone screen that we haven’t been able to peel our eyes away from to look up and see that the real world as we know it is burning down around us. That’s a whole lot to unpack, so I’ll try to be as succinct as I can be given that these are some highly complex issues.
We must begin with a brief lesson in restaurant economics:
They don’t work.
See? I said it would be brief.
In all seriousness, the current business model of restaurants is fundamentally flawed. As I’ve related earlier, any individual restaurant is an inherently complex operation-and all areas of that operation have been subject to tremendous strain from rapidly rising costs over the past twenty years. Sure, some of these pressures have resulted in trends across the industry that Bourdain and others have been talking about for years — it’s enshrined in the Momofuku creation myth — Hey look! They got rid of the tablecloths! And the chairs! These types of moves, while valid reactions to challenging fiscal realities, are very much the restaurant equivalent of lipstick on the pig. There are two bedrock principles that any restaurant operating today is founded on, the two release valves that restaurants have used to continue to exist in the face of these inflationary pressures — the exploitation of labor and the willingness of all parties, be it restaurant operators, employees, or patrons, to continue to enable and participate in an operation, a system, an industry in which at no point is anyone paying the real cost of the food that ends up on the table.
Since it’s likely easiest to understand, let’s start by tackling the exploitation of labor. Here I must come clean. I’ve been a huge beneficiary of so much of that exploitation. Sure I’ve been exploited too, but let me leave no doubt about my baggage here. I am a white male with all the attendant privileges that comes with that status. To this point, I’ve made a respectable middle class living working in restaurants. But there was no time in my career, no restaurant that I’ve worked at, where the money I made was not at the expense of my co-workers.
Let’s take a quick step back. Every restaurant starts with an idea. A dream. Sometimes it’s as grandiose (and admirable) as a restaurant as the center and the showcase for biodiverse and sustainable farming practices. [Blue Hill at Stone Barns] Other times, it might be prompted by more practical concerns, as when an established restaurant gets the chance to rent the space next door and turn it into an overflow/waiting area to capture even more business. [RIP Porsena & Porsena Extra Bar] The process of turning that idea, that dream into a reality begins with two things essential to any business — money and a business plan. The business plan comes from the owners/operators/managing partners/proprietors or whatever else they choose to call themselves. Simple enough. Where does the money come from? Well, it’s here, in the very infancy of any restaurant that things get pretty dicey. It’s very likely the start up capital for any new restaurant is already itself the product of prior exploitation. Who’s putting up the money? It’s either all from the principals (rare), solely from private investment (uncommon), or from the principals putting up a percentage and soliciting investors to cover the rest (most common). Ah, but where is the money coming from? Let’s start with the investors. Who’s got so much money lying around that they could afford to invest in a high-risk bet like backing a restaurant? You got it. Tech execs, hedge fund bros, and the like. The young robber baron set. (With my wine guy hat on, I’m used to thinking about terroir: the idea that any product is intimately connected to the place, the land that it comes from. This idea scales up well to explain how Amazon and the rest of its brethren have contributed to the hollowing out of small-town and rural America, but sorry Mario, that princess is in another article.)
Let’s assume the most uncommon scenario — that all the money comes from the owners, and not from outside investment. Where does that money come from? There’s still a decent chance that those owners made their money in one of those industries I’ve already mentioned, with all the attendant problems that signifies. More likely, in this case, the owners are us: restaurant lifers who have worked and scrimped and saved for the shot at the big time — the chance to be their own boss. Bourdain spoke to some of these realities in Kitchen Confidential and elsewhere. Restaurants are such a low-profit business model that there are very few ways a chef/owner or a manager/owner can hope to earn a better living, with chefs having a slight advantage here. Call it the Food Network effect, which Bourdain was obviously a major factor in. Thanks to that heightened visibility many celebrity chefs now enjoy, endorsement deals for cookware or pasta sauces can help a chef start to put together a portfolio of diversified revenue streams. The GMs and owners of the world mostly occupy a position of lower visibility, at least until they rise to the level of “restaurateur”, meaning they’re owning and operating multiple restaurants. This is why I can no longer remain silent. The chain of exploitation goes back and back and back, to the very first days of the very first restaurants. Consider how likely any new restaurant is to fail, how exploitative of its workers any restaurant inherently is, how the continued growth of the industry is dependent on soliciting capital and participation from an under informed public, and that the surest way for most of the principals to actually make any money is by opening more restaurants.
We have a term for that type of business model. It’s called a pyramid scheme.
You might be recoiling at that scenario. At that language. But it’s the truth. So how exactly do these new restaurants owners, former bartenders, servers, managers, cooks, and chefs themselves turn around and exploit their fellow workers?
Restaurant exploitation certainly doesn’t end with it, but it began there. Tipping is a legacy of slavery. Period. There is no more authoritative or informative voice on this topic than the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. His article for Politico entitled “The Racist History of Tipping” is concise and damning. Go read it now. It’s okay. I’ll wait. If it doesn’t stir something deeply human in you, well, you might as well stop reading this and go do something productive. Like jump off Trump Tower without a parachute. Try to aim for Don Jr.
Look, these may seem like grandiose or overblown pronouncements but I assure they are justified. As I write these exact words, it’s January 7th, one day after the violation of the US Capitol Building at the direction of the traitorous fascist currently occupying the White House. Yes, I am in the position I am, able to write these words, without fear of reprisal, because of the color of my skin. I’ve made my living standing on the shoulders of black and brown bussers, servers, runners, and cooks who still don’t have anywhere near the opportunities available to them that have come my way. My moral outrage on their behalf is at least ten years too late. I’ve witnessed their plight firsthand for years. I assuaged any guilt I had about the situation by trying to be a good coworker or a good friend or a good manager, as if that were enough. Truth be told, I’m ashamed to say I often failed at all of the above. Consider this call to action on their behalf the very first steps in my restaurant restitution, but know there is still so much work to be done.
Back to tipping. It’s a terrible practice that needs an immediate antidote. And if you’ve dined out at a restaurant, even once, you’re complicit. How does it work? In New York restaurant employees are divided into several categories that most often align with the jobs those employees are doing within the restaurant. The tipped workers are almost always the guest facing workers — the front of house or FOH in restaurant parlance. This likely includes servers, captains, bussers, backwaiters, frontwaiters, and oftentimes sommeliers. The kitchen team, the prep cooks, line cooks, chefs, and porters/dishwashers are BOH or, you guessed it, back of house. Most often, they are paid hourly, so we’ll come back to them in a moment.
For the FOH, the industry standard has become for all those workers to participate in a “tip pool.” Restaurant employers have some leeway in how they structure these pools, but here’s a frequently used example. Each role in the FOH is assigned a point value. Those employees who most interact with guests, and who are as a result are expected to maintain the highest level of working knowledge of the menu, and often the entire beverage program as well, earn the highest point value. Those who serve in supporting or auxiliary roles earn a lower point value. Over the course of a shift, all the tips or “gratuities” are collected and put into the tip pool. (And it’s a dirty not-quite-secret that, at least in NY, restaurants are allowed to deduct the 2%-3% fees that they pay to their credit card processors directly from the pay of tipped employees.) Most pools are also weighted by the number of hours each employee works. At the end of a shift, the manager tasked with closing that particular shift is charged with distributing the tips amongst all the employees who were “in the pool” for that shift. Usually the manager does this by first totalling the tips, then totaling the number of points in the pool. The total tip amount is then divided by the number of points, giving a dollar amount for one point in the pool. Pools that are weighted by hours take that dollar value for one point and multiply it by each employee’s percentage of the total hours worked to arrive at their total dollar amount earned for the shift. Sounds complicated? It is. Sure, many restaurants use newer point of sale systems that track all this data, but just as many use a home-brewed spreadsheet. The reality is that errors and full on abuse of this system are all too common. Especially when the workers in the pool are earning sub-minimum wage.
Let’s chew on that for just a moment. The tipped minimum wage is a SUB-MINIMUM WAGE. It is no secret that we have a real problem with how we value work in this country. The restaurant industry is far from alone in undervaluing and underpaying its employees, but it is unquestionably the worst offender. Restaurant workers are the original gig economy workers.
There is no state in this Union where earning the current minimum wage equates to a living wage. In the richest country in the world, this is an unconscionable state of affairs. So let’s reframe our discussion for a moment. If we call MINIMUM WAGE what it is in actuality, a SUB-LIVING WAGE then by that logic, almost anyone who came to your table the last time you dined at a restaurant was earning a SUB-SUB-LIVING WAGE. Lost your appetite yet? Yeah. Me too.
Now, what about those tips you leave? Well, as we’ve already established, you the public fucking suck in this regard. Oh sure, some of you tip you 20%, 25%, 30% or even more but all that does is serve to balance out the rest of you who think that tipping 12% is somehow still appropriate. There is a special circle of hell reserved for those of you who have tipped less during this pandemic, but thank you for opening my eyes to the real depths this crisis represents for my fellow workers. I now know with total certainty that tipping needs to be abolished forever. I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops for the rest of my days. The next time you go to a restaurant and leave NO TIP no matter how egregious the offense, I don’t care if your food took two hours to come out, when you sat down at that table you bought in to the whole system, you became our employer and if you walk out of that restaurant without leaving your server ANYTHING, you might as well pick up the pretty bone-handled steak knife they brought for your next course and STAB THEM IN THE FUCKING NECK WITH IT because that’s level of harm you are doing to them. To me. To us. Those fine people who only ever really wanted you to have a good time.
No more. Enough is enough. You can’t be trusted with that level of responsibility. It’s got to be taken out of your hands.
I’m just getting warmed up. I warned you this was going to get messy.
We’re leaving the front of the house for a moment, and heading back to the kitchen. Uncle Tony’s domain. He’s said more about that world and said it better than I can ever hope to. I’ve never worked behind the line. I’ll just try to touch on the salient points for our conversation. The guys in the kitchen work hard. Real hard. In Bourdain’s day, as he’s shown, those kitchen teams were a motley crew, but then again they could afford to be. There was usually at least one major wall between them and the restaurant going public. Today, the chefs and cooks are as likely as not to be working in an open kitchen — right there out front where everyone can watch the sweat roll down their faces. Try to pay a little more attention to what’s going on in their world next time you make a late reservation. Odds are pretty good that if you sit down at the very latest time available, even if your meal lasts hours, the kitchen team will still be breaking down their stations when you leave. How often do you clean your kitchen at home? Sure, you might wipe up the counters and the stove when you spill something, but imagine scrubbing every surface, every burner, every appliance every single night. This is now the default restaurant standard. That same level of care and attention to detail is applied to every aspect of food preparation. Every single food item, from when it arrives as whole vegetables, whole sides of meat, whole fish, is broken down and carefully stored, labeled, and dated. If you work in a restaurant kitchen today, you live and breathe cleanliness, order, and organization. Uncle Tony’s already shown us very clearly that it didn’t used to be this way. Again, this is all to the benefit of you the public. Yes, a well organized kitchen is one that will run more smoothly during service, meaning the person running the door — the air traffic controller who handles and plots the reservations — can afford to say yes to more walk-ins, and that means more business. But mostly, it’s a reflection of how seriously we take our obligation to feeding you, and feeding you well, but also feeding you safely. If you have any kind of a serious food allergy, and more and more of you do, if you’ve dined out with any regularity over the last ten years, you’ve seen the work that all members of the restaurant team put in on a nightly basis to ensure that nothing that can kill you shows up at your table or on your plate. It’s another form of the hospitality we extend that many of you take for granted. Which brings me to…
Interlude: A Few Brief Words On Hospitality
Hospitality. I’ve mentioned it several times thus far but any examination of restaurants today would be incomplete without considering it in more detail. 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?”
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? For as I’ve already alluded to, if you want to continue to buy into the myth that you are guests in our home, well, you better start acting like it. We’ve already established that 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.
Murder By Numbers
When we last left our friends in the back of the house, they were finally done scrubbing every inch of the kitchen. Now they’re just clocking out before enjoying a well deserved post-shift Tecate. Chances are they’ve just worked a 10 hour shift. Or maybe 12. Or even 16 or 18. As we’ve already talked about how the majority of the FOH gets paid, in that sense the cooks are lucky as their pay is not dependent on tips. But let’s be real. That’s about as far as that luck runs. Most cooks are paid straight minimum wage which in NYC these days is $15 an hour — far from a living wage in such an expensive metropolitan area. A more senior cook, or even a sous chef, might collect anywhere from $16 an hour to even $22 an hour. Not exactly let the good times roll territory. As we’ve already seen, restaurants are under constant financial pressure. In most restaurants, employee payroll is the single greatest expense. Managers and owners are always trying to keep that number as low as possible, without effectively hamstringing the operation. For our friends in the BOH, this has led to some undesirable outcomes. Servers and captains, at least in theory, have the ability to earn more money during any given shift by simply selling more to their tables, thereby bumping up their check average and receiving a larger tip as a result. For our cooks, outside of advancement within an organization, the only option available to them to increase their pay is to work overtime — which again, most restaurants do their best to limit. For those cooks earning $15-$22 an hour, the best they can usually hope for is 5–10 hours of overtime at most per week — not nearly enough to bump them up to earning a living wage.
Let’s turn to the group of restaurant workers that I’ve most often been a member of over my career — management. All restaurants generally have both FOH and BOH managers. The FOH managers would include the general manager (who in smaller restaurants is very likely to be the only FOH manager), assistant general manager, wine director/beverage director, events director, floor managers, and so on. The BOH managers would include sous chefs, junior sous chefs, chef de cuisines, head chefs, executive chefs and so forth. A GM of a large restaurant, or a larger restaurant group, might be lucky enough to command a salary in the $80,000 to $100,000 range, but $60,000 to $75,000 is much more likely. A head chef could likewise potentially earn in the $80,000 to $100,000 range, but again, $60,000-$75,000 is much more likely. Those may seem like decent numbers, and sure, in terms of take home pay, these guys are doing much better than anyone else in the restaurant. It’s a solid middle class living.
But are they really doing better? Many states, including New York, have an insidious law on the books called an administrative employee overtime exemption. What the hell does that mean? An administrative employee is one who draws a yearly salary and spends a majority of their time functioning in an administrative or executive capacity, basically any restaurant employee who has direct reportees. With the way almost all restaurants are organized today, that means all the managers I’ve just listed fall under that category. So hooray! Those managers get an exemption — that’s a good thing right? Far from it. The administrative employee overtime exemption means that just about every restaurant manager in NYC is exempt from getting PAID for overtime.
Let that sink in for a moment. In NYC, the minimum salary employers must pay their managers to claim this exemption is $58,500. Not long ago, it was even less. If you think that restaurants haven’t been exploiting the hell out of this state of affairs, well, you haven’t been paying attention.
So that junior sous chef? That’s what she’s making. $58,500. Now, she’s probably working anywhere from 60–80 hours a week. Let’s say she’s only working 60 hours. $58,500 divided by 52 weeks is a weekly salary of $1125. Not too shabby-that works out to $18.75 an hour for a 60 hour work week. Now deduct money for federal income tax. And NY state income tax. Oh and NYC income tax, and guess what? Our badass chef also lives in NJ. So she’s got to pay NJ state income tax too. What started out looking like a decent amount of money has shrunk substantially. And if she’s lucky enough to work at a restaurant that even offers health insurance, well, at least that comes out of her paycheck pre-tax. 401K? Forget it.
Our GM or head chef? Let’s assume they’re both making $75,000. That’s $1442 per week pre-tax. Not bad at all. But wait, their work week is likely 70–80 hours. At 80 hours a week, that’s just over $18/hour pre-tax. That’s for work that on top of the stress and pressure of cooking food to order includes the headaches of hiring and firing, and there’s sure lots of both in restaurants. If you’ve never had to fire someone, even if it is a firing that is justified and necessary, it’s hard to put into words the emotional toll that having to fire people on the regular extracts. It’s tough to quantify how exploitative those long hours are too. Who else works 80 hour weeks? Doctors, lawyers, and nurses, and they get paid handsomely for it. Restaurant workers don’t. You know what else almost all restaurant workers don’t get? Health insurance. Or vacation time. Again, this isn’t just a few restaurants. Oh sure, there are a tiny fraction of restaurants who have managed to convert to a no-tipping model in an effort to rectify that particular injustice, but their managers are generally still getting paid in the manner I’ve just described.
To recap, think of any restaurant meal that you’ve had over the last year. Oh right, pandemic, fine, over the last two years then. That special night out to celebrate your engagement, the casual get together with friends for drinks and appetizers, the time you took Mom and Dad to the hip new sushi spot down the block. Every single person who came to your table, every single person who helped make that meal memorable, who made you want to come back soon, they were, and are, grossly overworked and underpaid.
Every. Single. One.
Too Human To Fail
I promised earlier to discuss the ways in which any one restaurant, or by extension, the entire industry is inherently unsustainable. The fact that it has taken me this long to just explain how deeply exploitative of labor any restaurant is only begins to address the real sustainability crisis here. If you’re feeling a little exhausted at this point, well, it’s intentional. How the hell do you think your server feels?
Ok, fine. I’ll go a little easy on you the rest of the way. Here’s a scattershot sampling of other deep-seeded ways in which restaurants and restaurant culture are due for a revamp.
Restaurants exist to serve you, the public. If over the past few years you’ve been noticing a disturbing trend towards restaurant menu homogeneity, you get a gold star. Let’s conduct a little experiment. Go online and look at any restaurant menu in NYC, anyone you can find will do. The place doesn’t even have to still be open for business. Go to the entrees. Here, let me guess. Steak. Burger. Chicken. Vegetable Pasta. Fish. How did I do? I’ll bet you dinner at my home that I got at least 4 out of 5. Not convinced? Okay, I’ll go double or nothing. I can get even more descriptive. Hangar steak or strip steak. Double patty burger with special sauce and american cheese. Half or whole roast chicken with potatoes and crispy brussels sprouts. Ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and ricotta in a mushroom butter sauce. Pan seared salmon or halibut filet. I win this round if I get 3 out of 5. Bet I still do just fine. I’m not talking only American or “farm to table” restaurants either. This game works surprisingly well with restaurants serving other cuisines. Regional Italian? French? Spanish? I bet my score only drops down slightly.
So what gives? Oh sure there’s plenty of hardcore foodies out there, and god bless you if love trippa alla romana or feijoida or shiraku. The vast majority of you still want the basics, comfort, familiarity. You tell us by what you order on a nightly basis. At some point, we’ve become trapped in a hellish restaurant menu feedback loop. The pressure this is placing on our already broken food systems is unconscionable. When every restaurant offers not just the same animals but the same parts of those animals, how can that be sustainable assuming the growth of the industry continues unabated?
You’re not entirely to blame for this state of affairs. Our tastes are largely the product of our national food systems. As I’ve already alluded to, our national food systems are a disgrace. The VAST majority of our food is grown on huge industrial farms, farms that are monocultures, meaning they only grow one thing. Corn. Cows. Pigs. Chickens. Wheat. This is an abomination. Biodiversity is the truest order of the natural world. Our current farming practices require huge inputs of water, fuel, feed, land and other resources and generate oceans of animal waste, much of which is toxic. You know what else these factory farms are likely responsible for producing? Coronaviruses. This hasn’t been entirely proven yet, but the science is very much pointing in that direction. Guess we’ll probably want to look into that a little more closely.
Another dirty secret about restaurants? Almost all restaurant kitchens are full of plastic. Just about anything that hasn’t hit your plate yet in a restaurant is hanging out in a walk-in fridge, in a plastic fish tub or bus tub, or a plastic half pint, pint, or quart container. If you took all the plastic wrap used in restaurants nationwide and unspooled the rolls, well, it would stretch to the moon and back many times over. All day long, chefs are constantly tasting every food item being prepped for quality control purposes. How do they do this in a safe and sanitary way? Single use plastic spoons. But what about recycling you say? Plenty of restaurants do it, but not all, and it’s not a miracle cure. Take a quick look at what’s happened to the international recycling movement once China stopped buying up recycled plastic from other countries.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s all got to be addressed because we live in a world where, in 50 years, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren might grow up not knowing that expression, because there won’t be any icebergs left.
Okay. Let’s all pause and take a few deep cleansing breaths. If you’ve read the last several thousand words and thought “this guy hates restaurants!” you can certainly be forgiven for thinking that. I’m not picking on the restaurant industry. We’ve been guilty too often over the last four years of equating criticism of any institution with an attack on it. Name any other American institution that isn’t in a state of decadence. Our politics are polarized, our government and our democracy are under attack, our education and health care systems are upside down. We can accept these declines as inevitable or we can work tirelessly to improve the quality of life for every American. Restaurants can’t and won’t continue to exist without you, the public. If you value restaurants as a place to celebrate life’s accomplishments, as a place to drown your sorrows, as a place to meet new friends, as a place to discover new tastes — you have work to do.
In these challenging times, Uncle Tony remains our guiding light. He’s not here to help us take action, to lend his inimitable voice to the dire plight of restaurant workers everywhere, but we can still look to him for guidance. We can read his words and watch his shows and learn from how he never stopped using his privilege and his visibility to advocate for the poor, the oppressed, and certainly, the restaurant working wounded.
I made a quick supposition earlier that maybe Bourdain had fallen out of love with restaurants. Let me clarify now. I don’t think Anthony Bourdain ever stopped loving his fellow restaurant workers. That love remains strongly, fiercely, brightly mutual. We adore Uncle Tony because he never stopped speaking truth to power and as we’ve already seen, when it comes to restaurants, you, the public, have all the power. But also, restaurant owners and operators — you are that power too. Some of you might view me as a traitor for writing these words, but I cannot sit idly by and continue to endorse a system that exploits so many of the amazing people that I have worked beside for so many years. If Uncle Tony ever fell out of love with restaurants, it would likely be for this reason. That he didn’t know how to resolve this catch-22: how to expose the decadence and inherent exploitation of restaurants without threatening the livelihoods of those restaurant workers that he loved so deeply — his comrades, myself included, who bear all the scars of a lifetime spent working in restaurants.
I am 39 years old. I’ve been unemployed since the NYC restaurant shutdown began in March. I have no health insurance. The last year has drained my savings. I have no real prospects of future restaurant employment anytime soon. Every day for months, I’ve logged on to Craigslist or Culinary Agents, the two most highly-used job posting sites in the NYC area. Back in February 2020, there would be hundreds if not thousands of postings daily. Most days now, the postings number in the single digits. Let me remind you — I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m white, documented, experienced. Whenever the virus is reined in and restaurants reopen in large numbers, I could be back to work in restaurant management the very next day, and believe me, I desperately need a job. But I cannot. I will not. I’ve spent twenty years seeing the very real human toll that restaurants in their current form extract. No more.
To my dear friends in the restaurant industry, I am not abandoning you. I pledge to find new ways to advocate for your situation, to use my voice to tell anyone anywhere who will listen how desperately hard you have been working and how little most of you have to show for it. You have my love, support, and deep appreciation always. It has been the greatest honor of my life to go to battle with you in the restaurant trenches.
An Open Letter To Chuck Schumer
Now, I’d like to make a direct appeal to Senator Chuck Schumer, the Honorable Senator from New York and soon to be Senate Majority Leader.
Dear Senator Schumer,
Hi Chuck. Charles here. You might not remember me. I’m a little fuzzy on the dates, but sometime not long before the NYC restaurant shutdown went into effect, I was your server. The tall, heavy set guy. You were dining with a few friends at my last restaurant home, Crown Shy in the Financial District. As I remember, you were pleasant and engaging. Somehow it came out that I was originally from Athol, Massachusetts and you made a joke about it. I can’t remember everything your table shared, but I know you drank some red wine, and that, as you were avoiding gluten that night, we sent you some ice cream for dessert. As a long serving Senator from the great state of New York, and being from Brooklyn, I’d imagine you know NYC restaurants as well as anyone. You know how restaurants are the beating heart of this city, and you likely know how labored that heartbeat is right now.
I know I don’t need to call your attention to the petition from ROAR, Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants, or to the desperate need to pass the $120 Billion restaurant specific relief package that originally passed the House back in October as part of the HEROES Act. You know that the entire fate of the New York City, NY State, and national restaurant industries hang in the balance, and I am sure that you will take action to ensure the passage of those vital pieces of legislation. I endorse that course of action in the strongest possible terms with every fiber of my being.
What I would implore you to consider, to remember, are some of the hard truths I’ve laid out over the preceding pages. These pieces of legislation, while vital to the continued survival of restaurants everywhere, do not on their own do enough to address the imbalance in the human cost that most restaurants exploit. President-Elect Biden has a mandate from the people of this country to build back better. Restaurants desperately need to be a part of that process, beyond the legislation I’ve already discussed.
There are no easy answers here but I owe it to my colleagues, my friends, to offer my best suggestions. I fully endorse Chef José Andrés’s call for the creation of a Secretary of Food, a cabinet-level position, as the best path forward to help mend our broken national food policies. I would go further and suggest that Chef Andrés is himself the best candidate for that position. Furthermore, given the importance of the restaurant industry to our nation’s economy, I would suggest the creation of another new role, National Director of Restaurants to serve under the Secretary of Food. That position would most justly and fairly be staffed by a representative of the independent restaurant industry. The large restaurant chains and corporate fast food behemoths already have their lobbyists in Washington. Most independent restaurants have spent the last few years fighting for their very survival. While we continue to organize in more meaningful ways, there is an urgent need for someone in Washington dedicated to looking out for the health and vitality of independent restaurants and most importantly, those who work in those restaurants.
If you’ve read my words here and still need further convincing of the need for legislation promising every American restaurant worker health insurance, a fair and reasonable schedule, and a true living wage — if you think surely most of what I’ve written must be hyperbole and you need a second opinion on the truth of my words, you need look no further than the chamber next door. The Honorable Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was until just recently one of us — a restaurant worker who can vouch for all I’ve said. She has also said “the food industry is the nexus of almost all of the major forces in our politics today”. So many of those forces are now crushing the life out of restaurant workers. We must have immediate relief.
I realize that the timing of my plea might not be ideal. You and your colleagues are in the midst of taking the necessary steps to preserve and strengthen our Union in the face of insurrection and violence incited by a sitting President. Just as your righteous duty to hold this President accountable cannot be delayed, so too must our plight be overlooked no longer. Our needs are great and we are desperate. The restaurant industry lost over 370,000 jobs in December alone. Many of us accept that continued restaurant closures are necessary for the preservation of our public health, but we need legislation that will replace the revenue we have lost. We need that legislation now. We will not survive until March or April.
Senator Schumer, I and my colleagues have warmly welcomed you to our restaurant tables. We’ve fed you well, and treated you with the greatest kindness, even when the act of doing so has come at our great personal cost. I implore you to welcome us to a seat at your table, so that we may begin the important work of making restaurants a fair and equitable place for all restaurant employees.
With greatest respect and gratitude for your service during these trying times,
Coda: Uncle Tony’s Revenge
I include the letter I’ve written to Senator Schumer here to hopefully help convince you that all that I’ve written thus far is not simply virtue signaling. The plight facing restaurant workers is real, and I intend to do something about it.
How can you help? You can start by continuing to bring us as much business as you can safely afford. The place down the street that used to be your favorite Quebecois restaurant [M. Wells] that is now operating as a food and beverage retail shop? Go there, buy everything you can. Empty your wallet. If your favorite restaurant is still offering takeout or delivery, please order and order often. Remember to order directly from the restaurant so that all the money goes to the restaurant and not to Uber or Grubhub. If you live somewhere you can actually still sit down at a table and have a meal, by all means go, but remember, acting like a decent human being at all times and tipping generously is the BARE FUCKING MINIMUM. After that, please know that any restaurants left standing cannot continue to operate as they have been. The age of entitlement is over. You must be a part of the solution.
And remember, if you don’t treat your server well, like the caring human being they are; if you ignore the basic fact that every person in the restaurant is likely there, risking their very life to serve you a meal they themselves could not afford, because they have no other way to support themselves or their family, I’ve got a little surprise for you.
Come midnight tonight, I’ll be in my kitchen, whipping up a batch of righteous revenge.
That’s right. It’s Uncle Tony! He’s back and he’s a zombie and he’s fucking pissed. Here he comes like a restaurant Krampus, ready to butcher the underappreciative and the overprivileged. If you think that Anthony Bourdain wouldn’t get a kick out of that image, of being the avenging angel of restaurant workers everywhere, well, you weren’t actually listening to the guy. You didn’t really know him after all.
And isn’t that the fucking problem.