“It’s not about you.”
Four words that I wish someone would have said to me very early in my career.
It’s not about you.
Those words have been rolling around in my head for a little over a year now. I’ve been fixated on understanding what hospitality means and how to better exemplify it and I’ve distilled it down to those four words.
I was kind of a cocky little shit for a long time. As you can discover in some of my earliest blog posts trying to insert some sort of Bourdain-ian swagger into my writing, but that style doesn’t come naturally to me. What finally jolted me from my very inward focus was a brief exchange I had on Twitter. A restaurant group announced a new project, I didn’t know the details at the time and shot out a very smug response, forgetting that a very prominent chef had taken a position in that group – it turned out to be his pet project. He saw it and responded sharply, though graciously through a direct message, and suggested I stop being an ass and be more like the local FOH ace who I had responded to. I initially took it as a “kiss the rings” statement and shrugged it off. A day later he apologized to me for the exchange. Something he did not need to do, considering how inconsequential I am relative to his status, but showed a humility and kindness that I was probably not deserving of. That brief exchange caused me to examine my own behavior, and the attitudes that are tolerated in so many kitchens.
This is not to absolve myself of past actions or stand on a soap box and talk down to my peers. Showing hospitality is something that I fail at daily in ways large and small, but being an excruciatingly self-aware person, I rehash my day over and over in my head reexamining instances where I know I could have done better.
For the length of my career, “hospitality” has been something the FOH worries about. We, as cooks, bitch freely and at-length about anything that annoys us – late tickets, complicated modifiers, simple modifiers, requests – granted or not, you name it. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. But it’s a habit I’m trying to break. Because it’s not about me. I’ve worked in 13 kitchens now, in about as many years, and have had plenty of chefs who practice good hospitality, but it has never been an explicit conversation in any of those restaurants. So maybe it’s something that one just has to grow in to, but I think it’s a conversation that we need to start having.
A lot of times, bad attitude and habits are tolerated as long as the food is of the desired quality. We make it about us – if you don’t like it, fuck you, it’s delicious, you’re wrong. We live in a strange time to be in the hospitality industry. We have become the prime fetish of the First World. Entire industries have risen up, in just the span of my career, around us to glorify what we do and by extension – us. And it’s awesome. Who wouldn’t like having their work validated and swooned over by a large swath of society? It’s enormously gratifying to be complimented, to see your food in someone else’s Instagram feed, to see how many Facebook likes something gets. But, while it’s something that we created, it’s not about us. It’s about the food. It’s about the guest’s experience with that food. It’s about the guest’s total experience – food, drink, décor, service staff, pace, music, everything. We, as cooks and chefs, have become the focal point for that attention. The media and pop culture has made it about us, but as soon as WE make it about us, we’re screwed.
Cooking is blue collar work. I think that fact has been lost on a lot of people, which probably explains why so many young cooks wash out so quickly. Their idea of cooking comes from the Food Network and celebrity chefs. It’s manual labor. Long, hot hours for relatively low pay, working with your hands to create something that is to be consumed. And that’s the thing that gets to cooks – we’re prideful creatures. We don’t do it for the money. There is stress, fatigue, risk of injury, and potentially long-term physical effects wrapped up in what we do. We put all this time and energy into what’s on your plate, you sure as shit better enjoy it. But that’s not a healthy mindset. On top of the usual FOH vs BOH mentality, it creates a sort of adversarial relationship with the diner. Unexpected modifications to dishes can really throw a wrench in a busy dinner service, and that can breed resentment. As if it wasn’t hard enough keeping pace, when you throw in a half dozen minor changes to a half dozen different dishes all at once it can really strain a staff already working at full tilt. In the midst of all of it I have to remind myself, and occasionally some cooks, that if it’s doable and it leads to a satisfied guest it will be done.
We call it “The Industry.” It can feel like an exclusive club sometimes. “Are you in The Industry?” Everybody knows what The Industry is. But when we refer to it as such, we’ve dropped the defining nouns from the title – Service Industry, Restaurant Industry, Hospitality Industry. All three of those words are rooted in seeing to the care of others. They etymology and cultural ritual of all three words is pretty fascinating and worth your research.
Now that I’m leading a fairly large crew of talented cooks I’ve become even more intensely aware of my own flaws, and it’s lead me to explore how I can apply the principles of good hospitality to my co-workers, as well as the guests. I can be a world-class prick at times, so I’ve been working on being direct in my communication while being informative instead of negative. I can be short with FOH staff, and I realize that me barking at them doesn’t make a hard night any easier. Being a problem solver is more gratifying than other people’s jobs more stressful or less fulfilling. Maintaining an even keel through a hectic service gives you a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of the night. Like I said above, I fail in these areas nightly. Sometimes in ways that only I notice, and sometimes in ways that are obvious to all. I came to realize that my coffee intake was exacerbating many of my issues, so I cut back from my daily half-gallon or so, down to one cup in the morning. Sure enough, I’m much more calm, focused, and actually have more energy. I have to wonder if any of the struggles I’ve had throughout my career might have been lessened had I made that change earlier.
I recently had the good fortune of sitting in on a hospitality discussion with Jerry Inzirillo, the legendary hotelier and CEO of the Forbes Travel Guide. I had my doubts about it beforehand, thinking he was probably some hoidy toidy corporate bigwig, but I ended up completely enthralled in what he had to say and how he interacted with those of us in the room. It was like all the pieces of my exploration on this topic started to become a cohesive philosophy. He absolutely embodied the warm, gracious, humble spirit that we should all strive for. I wish I could recount everything that was said, but it was very inspiring to listen to someone who so deeply understood
This is why I can’t stand those Chef-as-martyr blog posts that go viral every now and then. Sure, we’ve probably all felt that way from time to time, and they were probably written after a particularly rough night or stretch of nights and a few post-shift beverages. It’s always ostensibly aimed at those who don’t work in restaurants, but really it’s just preaching to the gripe choir. “You civilians don’t understand the sacrifices I make. You don’t know how hard this is. I. I. I. Me. Me. Me. Blah blah blah.” Yes. It is a hard job. Yes. We do often have to make sacrifices in other areas of our lives. But we know this coming into it…or we should. It's a lifestyle, but it doesn't have to be an unhealthy lifestyle. If you’re working at a place that doesn’t treat you respectfully, or abuses you…leave! Especially with the current labor pool, it’s a buyer’s market. Restaurants are always looking for more and better cooks. Find the one where you can be satisfied and challenged but not ground down to a nub. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, gold stars, and pats on the back. If you put your feelings ahead of the quality of the food you’re producing, you should quit now. Because at the end of the day…
…it’s not about you.
This is going to be a sort of open-ended reflection on hospitality as I understand it, continuing the conversation in my head and hopefully with more of you as it evolves…