Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Tale of Two Hosts

     The tiniest, little shred of a thing I miss about working at corporate chain spot "Peppers"other than my two hangover food favorites, the boneless buffalo wings and off-menu chicken fried chicken with mashwas the relentlessly logical seating structure. The host, with a huge restaurant at his/her disposal and unhemmed by reservations, could direct a Friday night with the accuracy of an air traffic controller. One table for you, then one for the next server; I'll take this group who came first, then the next on the list; so precise a pattern.
     At our restaurant, our night's stake can vary drastically depending the relative brilliance of the person standing at the podium. For us, seating is an art, a dance between our considerable walk-in business and reservations, and our weekly regulars who want a specific table or server. To watch the boss, or even our former boss lady, run the door, is to see a true maestro at work. Breaking tables up, moving them together, offering glasses of wine to reservations if their table isn't quite ready; they put the pieces of the puzzle together. As it is their business, their money, they make it work, and take all customers. When the boss is in charge, the place hums with activity and life.

     With a less motivated individual at the helm, however, our place comes to a screeching halt. There might be a host who say, doesn't want to run down in her 3-inch heels to reconfigure the floor plan with the busser. And possibly that same person gets annoyed with people for not having a reservation, and will flatly deny them a table or any chance to waitas creating a wait list makes things "complicated." And they also don't know how to charm reservations into waiting a few minutes with a free half glass of wine. It is more important to certain people, it seems, to stand pretty and calm at the podium and not lift a finger to drive the night home. The result by 8:30 is a restaurant so quiet, that beyond our muffled (malfunctioning) speaker system you can hear crickets.

     I did twice as much in sales last night as I did the previous Friday, when said under-motivated hostess was in charge. We started with 15 fewer reservations on the books too, and I had a crappier station. The hostess' night felt like a retirement community cafeteria. Last night, in contrast, was cranked at full blast, and our place felt like the hot place to be in town.

     We're not the most expensive fine-dining restaurant in the area, but what sets us apart, what practically forms our identity, is our extremely lively, packed weekends. "Energy" is key in the restaurant business, as our boss always points out. People might bitch about noise, but really, they want to be where everyone else is, to see and be seen.  As a server, this slightly chaotic environment is what makes working at our spot a profitable option vs working in a stuffier, more formal restaurant with higher check averages.

     I'm left to ponder the difference between two hosts: one, whose ego is motivated by how awesome the restaurant is, and the other, perhaps more motivated by their own self interest.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Crack in the Pasta

     Our kitchen does use addictive substances of a dubious nature in our pastas. As Anthony Bourdain once famously said, the secret to ridiculously tasty restaurant food is copious amounts of shallots and butter. In an Italian restaurant, add white flour, cream and salt to that list of ingredients. I watch ordinarily level-headed people drool over our cream-laden, carb-filled dishes, a crust of sourdough bread sparing them from having to lick their plates.

     I often feel like an animal fat "pusher." Someday, I should cut out the middle man (the kitchen) and strap on one of those old-timey cigarette girl trays and start handing out garlic bread, bacon, and tiramisu wedges. I'd make a ton of tips, and my customers would be replete, slouched in their chairs, greasy fantasies satisfied.

     While I can laugh at our customers for their comfort food obsessions, I know that serving staffs are usually far worse when it comes to gluttony. "Foodieism" is endemic to the industry. Solid food knowledge, curiosity and lots of cash can lead to some expensive city outings, ones involving necessities such as cheese plates, artisan pizzas, braised pork belly and silly amounts of Italian wine. I always thought this was the norm for restaurant staffs, or at least ones living near a culinary epicenter.

     Then I met the Ascetics- This group of servers, who I worked with for a time at my second job, defy the stereotype of party-hard, money-burning restaurant folk. During family meal, they would ignore the kitchen-sink pasta, fried chicken or rice stir fry offerings put up on the line, and break out their Tupperwares from home; These would include such rabbit favorites as raw veggies and hummus, salads and fresh fruit. Only in California was my first thought. There was talk of gym routines, 10-mile daily runs and the Paleolithic diet.

     Is there such a thing as good peer pressure? I think so, because I found these months at this restaurant's communal table to be therapeutic. I've always had the health-nut genehalf my family works in the fitness industrybut it's hard to have a sense of "health reality" surrounded by people obsessed with bone marrow, bacon and brie. The Ascetics helped adjust my perspective: just because I work in a restaurant doesn't mean I have to be a smoking, drinking, walking ball of cheese and pasta. So lately I've been attempting to kick bad carbs out of my diet and eat more simply (more about this here, if you like to laugh at masochists). It's a little Paleo (the diet where you gnaw on meat all day and eat tons of veggies) but with a small amount of quinoa, oats and brown rice left in for good measure.

     Working under-carbed, constantly surround by everything that is decadent and extreme about American eating habits, isn't the easiest thing. Yesterday I had an apple, oatmeal and two eggs before work. Such blah food made all the rich dishes appear to be in Technicolor. I was transfixed by the desserts in particular, their details magnified: on the tiramisu, I stared at the cratered texture on its fluffy side, and the pencil thin line on the top where the cocoa powder melded with the cheese; in a bowl of gelato, I noticed the vanilla flecks popping out from the gleaming surface and the placid pool forming where the edge of the scoop met the bowl. TWICE the cold prep guy put out some pieces of extra chocolate tort and lemon tart for the staff to try, which was just too much to bear (I had a taste of the genache).

     I'm experiencing some serious cashhhh money savings, however. Previously my average food bill, between trips to local organic grocery store and eating out adventures, could have paid the monthly expenses of two to three families in Guatemala. The feeling of saving money (and thus having to work less, or worry when Sprite is seating me) helps me withstand the tiramisu torture.

     Anyone else influenced by an unusual (or unusually excessive) serving staff culture?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Boss Man vs. The Bloodsuckers

     The deadline to finish our restaurant's new room was in two days. Or at least it needed to done enough that a social gathering could take place without anyone stepping on a stray nail. I poked my head through the connecting doorway, to check out whatever state of dishevelment the room was currently experiencing. The reek of new carpet and paint greeted my nose. Things were shaping up.. sort of.

     I heard the boss' voice drifting in from the sidewalk. Through the open front door I spotted a saw horse outside with the baseboards laid on top, and a paint can on the ground. "Alright, bye, good to see you," the boss said, then stepped back into the room.

     "Hi there," I called over. He was coming toward the back, in sweats, a plain white T, and tennis shoes, looking frazzled.

     "Hi," he grumbled, barely making eye contact. Hmm, had I done something wrong? I wasn't intruding, or needing anything-I was in my plain clothes too, just finishing up inventory. Our overflow wine storage was now in the new room's closet.

     Nope- His son appeared a moment later to check in with him, and whatever rant had been brewing in his head suddenly exploded.

     "I swear if one more, just one more person comes by to talk to me, I don't know-My balls are going to fall off!" His whole body started moving as it usually does when he gets lit on a subject, hands rolling outwards for emphasis. "I'll be bleeding everywhere, and people will still stop and say, "Hi ___!"

     The scene, while strange, had its own logic. Basically, when my boss is at the restaurant he can't get any time to himself, or at least a moment to paint a few baseboards. My boss is "that guy": you know, the owner who everyone thinks is their BFF. All day long I hear from tables, "We're friends of ___, can you send him over?" "What do you mean I can't get a reservation in 15 minutes? Is ___ there?" He could be on fire and people would be in an absolute huff he didn't personally greet them.

     And somehow, people not only want his attention, they want to pin him in place and unload their whole life story. Boss man is the type of person that rarely shares a single detail about his own life- I barely even found out that he got married last weekend- yet every lonely, adrift soul (a common phenomenon on the migrant west coast) thinks he is the perfect sounding board for their travails: from tales of bad romances, latest quack diets, to where their dog pooped that morning.

     "I can't ever get anything done. I don't know-" Boss man stopped abruptly, spying someone in the door trying to get his attention. Suddenly the rolling movements ceased, and he squared up. "Hey!" he called out, in the most jovial fashion, heading outside. Like a light switch, owner persona was back on.

     Unfortunately, his patience for whackos and the emotionally needy knows no bounds. Maybe his own crazy history allows him this bottomless pool of empathy. His mission, it seems is to make every customer feel special. Ask him to the table? Sure, but not before he goes into the kitchen and prepares them a special appetizer. The dessert sampler plates he makes for some of our best customers are gorgeous and lovingly assembled (often leaving us host-less for 15 minutes at a time).

     His reward? An endless stream of business for the restaurant, glowing Yelp reviews, and devoted group of regulars. Happy customers makes for happy staff, too.

     For me, I love the fact that he's not a douche about having so many "fans." He doesn't lord it over all of us, like "I'm the bestest EVAR!" He's a real person with his employees, and the moments where he starts going off about whatever blood-sucker has currently has him in their grip, and the resulting bleeding ball issues- these are moments that inspire my loyalty.