Saturday, November 24, 2012

An Unexpected Defense of a Big D

     I once had a boss whose personality was so over-the-top he seemed destined for Food Network stardom. He was a caricature of a Nor-Cal bro: Spiky bleach-blond hair, goatee, Dickies attire, gruff voice and flushed cheeks. I rarely saw him in the restaurant, but when he was there he made an impression. He'd pull up in his jeep, which was painted with flames, give an animated pep talk to the staff at line-up, then cruise the floor, wowing customers with his jovial antics. His cooking style was similarly flashy, comfort-food done with California flavor, with such eye-catching menu items as "Volcano Chicken," and the "Hunter's Creations," which featured exotic game meats like ostrich and alligator.

     When I saw him years later, slightly plumper and even more flushed, appear on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, I had to palm myself in the forehead. What had my hometown unleashed upon the world? 

     I've always been quick to roll my eyes when people ask me about my experience working at Johnny Garlic's, and the BF and I routinely refer to the Food Network gig as "Triple Douche." Yet recently I've had an odd change of heart. You've probably heard about the recent scathing reviews of the newly opened New York Times Square spot, Guy Fieri's American Kitchen and Grill, and the ensuing bashing that has occurred on blogs, opinion articles and social media. I should be gleeful but I'm more WTF? I'm finding the level of beat down to be unwarranted.

     As you can imagine with such a big personality at the helm, the server culture at Johnny Garlic's was one of peacocks; The website even today says "Now Hiring Super Stars." I'm not sure why the fuck they hired me, because I was extremely timid back then. I was wide-eyed with terror when, on one of my first nights of training, a star server began hooting and hollering, getting the whole restaurant's attention to announce a birthday; he cracked a few jokes and then led a loud sing-along. The manager nodded approvingly at all this: "[Rockstar] is the best. The customers love him." The circus act was the gold standard.

     Ironically, in spite of the emphasis on personality, the training was the strictest I've encountered in the business. Even at the truly fancy-pants restaurant that I recently subbed at, my training was only fractionally as arduous. Johnny Garlic's required two weeks training on the floor, with an additional week for me since I was such a newbie  (this was 12 years ago), and a three-hour long menu test. I was hovered over so closely that I began to feel like I would be graded on stepping two inches in the wrong direction. Considering my huge insecurities at the time, being constantly made to feel inferior never gave me the confidence to fly.

     I quit when I was told I had to give up brunch shifts at my other job to attend JG's staff meetings. I'd already lost so much money going through the training process that this was the last straw. I was tired of not fitting in and feeling like a crap server every time I stepped through the door.

     So, while Guy Fieri appears to the world as a cartoon character, I had the opportunity to see what a stone-cold perfectionist he truly is. Harsh as it was at the time, I've come to appreciate the training I went through, and even the tough love. Was it stupid I got sent home once for wearing white socks? Maybe, but I've never not worn a black pair to work since. Guy expected absolutely everyone around him to give 120% effort.

     I know, New York foodies, that the "Bro Kitchen" style offends you. And I know too, that some of his fanciful creations don't always work‒ I remember one line-up where we sampled the alligator sausage Hunter's special; All of us save one, in unison, spit it out into the trash (fishy AND gamey, shudder). But on the whole, the creative twist on meat-and-potatoes worked with our customers, as the continuing popularity of JG attests. When this style of food became the focus of Food Network's programming, I wasn't surprised to see someone like Guy Fieri chosen to be its mascot.

     By the morose, melodramatic tone of the NY Times review, you'd think that Guy Fieri was the harbinger of the End of Days. I also read another review where the writer went on a long diatribe about the obesity epidemic, America's poor food choices and blah blah blah. I hate to tell you guys, but cutting the head off this beast will not stop it. Also, it's not like Guy opened this Hard Rock Cafe-style concept in a trendy neighborhood‒He is keeping it contained to Times Square, to be trafficked by the tourist masses. Taking this place seriously is like trying to review Sponge Bob Squarepants as an art house drama.

     I yawn at you, New York Times, for missing the point. I'm annoyed at 'Merica too sometimes, and I enjoy a cheap shot in its general direction like any college-educated liberal foodie, but Guy Fieri is not the root of all evil that you claim. Unfortunately, I know that underneath all those obnoxious layers of bro, Guy is a hard-working and crafty business person who has earned his success.

Washington Post review: "It's not that bad, actually"

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Beautiful Myth

     "Oh Natasha," breathes a male customer wistfully from time to time. "Do you remember her?"

     With a twinkle in their eye, the old geezer will reminisce about how years ago, our bar was ruled by an Amazonian princess.

     I've only caught glimpses of Natasha myself, as whenever she comes in she's usually surrounded by her model friends‒ all freakishly tall, their stick-like figures draped in odd clothing. Natasha, the star of the show, does the rounds, saying her hellos to former coworkers. Sometimes her group will stay to eat, ordering just water and salads, of course, and maybe a little wine.

     Our customers' occasional longing comments are harmless enough, rolling off my back, in spite of the fact that I know none of them will ever speak of me in such hallowed terms. Not until last Saturday did I hear something that made my ears burn.

     I was already having a not-fun evening. I'd been passed up for the first six-top to come in and wasn't sat with a table for more than an hour. The boss' son was at the host stand with the hostess and came to the back to ask me: "Why won't she let me seat you?" I just shook my head at him, morose, biding my time, thinking about how to set a trap for someone traversing the kitchen in heels.

     Later, when I finally had some tables and my feelings of frustrations were starting to ebb, a customer asked me:  "Is Natasha working tonight?"

     This guy was the head of a six-top and was two-cocktails chatty. I was pouring wine for his table, and said that no, she wasn't working, and hadn't for many years (like, seven or eight). His friend on the opposite end of the table leaned in, "Oh, she left a long time ago, got married and everything. She does commercials and modeling now for a cosmetics company."

     "Is that right?" first guy said.

     "Yeah, it's so strange," the friend continued to gush with his privileged information. "I don't even know why she ever worked here. Why would she need to? Maybe she was a friend of [boss man]"

     Soooo, let me get this straight, I thought to myself. The reason why a gorgeous girl would ever work a job "beneath her" would be as a favor to the owner of a restaurant?

     ....Not for money, or because bartending can be a fun job for outgoing people?

     I'm standing right here!

     I came close to saying something about how our restaurant is a great place to work, but chose to disappear instead.

     Incidentally the guy who made this statement had previously ordered a drink at the bar, while waiting for his party to arrive, by jamming his finger in the bartender's face. The gesture had been rude enough for my bartender to forewarn me about him.

     I guess not everyone appreciates having to pay bills. Serving and bartending jobs in my area pay about three times as much hourly as entry-level college positions do, which is why I got stuck back in restaurant work to begin with. It's about paying bills, yo. Even beautiful people have to pay rent.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


     I didn't think this election would matter much to me, as I've become disenfranchised by our two-party system. Blah, blah, corporate interests A vs. corporate interests B, now choose the lesser of two evils. Woot. I haven't, as a result, done much research on the issues this election season.

     Yet all these bloggers with their logic and passion, the sight of lines outside of polling stations, the memory of when I was a Polysci student who gave a shit and worked the polls (not those kind, sickos)... Today I'm feeling pretty damn guilty- Past all the presidential drama exists a simple, important issue: the act of voting. We can't take for granted that we have the right to vote in this country. If more people voted things could possibly change. And if people actually followed politics and researched issues, well, things really could change. I can't give up because things have gotten so dumbed down.

     I promise to do my homework next election, I swear. No more whining.

Not-so-secretly a monster

If you dislike Ann Coulter as much as I do, and if you watch the show Grimm, you might enjoy this comic I made for Ramble:
Beware the Ann Coulterbiest

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Menu Reading for Dummies

   A quick guide from your not-so-helpful server

     Avoiding problems is my number one priority. In no way do I enjoy seeing a customer's hand suddenly thrust in the air, their behind hovering over their seat in their impatience, like the classroom teacher's pet during quiz time. Nor do I appreciate approaching a table while I'm carrying a heavy stack of plates, a drizzle of olive oil slowly running down my forearm, and having to listen to a "my night is now ruined!" story.

     When a dish arrives incorrectly because of a kitchen or service error, well, that's our bad: "Let me just stick these plates on my head and I'll get your dish fixed." But a more sinister possibility exists The customer didn't bother to read their menu. In these instances of blatant negligence, I may be tempted to drop my stack of plates on the customer's head.
     Tip #1:  A menu will typically have large words in bold, followed by smaller type. Those are titles, used to denote categories of food. "Pasta," for example, will mean the dishes listed will contain glutinous, flour-based concoctions. This is important to remember in an Italian restaurant; If lamb shank is listed as an ingredient for an item in the pasta section, it will be pasta with lamb, and not the other way around.

     Tip #2:  If it seems too good to be true it probably is. If something costs half the going rate of other items on the menu, it's likely to be a smaller plate (this is assuming the guest has ignored the "appetizer" heading). Or, when the lamb pasta costs 10 bucks less than the lamb entree, it is again another clue that the dish is more pasta than meat (I can't begin to count how many people order that damn pasta thinking they've just gotten the best deal on the menu.)

     Tip #3:  Know restaurant "types." Is the place down-home style, with a bunch of fluffy, middle-aged people chugging diet cokes and eating fries? Or a trendy spot with suits and designer dresses slurping down oysters? This gives huge insight to the menu when a customer decides to skip reading the ingredients. In the first scenario, a burger will likely come dressed the old-fashioned way, with lettuce, tomato, mayo, etc. In the second case, one can expect the cow patty to be topped with something sautéed, a stinky cheese, and possibly served on brioche with an herb-spiked aioli.

     Tip #4:  Have a sense of adventure. Dining out is not an Indian Jones' movie; No poison darts will fly from the wall, or trapdoors suddenly open beneath anyone's chair if they order wrong. If the restaurant is busy, chances are the unexpected item will be good. Trying something new is fun, and the reason many people go out to begin with.

     Tip #5:  Don't ask the server, "What do you like?" Nine times out of ten the answer is disingenuous because a) all the food started tasting the same to server years ago b) the server spent the afternoon doing Yoga and making pumpkin granola and not eating ravioli in cream sauce  c) the server has heard that question too many times to make more than a standard effort. A better question, is "between these two dishes, what would you recommend?"  

     Tip #6:  If a customer is allergic to anything commonly used in restaurant food (onions, garlic, wine, citrus) they need to stay home tell the server! This is important, because most of our sauces contain at least trace amounts of these ingredients.  On the flip side of this, the fastest way to piss off the server is to cry wolf about an allergy. For example: a customer doesn't want garlic because they are avoiding scaring away their date with dragon breath, or they are on the gluten-free diet bandwagon because a friend told them they "might" have an allergy to gluten. When the term allergy is used falsely, the multi-step procedures we have in place hand-typed instructions, a conversation with the kitchen, separate sauce preparations and panshas been an exercise in futility. Customers who pull this kind of garbage on a busy Friday night are self-centered asshats.

     Tip #7:  Finally, don't forget to have fun! This is a bit of a repeat of tip 4, but I can't emphasize it enough. Customers who ask good questions and are open to new experiences have more fun and make the server's job more enjoyable too!