Why did I spend so much time working at a restaurant? You shut yourself off from the normal world, working while others play and playing while others work. The ersatz world you inhabit is degenerate. The normal rules for business work places don’t apply, except they do. When I was a front of the house manager, a new employee came to me to complain that she had heard the kitchen guys calling each other “dickheads.” Considering what she could have objected to, “dickhead” was mild. Every night sexuality is called into question, pronouns are replaced by “motherfucker,” and if you suspect that someone is on drugs, you are more likely to say “How fucked up are you?” than “You’re fired.” It is an inherently hostile work environment and a normal person has every right to complain about it.
I maintained an odd position in that world. A friend I worked with in Savannah once told me the initial staff assessment of me was that I was an outsider and a bit of a prude. I don’t cuss much, which is to say I probably cuss more than the average person, but not as much as the average restaurant worker. My feeling is that the power of a word is diminished by overuse. I’ll call someone the worst I know, but only if I mean it. I actually think that “jackass” and “twit” are more descriptive and disrupting than “fucker” or “shithead.” Strange curses are jarring; “asshat,” is a favorite, but I usually reserve my oaths for when I mean them. It also came out, early in my Savannah employment, that I love croquet. That couldn’t have helped. Capability got me from outsider to insider. It wasn’t crassness. To clarify, I have no problem with crassness, if it’s honest.
But what to do with an employee who objects to the word “dickhead” in the workplace. Convention aside, there is no exclusion in the labor laws that allow restaurants to carry on as they please. A non-hostile workplace must be maintained. We were held to the same legal standards as the Post Office. I know. I asked my father in law, an accomplished labor attorney, how to explain to her that such was the language of the kitchen. His response: “You’re fucked.”
That issue was eventually resolved by the usual method applied when anything drastically defied the accepted order. It was discussed by management, dismissed, and forgotten. Somewhere in between it was poked at and pondered by the disbelieving, who never could grasp the sense of the complaint. Why she never brought it up again I’ll never know. She had a habit of suggesting substitutions that more than once caused the chef to ask her why she thought he wrote a menu in the first place. There is no question that that was why she was eventually edged out. She certainly could have made things complicated if she wanted to. She didn’t.
I can hear some grumbling about not all restaurants being so rude behind the scenes. I’m sure this is true. I’ve heard that Thomas Keller doesn’t allow speaking at all. Problem solved. But I have worked in dives and Beard winners and met with contemporaries at after hours bars. The stories are the same. For whatever reason, social mores don’t make it past the kitchen doors.
I recently held what I still think to be the cherry spot on the restaurant masthead. I ran the front of the house and the bar. Most importantly, I ran a wine list of one hundred and twenty plus labels. I met regularly with wine makers, national sales managers, and others who had weaved a way through the food and wine industries to the place where we would discuss vintage, soil, and industry trends as if we were the Quality. In most of them I could sense a camaraderie. We were polished enough to exist in the aerie of fine dining, but given the opportunity and like minded company, finery was out. We would suck the marrow, drain the bottles, and cry for more. We didn’t go to dinner before a show or to celebrate an anniversary or other event. Dinner was our event. We joined a pirate crew, a cursing, belligerent, drunken blight of an industry because we loved the end product. Given the chance to take part and dine, we made it our reason for being.
I know why I quit the industry when I did. Children go to school in the morning and go home in the afternoon and restaurant employees go to work in the afternoon and go home late in the evening. I like seeing my son. Most do. He’s a good natured kid. So when he started school I found other employment. Recently, I put my hand back in. I wait one night a week at a small family owned place that straddles the line between fine dining and bistro. It’s weird not being in charge but it’s nice to talk to people I don’t know again and hear people pick on and joke with each other in that familiar way. I missed that benignly hostile work environment.