August is a Lost Month

Remember the old TV ads touting Saratoga as “the August place to be?”  I don’t know if those ads still run since I do not have cable television.  It is the place to be in August, but I think it’s the year-round place to be and I suggest that people discover that there’s a lot more to this city than horse racing.

The truth is, many of us in the hospitality field would rather be somewhere else than Saratoga in August.  Most of us love what we do, and will continue to do it, but August is a lost month for many of us.  During August I work, I sleep, I mow my lawn, and I sleep some more.  There are too many things left by the wayside this month that really need to get done.

Theresa is a project herself.  Regular readers of this blog know the background, and those of you who know me personally are aware of the effort it takes having her in our home.  In late July she moved in with her friend and her parents for what was supposed to be a trial week.  They changed all her doctors, pharmacy, and programs and benefits to a new county in a hasty manner then decided it was too much for them to handle.  The timing was great!  August is not the best time for me to get everything back on track.

Having a five and seven-year-old at home for the summer can be fun.  I had planned to do more activities on my days off than I followed through on.  We did some things, had some fun, but not as much as I had hoped.  I went into summer knowing that I owed them since last summer was spent wallowing in depression.  I found it difficult to even get off the couch to perform the most basic functions of life.  This year was much improved, and my desire to spend days with the children was certainly better.  There were however too many days that I was exhausted from long weeks and an almost overwhelming workload.  It was better, and I’ve enjoyed the activities we did.  I just wish we had done more.

Having a house with a lawn and garden, and prospective home improvement projects both inside and out requires the kind of time not possessed by a chef during August.  When the time is available, the energy is not.  Jennifer and I have a lot of things we want to get done, let’s hope fall brings us renewed energy and an abundance of time to continue working on our family’s home.  That enormous dumpster in our driveway isn’t going to fill itself.

I also have some personal projects that need attention.  I’ve mentioned that I’m working on a book, and I’m trying to get Chefs 4 Chefs off the ground, an important project that I hope will foster mentorship in the restaurant community and help battle the depression issue in our industry.

All in all, it was a great track season as far a track season goes.  I designed a pretty simple, but good menu for summer, and the kitchen and floor staff performed well.  Aside from the usual number of difficult customers, the clientele was enjoyable and easy to work for.  I’m glad it’s (unofficially) over though.  Moving on to the Fall menu, some home projects, and some real-time with my family will be a pleasure and well deserved all around.

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August Pearls

People Aren’t Sorry, But Should Be

Screw Urban Meyer and to Hell with Ohio State University.  I hope they never win another football game.  College sports in general is dirty and so are the coaches, athletic administrators, and booster clubs.

A few nights ago, a couple dined at the Wine Bar and on their way out thought it was ok to pull a sunflower from a display near the host stand and walk out with it.  A member of the WB team walked out and asked them for the return of the expensive flower.  The couple expressed no apology and claimed that they thought we were giving away the flowers since they were by the door. One of the problems, like the one in the Urban Meyer/Ohio State case is that people are not sorry for their bad behavior.  Urban Meyer apologized to the Ohio State Community (boosters) for poor judgement, but he has failed to be sorry for his true crime against the victim of his ignoring decent human protocol.  While stealing a flower from a restaurant that has just done its best to make them feel welcome and to provide them with a good experience, two people felt no compulsion to show any remorse, and convey any sort of acceptance of blame.  This is one of the things wrong in our world right now. No one is willing to accept responsibility on any level.

Organizations, institutions, and establishments are getting too big.  The human factor is dwindling, the importance of the dollar is growing.

Finding a Good Employee

I’m not perfect and my writing isn’t perfect, When I write to you people my purpose is to express some feelings, point some things out in my life as a chef, and try to illustrate in basic terms what the restaurant life is like.

When it comes to those things that are important, I find a proofreader or at least reread my text several times to make sure it reads well.  One of those important writings is an ad placed for new employees.

I like to read the craigslist ads for entertainment.  I recently came across this one:  https://albany.craigslist.org/fbh/d/hiring-chef-de-cuisine/6677825568.html

It’s so bad it makes me think it’s not a legitimate ad.  It is wrought with spelling and grammatical errors, typos, and poor punctuation.  The worst part of the ad is that the prospective employer has no idea what a Chef de cuisine is.  They’re looking for a kitchen manager and pairing that title with chef de cuisine.

Better ads get better employees.  If this is a real ad, shame on them, and good luck drawing decent candidates from an already shallow labor pool.

It’s not a bad idea to have your neighbors think you might be crazy.

It’s Travers Weekend.  We’re booked.  Track season is starting to wear on me and I’m not convinced it’s the longer hours and the increased work load as the sole reason for my increasing exhaustion and irritability.  It seems to me that out-of-town customers are a bit more demanding and less tolerant of anything they view as not in line with their perfect weekend in Saratoga.  Perhaps the increased volume simply puts a greater number of difficult people in the mix of predominantly pleasurable clientele.

Last night, something that rarely happens added to my disdain for unreasonable people.  A dish came back to the kitchen with the claim that the scallops were not cooked all the way.  I quipped that the server should thank the customer for the compliment and that it wasn’t necessary to bring the plate back to show me the perfectly medium-rare bivalves.  The reality was that they wanted the now half eaten and hacked up scallops cooked more.  Since I can cook scallops as quickly as trying to make a presentable plate out of the mess handed back to me I made a new plate for the individual that had apparently been complaining from the time of arrival.  I thought they would be impressed and the extra effort would be a salve that would soothe whatever wound the grump had come in with.  Instead, upon being presented with the new plate the diner said they were no longer hungry and asked for the check. This is the type of person that writes a Yelp review about how the place was too noisy (during August in Saratoga), and they were served “raw” scallops.  They’ll fail to mention that they ate all their sweet corn and crab risotto and their starter.  They’ll fail to mention that they were offered another table upon arrival, and that they were given a new, full plate when they weren’t pleased with the preparation of their entrée.

It’s almost over.  I’m looking forward to a vacation in a cabin at Minerva Lake in a few weeks.

Fall menu on September 27th.

Friends

I’ve written extensively describing how difficult the restaurant business is.  The hours, the unpredictable schedule, the difficult customers, heat in the kitchen, the pace, and the constant urgency are things that make it one of the more demanding industries a person can choose or be chosen by.

One of the things that makes it tolerable for a lot of restaurant folks is the friendships developed among the eclectic mix of individuals that come together to make up a restaurant staff.  Or, perhaps just the appearance of friendships. Working together under such pressure makes many people grow closer and gravitate inward.  The crew in any restaurant often becomes your group of friends out of convenience and necessity since they’re the people to spend the bulk of your time with.  Also, these are the same people working the same hours.  Nine-to-fivers are usually in bed on a Wednesday night when restaurant workers are just starting their social time.  Unfortunately, there’s not much to do at that hour except for taking up space at a bar and consuming their liquor in exchange for the night’s cash tips or what’s left of a cook’s wages from the previous night’s adventures.

It has been my long-standing policy not to make co-workers my group of friends, and as a rule not to socialize with co-workers more than an occasional shift drink after service.  It’s not that as the chef that I feel it’s below my social status, or even that I don’t enjoy the company of the people I work with.  I have worked with a varied cross-section of the population and find most people fascinating.  There have been many folks that I’d have enjoyed friendships and social time with.

The truth is, I have friends that I socialize with, long-term friends that are not part of the restaurant business and are my friends out of choice, not out of necessity.

My rule has also extended to Facebook in the past.  I learned when I was in retail working under a great manager at Dick’s in Syracuse that there should be a barrier between management and staff.  It’s a typically soft barrier, and on occasion slightly porous, but still a barrier nonetheless.

My first trip through The Wine Bar held fast to these standards, but I was too often the type of person that created not only a friendless environment, but an unfriendly environment.  This time around I saw fit to change my policy to be closer to the people I work with and to get along better than I had in the past.   I’m Facebook friends with most of the people I work with, I share stories, and am often engaged in conversations about personal situations in our lives.  I truly try to make our workplace a palatable situation in the face of the challenges we face in this business.

One of the things I hope has helped is preparing a staff meal every Saturday night.  Out of my valuable time, and at my own expense I have treated my fellow food jockeys to what I hope has been appreciated and enjoyed. The mac and cheese, the baked ziti, the burgers, and the fried chicken were all done to best create a feeling of family in the work environment.

Although I am firm on my edict of strictly limiting friendships outside of the workplace, I see no reason why on-the-job relationships cannot be fostered and enjoyed and extended to social media.

Like any family, there are always problems, arguments, and issues that cause unhappiness.  Like being a member of any family you’re not always in control of who else is a member of the group, and not all members are good for the family.  I’ve been that individual, and as a recovering bad co-worker I can recognize a bad apple in the bushel and spreading rot.

As in real life, the tiny slice of real society we call the restaurant staff, we need to pick and choose who are friends are going to be within the world.  We can do that and still be a good member within the group where we spend a great deal of our time.  Not everyone will be your friend, nor will you associate with every person on a friend-like level.  That’s ok, not everyone is your friend just like in the real world.

The difference between me when I was not always a good co-worker and now is that while still I recognize that while not all people are positive members of the group, I am learning that I can still carry on as a professional without extending any social niceties, or even extending unnecessary barbs and unsavory replies to work-related questions.

I see you on Facebook, but don’t look for me downtown.

Wrenches are Not Kitchen Tools

A couple of nights ago someone sent back a bowl of gazpacho because it was cold.  Putting a traditionally well-chilled soup into a chilled bowl will do that.

The customer asked the kitchen to heat it.  My first reaction occurred in my head and it wasn’t pretty.  I thought my best option was to go to the dining room and tell this guy that I cannot possibly cook for him since he is in the habit of ordering things without knowing what they are.  Again, it was in my head which is the best place for those kinds of reactions.  I then put the soup in a pan and went about my business as the beautifully refreshing Spanish classic came to an agonizing simmer.

There you go, there’s your hot gazpacho on this steamy summer day.  Yes, I’m aware that some soups are served either hot or cold, gazpacho ain’t one of them.  There’s a reason I run it in the summer and not in the winter.

I was asked later if it were possible to make an appropriate hot soup for the Philistine rather than ruin the gazpacho.  Good soups take time, and so does sending the server back several times to the table to act as a go-between so I can find out what kind of soup this man might like.  Sure, one could suggest that I go out to the table, but as most reasonable people are aware, there’s a difference between reality and television/movies. Our President doesn’t know it, but most of you should. Anyway, as a working chef I work a station every night, and on that particular night I was covering the hot line alone, so with 12 burners and two ovens working I did not have the luxury of being able to wander out to the dining room to find out what kind of person would ask me to ruin a perfectly prepared dish, let alone gather ingredients to specially prepare a single bowl of soup.  It’s hot gazpacho you want? It’s hot gazpacho you’ll get.

At worst, stopping what you’re doing on a busy restaurant line can have a chain reaction effect on the entire dinner service.  At best, it can be an annoyance that affects service to the next table or two.  Throwing a wrench into a smoothly running machine can have an underestimated effect on the ongoing process.  Therefore, it’s vital to avoid mistakes by both the front of the house and the back of the house.  It’s so important to be fully prepared with prep, station set up, information, strong work ethic, and delivery of service.

Dinner service is often a delicate violence that must not be disturbed or upset.  When it’s flawless it’s a thing of beauty, but when there are mistakes and unnecessary interruptions, things potentially go awry. An experienced leader, and a strong team can avoid letting a glitch or two upset the process, but a poorly balanced kitchen team or service staff can let inefficiency and poor-quality seep into the restaurant.

Young cooks listen up.  When you are moving from cook to chef remember that preparation, clear and calm thinking, knowledge of the entire restaurant, and the possession of plan-b are essential tools for success, and wrenches are not.

Some People

I’ve been a bit lax in my posting.  The summer season is in full swing and going well.  The kitchen is performing well as is the service staff, it’s busier than I ever remember it to be.

I had a post ready to go, but my son dropped my laptop before I could transfer it from Word to my blog.  He’s lucky I love him.

We tried something new this season.  We limited Open Table reservations to parties of a maximum of six.  Service is far easier and we’re doing more numbers.  I think we’ve got something there.  When someone calls for a party over six we ask for a credit card to hold the table.

Some people don’t care if they leave you sitting there empty with a table set for ten.  What large groups do is make reservations at a few places in town and decide while they’re together at the race course where they want to go.  Too often they just don’t show up for the reservations they failed to keep, leaving restaurants with a table of ten set up, and having to turn away business they would have otherwise had. Yes, people, unlike dogs can be assholes.

We have also started taking credit cards to hold tables over six.  People who intend on showing up have no problem with that.

Tomorrow does not exist, and you cannot prove me wrong.

Some people are just plain weird.

Some people don’t know that slower traffic should keep right.  Most of those people drive a Prius.

Some people just learn the food, and fail to learn the history and culture behind it.  then it’s just food.

Authentic is overrated.  If we continue to insist that things remain authentic then nothing will never be improved.

I couldn’t tell you how many authentic recipes for pasta with Bolognese there are.

Some people complain when they had a gift certificate to a restaurant that closed.  Typically they got it as a gift from someone who couldn’t be bothered to actually put some thought into a present, or they won it.  Either way they have almost no investment in it.  With the high failure rate of restaurants why would you expect a gift certificate to be a guarantee

Some people must be forced to take initiative.

Someone ordered their lamb sloppy Joes medium rare.  I overcooked them a bit.

What’s said during service should stay there.

Some people do not lock the bathroom.

This past Friday morning I was making a traditional Bolognese for a weekend dinner special.  While browning the meat I walked out to check the reservations for the evening and I noticed that my dear friends had made a reservation.  Since I know how they loved my Bolognese with fresh pasta I returned to the kitchen and proceeded to cook with an extra special sense of pleasure.

This vaping thing is gone from an alternative to smoking cigarettes to a silly and useless fad.  My station at work looks directly out the back door of the restaurant onto a small porch.  On Friday night I watched the restaurant staff go in and out of that door repeatedly.  Some of them more than 6-8 times per hour.  I’ve decided that a revolving door should be put in place of the current door and the spinning door could be used to generate electricity, potentially saving thousands of dollars on energy bills.

Some people don’t speak enough.

Some people speak too much.

I don’t trust either one.

I make it my business to know who’s in the dining room.  I know who’s coming in, what time they’re coming, and what table they’ll have.  I like to know when they’re seated, and I like to know who their server is.  I cannot possibly know everyone, but I try to know as much as possible.

Table was upset because we sat a nine-top near them on a Saturday night in August. They demanded we not seat them until they were done with their dinner.  F-them.  The table of nine was far more civilized than that table of four. Summer in Saratoga.

Some people’s group of friends change with their place of employment.  What they have are fellow employees who hang out and drink together after work, not friends.

There are exceptions to every rule.

Some people tailgate me even though I drive reasonably over the speed limit.  That typically causes me to drive unreasonably under the speed limit.

Christian Atheists are interesting.

I have been doing work on my novel.  I expect to move quicker in the fall.  Incase you don’t know, it’s about two competing restaurants in a town much like Saratoga.  All the characters are based on people I have worked with, worked for, vendors, customers, and the various oddballs one comes across in my line of work.  Everyone will be depicted as an animal. There are a lot of moles and rats.  Too many to include.

Irresponsible Liar Liar, Pants on Fire

This story got me writing this morning.  Social media and online reviews are out of control in many cases.  I takes a certain mentality to be part of that scene in order to satisfy an agenda or need.

I was once having dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant and noticed a bug in my salad.  I very quietly and discreetly called the server over and pointed it out.  She apologized and replaced the salad.  I knew they used fresh, local greens and that sometimes produce might sometimes have an undetected critter.  Rather than record it in order to gain my 15 minutes on social media I made the rational and grown-up decision to work with the establishment. I got a new salad and enjoyed my meal.

When a difficult situation occurs in a restaurant it is the responsibility of the management to resolve the situation to the reasonable satisfaction of the guest.  When the guest cannot be consoled, the onus typically falls on the guest who in most cases refuses to be satisfied and is generally irrational and/or failing to see things from the restaurant’s side.

If the individual or group is not happy there’s sometimes nothing that can be done about it.  It’s not preferable if they decide not to return and perhaps tell a few friends their version of the experience.  What I see however as a growing issue is when the unhappy party uses social media to attack a restaurant with a long-winded and slanted or even false account of an event to retaliate against the restaurant with an “I’m going to get you back” mentality.

A friend who owns a restaurant was recently called a racist on social media because he asked a table to lower their noise level as they were disrupting the enjoyment of other guests.  No, you were not singled out because of your race, you were singled out because you had total disregard for the other diners.  Being asked to lower your noise level was not an attack on who you are, but a request to alter your behavior and in no way justifies you spreading false accusations on social media.

Often enough a diner will tell their version of an event and omit their actions that led up to the situation or they’ll give a version based on their post-alcohol consumption and self-serving bias.  Their eyewitness account is too many times an inaccurate version of what occurred nor is it a fair assessment of the situation. Failing to consider all the facts and circumstances only creates a story that did not happen as reported.

While it’s true that all stories (especially in today’s social media and “everyone can be a restaurant reviewer” landscape) are seen through the eyes of the story-teller, it’s clear to me that those told with an agenda of retaliation and anger are as useful as sand in your underpants.

To the guy who ate 90% of his entrée before declaring it was too salty and refused to pay…. There may not be such thing as a free lunch, but you certainly showed us that there is such thing as a free dinner.

A restaurant that wants to survive has the task of providing a positive experience and delivering to the public what is promised as part of their business model.  When an establishment fails to provide that, the responsible thing to do is to work with management to solve whatever issue comes up.  If you as the diner are going to refuse managements attempts to find a resolution, and if you’re going to act in an irrational manner and spew out an inaccurate account to the public then you are the problem, not the restaurant.

When you see these rants on social media and in online reviews then you need to ask if this person described the account accurately, responsibly, and without an agenda.   You should consider that perhaps their behavior was unreasonable, and the restaurant tried to satisfy a difficult guest without success.