Service Please

I like the optometrist at the Vision Center at the Walmarts. I brought Theresa there yesterday for an eye exam and I was in the waiting area one of the workers prattled on loudly about the exploits this past weekend between herself, her ex, and his current flame.  She was also overheard to say, “I’ve got three grown up adults living in my basement so I wanna know why my kids ain’t being watched.”   All the while there was a young guy popping in and out talking to her about how he’s sore from working out all weekend, and how people keep falling into the Grand Canyon.

Theresa picked out new frames while Momma put on her makeup in one of the mirrors.  We went up to the counter to give her the prescription and order glasses. As she started to help us her friend returned to show her pictures on his phone which to them seemed to be an appropriate thing to do at that moment.  I put an end to the visit rather sternly, and after having to respond harshly to the friend’s sass mouth, Momma was able to resume her work.  These two individuals simply thought it was ok to carry on with each other while she half-heartedly helped us.

I see the same thing in grocery stores often enough to call it a trend.  Cashiers jawing with one another about their personal lives.  Recently, the cashier in the lane I was in was complaining about other employees, exclaiming “I don’t keep my mouth shut, I tell it like it is.”  The person bagging said that she cannot, she’s a manager and it wouldn’t be right.  I of course chimed in with “no one should be doing it in front of the customers, management or not, it’s unprofessional.”

After the Walmarts, we went to McDonald’s.  Yes, I eat that crap sometimes, the sausage McMuffins with egg are the shit, so don’t judge me.  Like Redd Foxx said, “you’d feel awful stupid laying in the hospital dying of nothing.”  Anyway, the sandwiches came out and the young lady promised to bring out our hash browns as soon as they were up.  As we ate, I realized we weren’t getting our potatoes since she became engaged in conversation with a young man who was clearly there to entertain her.

On our way out I approached the counter and she got a stunned look on her face and said she’ll get our hash browns.  No apology.  I said we were done and didn’t want them and would like a refund for the difference.  I also told her that if she weren’t so distracted with her friend, she might have remembered to do her job.   Her reply was (use your snotty voice) “Uh, that’s the owner’s son.”  To which I replied, “does his father know his son is disrupting his business?”

What’s my point with those tales of poor service?  Poor service.  Poor service is now the norm.  It seems like most younger people are so distracted with other activities that the jobs they’re being paid to perform are now an afterthought.  It has become ok to chat with your friends, get mesmerized with the owner’s cute son, be on the phone, stand at the hostess stand or behind the bar texting, ignore customers until you finish a conversation or a sandwich.  It stinks, and the labor pool is so bad in the hospitality and service industry that we find ourselves putting up with it.  I see this behavior everywhere I shop, and when I go out to eat.  I’ve seen it at work for the last half-dozen years or so.  The only place I’ve worked recently where it wasn’t tolerated was Chez Nous.  Bravo to Heather for that.  Otherwise, it’s common practice to be on your phone, be eating, and visiting with both your friends and coworkers in view and earshot of customers.

So, what is it, are owners stuck because the labor pool is so shallow?  Or, are young people just not hip to the idea that being at work means being at work, and it’s not a social event?

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Moving Parts

This past weekend I had to repair my lawnmower which was very disappointing because it’s not very old and it’s a very well-regarded brand.  I won’t tell you what kind it is, but I would not recommend a Troy Built machine.  The engine is great, a Briggs and Stratton, but the rest of the mower is falling apart after just four years.  I’ve already had to do repairs on the grass chute and the blade mount, both requiring some innovation and patchwork.  As I was replacing the broken front axle that has rotating offset mounts and adjustment clips with a simple straight rod and simple stationary mounts it became clear to me that this mower has too many moving parts.  The more features a machine has, the more moving parts, and the more chances for breakdown.

I started thinking about restaurant equipment and the simplicity of stoves vs. the complexity of line coolers.  A stove rarely breaks down, and when it does the repairs are generally quick and inexpensive.  A cooler on the other hand has more moving parts and the chances for mechanical failure are increased.  When a cooler lets you down it’s normal that you’ll be writing a more substantial check.

The rational leap from restaurant equipment to restaurants was made as I worked on the mower.  It occurred to me that a lot of restaurants have too many moving parts. The problems we face in is that the labor pool is shallow, and sourcing consistent product is difficult in this area, even from the best suppliers.

Labor, the people who work directly for us daily and procuring product are just two of the many moving parts to a restaurant.  Other suppliers of goods and services like linens, cleaning, equipment maintenance, trash collection, flowers, paper goods, cooking fuel for some places, banking, licenses and permits, menu and wine list printing, social media and publicity/advertising, and small wares like plates, silver, and glassware other things that must be dealt with on a daily basis.  There’s more, much more.

I’m just looking at the two most fickle parts tonight but could write volumes on all the things that could go wrong every day in the hospitality world.  The general public never sees most of it, and their experience is often not affected by the daily mishaps and missteps of all the individuals need to make a restaurant function, but the errors, breakdowns, and failures are there.

Labor is tough.  The people available right now are not the people that were available when I started out.  I just do not remember it being ok to miss work or be late for almost any reason.  Young people, and some older think concerts, family picnics, hangovers, nights out with friends, sunshine, no money for gas, the bus was early, my alarm didn’t go off, my dog is sick, I forgot to do laundry, my Mom took my car, I had to stop for coffee, the mechanic took longer than expected, I have to watch my brother, and a host of other things that seem to come up like never before.  It is too common for restaurants to be short-handed.  The next time service is spotty or slow keep in mind that the labor pool stinks and keeping fully staffed on a nightly basis is almost impossible.  Labor is the most difficult moving part to maintain.

Today’s waitstaff today is made up of people waiting tables until their fine arts degree pans out, or until they can save up to move to California.  I’m generalizing, but my generalization is based on experience.  Professional servers are a thing of the past.

Cooks are mainly dishwashers that moved up, and never had a real desire for the job, and culinary graduates that weren’t aware that they would have to work.  Again, a generalization based on experience.

Dishwashers? Good luck with that.  When they show up on time, sober/straight, and ready to work it’s a victory.

We live in an area that loves simple cooking and straight-forward dishes made from products that are easily recognizable and effortless to obtain.  For those of us that like to stray from the middle of the box out to the boarders and beyond it’s a crapshoot trying to keep interesting items on your menu.  Suppliers do not stock large amounts of specialty items, or too often less popular things are special order only.  Good luck being eclectic and interesting on a consistent basis.  A 40 lb. case of random boneless skinless chicken breasts?  Sure, there’s all you want.  A case of Romaine, a 4-gallon case of Ken’s Caesar dressing, and some Sysco pre-shredded Asiago and you can serve grilled chicken Caesar salads to your heart’s content. Wait, what about tainted lettuce?  Nope, even the supply of the mundane isn’t guaranteed. Just another moving part that can break down.

We spend too much time covering up the blemishes of an often-seamless appearing operation.  My question as I plan my own restaurant is how do I eliminate, or greatly reduce the chances for breakdown?  The answer hit me as I was changing the front axle on my mower from a complex machine with multiple moving parts to a simple machine with no moving parts.

Eliminate the moving parts!

Sure, that’s easy on a lawnmower, but in a restaurant that depends on many individuals to open each day?  Sure, I believe it can be done successfully.  No waitstaff, very limited seating, and a menu that’s written daily based on seasonal and available products. I’m eliminating those moving parts and others.  That’s all for now, a full disclosure of my plans is coming soon enough.

Friday Night Nonsense

Some people simply don’t know what they don’t know, and they’re too stubborn to admit that.

Yesterday I spent a lot of time with my eight-year-old Stella.  Since she was home sick, we thought a low-key activity like pasta making would be a great project.  Before heading out to the pediatrician we made some duck egg pasta dough and wrapped it well.  Upon our return we rolled some sheets to use for ravioli, garganelli, and bowties.  I also showed her how to make sheets with whole parsley leaves in them.  We also used some of the dough to make cavatelli with the small hand-crank machine and by hand with a gnocchi board.  She especially liked the part when I hooked up my cordless drill to the cavatelli maker and produced noodles at an alarming rate.

What impressed me about Stella is that I didn’t have to ask her to do things, she took initiative.  I didn’t have to show her things twice due to great aptitude for pasta making and because she paid attention.  She worked the whole time and took no smoke breaks, she didn’t have to check her phone, get a soda, or feel the need to get some air. How refreshing, and what a nice change from late-arriving twenty-somethings who feel it’s ok to take 20 minutes upon arrival to get changed, fix a cup of coffee, and chat with the bartender before starting actual work.  She also didn’t ask for Saturday off, ask if she could leave early because she needs to give her dog heart worm medication by 9 or the pooch will die.  That’s code for I want to take a shower and get dressed so I can meet my friends out by 10.

As one goes from place to place it’s easy to leave physical elements behind.  Pans, plates, tools, spice blends, or coffee makers.  Some places however are resistant to retaining non-tangible things you try to leave behind.  Knowledge, work ethic, ingenuity, and tenacity are things I have been able to leave with some organizations and individuals, but some places have deep cultures of indifference, indolence, and a general disregard for progressive thinking.  It has always felt like I have failed when I’ve left places with those poor qualities, but I when I look back on my years in the kitchen, I reminisce about all the people I’ve come across and how many are doing well in the industry.  I may not leave a legacy as the long-time chef at one spot, but I find satisfaction that I have left my mark on places and people in the business.

I don’t typically unfriend people simply due to differing political stances.  I respect informed, well thought out opinions based on facts and knowledge of events and situations.  However, I found it necessary when someone claimed that Barack Obama was the laziest and worst (he said the “worse”) president in history because all he watches is Fox News for information, and because he’s possibly a racist.  This was an individual who I worked for when I was just starting out and I thought his box full of knives, ability to keep up on a busy sauté station, and knowledge were impressive.  Then, I became a sauté wizard, got a bunch of knives, and gained far more knowledge than he will ever have.  So, since you have not been relevant for many years, and since your ignorant views are offensive, to Hell with you.  This is not a defense of President Obama, but a defense of reasonably formed opinions.

I’m not sure I should keep the last paragraph in this post.

Here’s how owners who have never done an hour’s work in the kitchen see it: “I pay you by the hour, so you need to continuously work while you’re here.”  As a chef, who knows how hard the job is, this is how I see it: “You are paid at a rate of $12.00 per hour, and work an eight-hour shift, that’s less than $100.00 to prep and hold down a station for dinner service.”  If you want to take 15 minutes to sit on a milk crate and eat a sandwich or bowl of pasta then go ahead, if your shit’s together.  If you want to take a pizza home on a Saturday night, then you’ve earned it.

We’ve really got to find a way to treat our line cooks and dishwashers better, it’s a tough job.

Eight-year-olds should not have what looks like a beer gut.  I really shouldn’t either.

Fox News is for conformation, not information.

Someone recently threatened to sue me for blasphemy.  I laughed and I laughed.

Blasphemy is an impossible offence.  Since it is the act of speaking sacrilegiously about a figure called God, and the being many call God does not exist, then blasphemy cannot exist.

It’s my well-informed opinion, believe what you wish.

Prime rib vs. Ribeye steak. It’s a tough lesson.

A comment on my recent post asked that when I opened my restaurant if I was going to talk to my customers in the way I write on this blog.  The blog and the restaurant are two separate entities and I mostly know how to act in public.  With that said, I will have a set of standards for both myself and my customer base.  I will not surrender those standards.

Why do people continue to call chicken tenders boneless wings?   Putting Buffalo sauce in it does not make it a wing, boneless or otherwise.

Dogs are not children, and I’m offended by those that make that comparison.  Creating a human child, carrying as part of your body for nine months, and raising a child is in no way like getting a puppy.  I love dogs, but reality is reality, and please stop pushing them around in strollers thinking they’re babies.

If your Saratoga restaurant needs the Summer season to survive, then perhaps it’s not the entity you may think it is.

I was at Stella’s softball game here in Schuylerville and overheard a few people talking about a Saratoga restaurant.  The woman reported that there was a $17 pasta, and a $39 steak, and that for $39 you ought to get the whole cow.  Well, when you go to the big city you gotta expect big-city prices.

I’ve lived in Schuylerville for 4 years and have eaten one steak in a restaurant here.  That was enough.

Calling it a steakhouse doesn’t make it so.

Whatcha Gonna Do

As many of you are aware, I am in the planning stages my own project in Saratoga.

Here are a few thoughts just to give you a glimpse of what I’m working on and what I hope to be doing soon.

I’ll be serving well-crafted Mediterranean plates in a contemporary and creative style using the flavors of Morocco, Spain, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Tunisia, France, Algeria, Syria, and Israel.  Each dish will not necessarily be from one country, but will express the ingredients, techniques, and tastes of the region.

Yes, I know there are a few more countries on the Mediterranean Sea, but you get the picture.

We’re having a garage sale on May 18th, maybe I should sell tacos at the same time.

My lamb Bolognese has its roots in Italy, but the use of lamb, mint, feta, pine nuts, and raisins collects the flavors of other nearby cuisines.  Perhaps it’s no longer Bolognese, but it’s a good way to communicate to people what the dish started out as before it was kidnapped by my brain and made into something unique, and expressly mine.

The cuisines of the Mediterranean are connected in so many ways that it’s impossible to separate them by borders, political ideologies, religions, or even continents.  There are too many historical reasons why Spanish food is closer to Sicilian food than Sicilian food is to Milanese food.

I will not serve chicken breast ever again.

It will be chef-driven cuisine served in a unique, comfortable and convivial format.

Seating will be very limited.

I look forward to making my rabbit pâté again.

When people are two-faced, the only thing you’ll know for sure is that you can’t trust either of them.

There will be plenty of fresh pasta, as in Yawning Duck kind of fresh pasta.

I will not allow employees to use cell phones in view of customers.

I’ve been doing a lot of character development for the short story I’m working on.

I’d like to keep Wednesdays open for special events, like fundraisers, cooking classes, and private functions.  Thursday, Friday, and Saturday will be open for dinner.

Social media will be important, and you’ll need to follow along on Facebook and Instagram to know what’s on the menu each week, and what Wednesday’s are about.  The website is being worked on. That too will be kept up-to-date weekly, an easy task, but all too often ignored.

I did a lot of planting in the garden yesterday. I’ll have some nice produce to work with.

I will cook everything the way I believe is best, I cannot cook properly if I’m anticipating a possible allergy (claim) or dietary/lifestyle choice.  Pasta has gluten, risotto has dairy (never in the form of cream), I use rich chicken stock often, and there are onions in a lot of things.  I must cook along unrestricted guidelines in order to make each dish what it should be.

I will cook a lot of food that has no gluten, meat or dairy since the cooking will be Mediterranean based.

Don’t however ask for gluten-free pasta, there’s no such thing. Get the gist?

Things will be made and presented as designed, as tested, and as described on the menu.

Try your best not to work for less than you’re worth.

Make sure you know your worth.

I will express who I am as a person and as a chef.  I will be accessible to everyone due to the open kitchen.  I plan on being available to everyone, answering questions, telling stories, and talking about food and wine. Blah, blah, blah….

The wine list will be simple but well-thought out, approachable, and most of all, fun. No bargains for us, but there may be bargains for you.  I’m not going to serve cheap wine.  Inexpensive perhaps, but not cheap.

I will not do happy hour; this place will not be about specials, and mark-downs.  The people who decide to dine early will be treated and charged the same as those who decide to dine late.  No specials, it will be a short menu changed weekly.  There might be room for a special night, perhaps on those open Wednesdays.

Wine will be served in simple glassware without theater.

The golfer is John Daly.

I love a good Arnold Palmer on a hot day.

I will not sell gift cards.

There are two kinds of owners, those who get in the dish pit, and those who do not.  The difference between the two does not necessarily indicate success or failure, but it certainly says a lot about the chances for success or failure.  It also says a lot about one’s motivation for being in the business.

I plan some time in the dish pit.

As things become finalized and the picture and timeline become clearer I’ll pass along a more comprehensive report.

Thank You

On Monday night the Chez Sophie reunion dinner took place in honor of Chef Paul Parker who’s undergoing treatment for cancer.  The turnout was great, the spirits were high, and the sense of community was inspiring.

I learned of Paul’s illness when I was sent a link to a GoFundMe page set up by a family friend with a goal of $10,000.  My first thought was that I wished I could just put the whole amount in.  Then I thought about what my wife and I would contribute, and we discussed and settled on a figure.  As I was at work later that day prepping for dinner service, I had an idea that would allow me to contribute the whole 10k and more.  What we did on Monday night was spawned from that thought and with the help of a lot of community-minded individuals we exceeded the monetary goal and more importantly we showed a family that they are not alone in their fight, but have an entire team in their corner.  As someone who has witnessed the fight against cancer too many times, I know what an emotional boost can mean to someone who’s ill.  Paul, we’re on your side and will battle with you.

In the Spring of 2004, I had just started working at Chez Sophie in Malta.  One night after service my car wouldn’t start, and it needed to be jump started by Paul and Cheryl’s SUV.  Before I left for home Paul had me take his cell phone with me in the event I had further car issues.  It was a small gesture, but It was the first time I learned that Paul cared about people other than himself.  It was the first in a series of kind acts I saw over the years and now it’s time for him to be able to draw from the good acts he’s committed over time to help himself.

My wife commented that whenever someone needed a job, all they need to do was go to the kitchen door and ask if there was anything available.  There were so many times that the restaurant couldn’t afford another employee, but he’d say, “come in Friday at 2, we’ll find something for you to do.”  I think people often forget or are unaware that Chez Sophie was not just a great restaurant, but a place where people came first.  We we’re fed well, we were always paid, and we had the opportunity to accumulate great memories and cultivate friendships.  Thank you, Paul and Cheryl.

The list of people who contributed was lengthy, but I’d be remiss if I did not mention in some way those responsible for making the evening a success.

For use of the site of the Chez Sophie so many people were a part of, the Fodero Diner in Malta, Dunning Street Station I thank owners Chef Scott Ringwood and Bob McKenna, General Manager Diana Murphy, and Chef Bruce Jacobson.  Diana took care of many details along the way and was on hand for the evening to assure things were as they needed to be.  Scott and Bruce were indispensable in the kitchen.

The kitchen crew was rounded out by Dominique Brialy, Mark Graham, Ali Benamati, and Nick Yusavage.  Thank you all who made the work light with your help ideas, and most of all your spirited camaraderie and focus on the goal.

To our service team who came together and reminded me what a professional service team looks like, I am grateful for your efforts.  It was a difficult job that was performed well.  Jennifer Derby Colose, Jay Christiansen, Micki Lee, and Patrick Gilgallon.  Also, on the Bar, Mitch Rowen.  All these professionals are Chez Sophie alumni, and it shows.  They stepped into the roles without missing a beat and more importantly, they turned 100% of their gratuities ($1500.00) over to the fund-raising effort.

A proper Chez Sophie experience would not be complete without great wine and great wine service, which was made possible by  our event sommeliers, two of the best in the business who not only gave their time, but also contributed and/or facilitated the donation of all the wine consumed (some of it in the kitchen).  Dominick Purnomo (Yono’s) and Joseph Armstrong Winebow), thank you from the bottom of my heart. It was one aspect I didn’t need to worry about as I knew it was handled by two gentleman who are on their game time and time again.

I also need to acknowledge business owners Matt Funiciello of Rock Hill Bakery, Gary Warrington of Edelweiss Veal Co., and Eric Guenther of Adventure in Food Trading Co. for generous donations of great product, and Mark McNary of PFG Foods, Dale Miller of Maple Leaf Farms, Douglas Bernthal of Skurnic Wines, and Ryan Moore of Lauber Imports for facilitation of product donations

Finally, T.R Laz for his work in providing photographic memories of the event, and Jonathan Anthime Miller for providing wonderful music.

To all those who provided items, services, and artwork for the silent auction, a genuine thank you, as the bids were plentiful, and the result beneficial.

Living a life in a specific way can cause you to have people come to your aid without a thought.  It’s not charity, it’s drawing on assets that you have earned and banked.

To all the people who donated, cooked, organized, served, and attended, thank you.