On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, John Broening, chef, writer, and co-owner of Spuntino, talks about chefs and servants, career choices and treatment by peers.
Your first chef job is rarely your dream job and mine was no exception. This was the mid –nineties, and I was hired to run the kitchen of a small country club in Moraga, a suburb about 30 miles from San Francisco.
"There's nothing the rich like more than a bargain reserved for themselves," Dominick Dunne observed in People Like Us, and he was right. There was a club regular, a retired CEO, who after playing eighteen holes would take advantage of our unlimited free refills of iced tea and slam six or seven glasses of the stuff then slap a quarter on the bar for a tip. Or the old ladies who would split a turkey sandwich ($7), sub salad for fries then have the salad served to them as a first course.
That wasn't the worst part; the worst part was that I was treated like a servant. And there's no stricter pecking order than that among the servant class. I realized that I ranked somewhere between the alcoholic golf pro and the old black gentleman who dispensed towels in the locker room behind a glazed smile. "Are you the cook?" one of the elderly members would ask me on the rare times I ventured out into the dining room. In San Francisco, chefs were swaggering badasses, respected, well-paid professionals who endorsed watches and dated models, but here we were the Help.
One of the privileges the members who lived on the grounds of the club had was that on Thanksgiving they could have a whole turkey dinner delivered to their houses. One holiday I wheeled a cart full of turkey with trimmings to the home of a member (the house was brand- new, but the architect had thoughtfully equipped it with an old-fashioned servant's entrance).
I laid out all the garnishes, carved the turkey for the guests assembled in the dining room, and wrapped the carcass up and was ready to wheel my stuff away when the host pointed his finger at the carcass: "Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah," he said, with a pitying smile that he shared with his guests. "That's the best part of the turkey, young man. I'm going to need that to make turkey soup."
Poor, coarse young fellow, what a shame you are insufficiently acquainted with the pleasures of the table, his look seemed to say. Motherf----r, I muttered under my breath as I wheeled the cart away from the house, if you're so crazy about cooking, why didn't you cook the f---g turkey yourself?
I started looking for another job, and I vowed that I would never take another position where I was treated as anything less than the respected professional I believed myself to be. In my next job, and the job after that, I made sure that everyone knew I was the reason for the restaurant's success and that I would not allow my food to be tampered with in any way. I strutted the dining room in my whites. I screamed at the waiters, to show them I was the boss, if nothing else.
But then, slowly, something started to happen. The more I went out to eat, the more I saw the kind of behavior I practiced as a chef through the eyes of a customer and the less I liked it.
In the years since I left the country club, the rest of America has caught up with San Francisco, largely thanks to television. Chefs rule. Is this always a good thing? I wonder. Take David Chang. He doesn't like waiters and did away with them at Ko. The last time I was in Momofuku Noodle Bar, one of the chefs was blasting the contents of his I-Pod, a room- clearing mix of Pantera, the Geto Boys and Guns 'n Roses. I was in there with my wife and we looked around and saw nothing but well-bred couples like ourselves, cowering under this sonic assault. "Can you ask the chef if he wouldn't mind turning down the music ?" I told one of the servers.
Clearly terrified, she whispered our request to the chef. "But I like it loud!" we overheard him say.
This attitude had obviously come from the top. Yet something intended to empower the cooks actually ends up undermining them. Why? Because this kind of arrogance always makes the food taste worse. My tomato salad tasted too salty to me, my kimchee soup was too spicy and garlicky. Or maybe I was just absorbing the aggressive vibe that I felt in the room.
I started my career disrespecting waiters and devaluing their work but now, when I go out to eat, and in my own restaurant, good service gives me even more pleasure than good food. Maybe because the feeling of being taken care of, that essence of hospitality which is the soul of good service, runs even deeper than the comfort of good food. Or maybe because I respect what good servers do because I'm a typical chef: blunt, impatient, with mediocre emotional intelligence and people skills. I could never be a good server in a million years.
There are a few other things I always used to do as a chef that I almost never do any more. One of them is inflicting long, heavy, free-form tasting menus on customers. The other one is to go out in the dining room in my whites. They both seem, well, like bad manners. The other night, my wife and I were in a restaurant and the chef asked us if he could do a tasting menu for us. It was way more food than we wanted, and the worst part was that he would come out to the dining room after each course, progressively dirtier and sweatier, with the intent of basking in the serial praise that he thought was his due.
It was clearly out of the question to tell him we didn't like a lot of the food and we would appreciate it if he stopped interrupting our dinner. Sending customers an endless procession of dishes they don't really want and advertising his presence in the restaurant were his prerogatives as an exec.
But he and all my fellow chefs would be well-advised to remember that we are members of the service industry; we are, as harsh it sounds, servants. I'm not suggesting for a second that we go back to the way things were, when cooking was an exclusively blue-collar profession that ranked somewhere between truck driving and carpentry. But the humility our profession demands uneasily coexists with the flash and swagger and belief in our own genius many of us chefs consider to be our prerogative.
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· Justin Cucci on the Three Words of 2012 [EDen]
· John Broening of Spuntino on Originality and Copyrights in the Food Business [EDen]