Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Christmas Wish

If you wish to enter the mindset of the guest, it is crucial that you understand that the guest does not see you as an actual human being. This is the Second Noble Truth of Service.  If you were to press the guest on the question of whether or not the person in front of them was a living, breathing individual - one with his own life and cares, tragedies and triumphs - they would of course concur but, truthfully, only after some consideration. The default attitude of the guest is simply to see you as a means of conveyance - a conduit of their food and drink from the ether to the table. Do not take this personally. It is simply the nature of things. Would you take it personally if a scorpion were to sting you? It is the nature of the scorpion to do so - just as it is the nature of the guest to have the self-centeredness and self-importance of a two-year-old.

It's Christmas Eve and, after a pretty busy night, things are starting to slow down. The guests are beginning to trickle out, off to read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" in front of a roaring fire and drift off to visions of sugar plums and whatnot (I assume that's what goes on, as for myself I had already gotten my visit from Hanukkah Harry). The waiters are starting to finish up their tables, the remaining guests are starting to get desserts and after-dinner drinks, but there's still one table who hasn't even started their meal yet (keep in mind we're talking fine-dining, where a meal generally takes about three hours).

It was a two top, a young couple in their early to mid thirties, who were the last reservation for the night; a reservation for which they had already been a half-hour late. And they sat, and drank (from the looks of it, they had already had a few drinks before dinner as well), and snuggled on the same side of the booth, and were quite obviously in no hurry whatsoever with absolutely nowhere else to be. Finally, at around 9:30, they order. The courses begin to come out and, once again, they're obviously in no hurry. The first course sits in front of them, barely touched, for what seems like an eternity. The server checks to make sure that the everything is alright, and the guests respond everything is wonderful, thank you, and continue to pick. This goes on pretty much for every course up until the main, where one of the guests decides she's not very fond of what she ordered, and sends it back - much to the dismay not only of the server but to the kitchen as well, who had started to close things down themselves.

She gets her new entree, everything is fine, but they continue to snuggle and talk and drink, and occasionally take a bite, and talk and drink some more. The food sits untouched for awhile, the server goes over to see if she can clear - No, they're still eating. The food continues to sit, they pick occasionally, the clock ticks, the captain gingerly venture back over. No, they're still eating...

You can see where this is all going. They stretch out the meal, they stretch out the dessert courses, they stretch out the after-dinner drinks, etc etc, and all the while the poor server is getting more and more agitated.

"It's Christmas Eve!" goes the familiar refrain. "Don't these a--holes think that I might possibly have a family to get home to?"

The other remaining servers joined in the chorus. I kept my mouth shut. I was closing as well but, again, for me it was just another Saturday night. I always expect to stay late and know, from experience, that Christmas Eve is no exception. By the time all is said and done, it's 1:30 in the morning.

As much as we want the guest to understand and think of us as actual people, people who they are keeping from getting on with their lives and seeing their families and, yes, having a Christmas, they do not. They are customers and, for that time, we are their employees. They're paying good money to have a meal out, and it's our job to provide it. And to a point, I can see where they're coming from. Our meals are not cheap, and if our restaurant didn't want to be open on Christmas Eve, it didn't have to be. If I didn't want to work in a profession where I might have to be at my job late on Christmas Eve, maybe I should have worked harder at finding another vocation.

It all comes down to how we treat each other, and how we see each other. When you go out to eat, do you consider that your waitress might have three small children waiting for her to get home? Do you think that maybe the barista at the Starbucks might have had better things to do Christmas Day then get up at 5am to make sure you didn't have to, God forbid, go one day without your precious pumpkin spice latte? I'm not saying I'm not often guilty of the same thing - it's human nature, I think, to lump people into categories and boxes. It's how our brains evolved, we see, we process, categorize, and move on. To step back and treat everyone you meet as an actual person, someone who has  a whole life outside of your very brief interaction with them, well, it makes it difficult to continue with business as usual.

Would it affect how you treat the grocery store clerk, or the bus driver, or the homeless man, or maybe someone you were not just indifferent to, but in conflict with, if you could step back and see the whole scope of their lives? See that they, too, have wept with grief over the loss of a loved one, perhaps looked down at a newborn baby and experienced the miracle of life, felt the sting of guilt and remorse, the pain of regret and failure, and yet also laughed until their sides ached, and perhaps occaisonally even performed some small act of selflessness or even heroism?

Not to get too religious or preachy but, in the spirit of the season, I think this was one of the things Jesus understood and tried to convey. He didn't see a sinner, or a tax collector - he saw a person, a child of God, surely no less than the priest or even the saint. What would the world be like, I wonder, if we could look at other people through those eyes.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Stop. Please, Just Stop.

The secret to eternal happiness is to never wish to be anywhere but where you are. Wherever you are, embrace it fully. Say yes to it unreservedly. For there is nothing more foolish than fighting the reality of what is.


If you do not like something, change it. If you cannot change it, change your attitude. Do not complain.
--Maya Angelou

*Note: the following is a re-post from last year's holiday season. My new restaurant does not play Christmas music - or any popular music for that matter. Just a nice, subtle background of non-intrusive minimalist instrumentals. Just how grateful I am for this, I can not even begin to explain. 

For me, one of the single most annoying things about being in the service industry – more annoying than bad tips, rude guests, or loud children – is holiday music. Specifically, being forced to listen to holiday music six to eight hours a day for a month and a half straight. The normal music is bad enough; many years ago at one of my old jobs (before satellite radio) we had those cassette tapes that run on infinite loops, just replaying the same hour, hour-and-a-half of music over and over and over. One summer they replayed the same one tape for over a month straight; to this day I still can’t hear “Ironic” by Alanis Morisette without getting nauseous. But holiday music is in a class by itself. Part of it might be because I was raised Jewish, and so I really don’t have any fond memories associated with Christmas music (besides Vince Guaraldi's jazz score from “A Charlie Brown Christmas"). But I think the main reason is because Christmas music is almost universally shitty. “White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” that awful, awful Paul McCartney song (“Simply, having, a wonderful Christmas time….”) and worst of all, “Jingle Bell Rock,” they all make me wretch. (“Jingle Bell Rock” I think deserves special mention just because of the way it lodges itself in your head, like a parasite burrowing underneath your skin, and you find yourself singing it – over and over). And the less said about that Barbara Streisand monstrosity (Jingle bells, jingle bells, jing, jangle! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jing, jangle!) the better. In my mind, there have really only been three good Christmas songs ever written: “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-DMC, Prince’s “Another Lonely Christmas” (which, if you’ve never heard it, is beautiful - albeit immensely depressing) and, of course, James Brown - "Soulful Christmas". Even the reliably cynical John Lennon could not withstand the Christmas schmaltz – “So This Is Christmas” is one of his most annoyingly cloying songs (a children’s choir John? Really?).

So, every year, between the day after Thanksgiving and the end of the first week of January, I bitch. I bitch relentlessly, over and over -- “Not Jingle Bell Rock again!”, “God I hate Paul McCartney!” and so forth. But what can I do? The Christmas music certainly isn’t going anywhere (and, for the time being, neither am I), and the end result of being constantly annoyed is pretty much that I'm walking around feeling constantly annoyed. It’s really not a good feeling. So why do I bitch? What’s to be gained? If I'm completely honest with myself I think on some level I like being annoyed; having something to bitch about is a nice little boost for the ego, it's the ego's way of saying, “I’m better than this music,” or "If I was running the show things would be different" (we’d only be listening to ‘A Motown Christmas’ for one). But it still doesn't feel good. So, as an experiment, the other night I just stopped bitching. I stopped bitching and accepted unreservedly that awful, awful Christmas music that could not be escaped. When “Jingle Bell Rock” got stuck in my head, I sang it and let myself sing it – I made myself really get into it, just belted it out. And you know what? I wasn’t annoyed anymore. I actually found myself in a good mood – whistling “Rudolph” and everything. Like a lot of things in life, it was a trade off. I had to trade in my temporary feelings of superiority for being in a good mood, and I found being in a good mood is vastly more enjoyable. Now we'll just see if I can keep it up when Streisand comes on.

Monday, December 12, 2011

"I felt sorry for myself because I was a waiter..."

Above all, remember the Seventh Noble Truth: It is only food. When you feel rage beginning to surface or exasperation threatening to submerge you, repeat this again and again. Let it be your mantra. It is only food. It is only food. It is only food. This applies to all areas.
 – Zen and the Art of Waitering


I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.
 I felt sorry for myself because I was a waiter, until I met a waiter from Chili's.
 – Ancient Persian Proverb

There's a lot to be said for perspective. It's not something that comes naturally - our general course is to be caught up in the demands of the moment, and to see only what is immediately around us. Each of us has our own concept of reality, of what is “the norm” –  what is expected and unexpected, what is acceptable and what is not.

This occurred to me the other night at work; it was a pretty crazy night – very busy, lots of running around, some issues with the kitchen, both back and front of the house getting flustered and short-tempered, etc, etc. As I mentioned last week, I recently moved to the world of fine dining; just an absolutely wonderful restaurant with a wonderful crew. It was something I had been looking for for awhile, and when I got the job I was ecstatic. Yet here I was, not a month after so happily accepting the position, cursing the kitchen, and bitching about how “ridiculous” the night was. And I stopped, and I saw three things. One: just months ago, if someone told me I would have a full time position in a five-star, Michelin-rated restaurant, I would have been thrilled. To have the job, in and of itself, regardless of what silly crap I might have to put up with on any given night, I would have accepted in a heartbeat – and could not imagine a scenario where I wouldn't. So, that lead to a second insight – which is that this discontentment is inherent in the very nature of what is often referred to as “the world of form;" there is no point of having “made it,” every success and achievement, every thing gained, is appreciated and enjoyed for but a brief (often, very brief) window of time. That appreciation is quickly forgotten, as we now become used to it, and move on to the next thing.

The third, and most important thing, I think I realized was something that has actually been on my mind for awhile (this just helped coalesce it). Namely, the idea of our reality “bubbles,” that the context of our surroundings creates our sense of normalcy. What is normal to – and what is expected by –  someone born to an upper crust family in New England is probably somewhat different from the expected reality of someone born to a dirt poor family in the Appalachians. The waiters at my new restaurant are (thoroughly) disappointed if they make anything less than $200 a night. At my old job, we would have been thrilled to make $200 a night.

This all, of course, are the expectations of a First World lifestyle. We, anyone reading this, right now, are living a life in the upper 1% of everyone in the world. No matter how “bad” my night is at work, would I trade that with your average person in, say, Burma? Or Rwanda? Or, basically, anywhere that's not North America, Europe or the Industrialized East?

You can even extrapolate this idea further, when you realize that our lives would be considered pure magic by anyone else throughout history. When I wake up every morning, I have clean, hot water whenever I want. Think about that for a moment. My great-great grandfather would be astounded by that. We don't have to worry about Polio. Most of us probably didn't have a number of siblings die in childhood. To say nothing of leprosy and the Black Plague. Comedian Louis C.K. has an amazing bit that I appended below about how “everything's amazing and no one is happy,” and it's so true. And it's true because of the bubble we grew up in, of what our personal time and place tells us is the norm.

Now, whenever anyone asks me at work how my night was, or how I'm doing, my answer is – and I say this completely without sarcasm – amazing. Awesome. Wonderful. I make a living polishing silverware and running food to the ultra-rich in a posh, fine-dining restaurant in a tony neighborhood in a major metropolitan First World city. Seriously, how bad can my night be? What, I got a “bad” tip? We were running long ticket times? Not to sound like an asshole, but meet someone from Somalia and then try to tell them with a straight face how “bad” your night was because of long ticket times. That's the reality.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trial and Error (and Trial and Error Again (and Again))

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me – is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

- Ira Glass


If you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs. All the pressure drops away. This is because, if your goal is to pay attention to only what your are doing right now, then as long as you are doing just that, you are reaching your goal in each and every moment.

- Thomas M. Sterner

I realize it's been a (ridiculously) long while since my last post – but it's been a busy few months: Changes in my personal life, a move and, most notably for the purposes of this blog, a new job. I've moved on from the world of chain restaraunts and “upscale casual” to straight up, Michelin-rated fine dining. It's been pretty exciting. New tasks, new responsibilities, and a few new skill sets that I didn't even know I was missing.

In all honesty, it hasn't been the smoothest of transitions. I had forgotten exactly how much it sucks to be the new guy. It doesn't help that at this level of dining there isn't really any training per se; it's kind of incumbent on you to ask the questions and mostly figure things out for yourself (which is very odd, because there are very precise and specific ways you're supposed to do everything). So, there's a lot of messing up. Sometimes on the floor, in front of the guest. And a lot of irritated servers giving you irritated looks and sharp corrections. Over and over and over and over. (Side note – how often have you been in a service situation as the customer and the employee you're dealing with is clearly new, and not very skilled at their job. My initial thought is generally “Oh come on already, how hard can it be to ring up a coffee?! (or make a sandwich, or get a coke refill, or whatever it is). Let's go already!” I'm grateful to say my current experience has given me a little more patience and understanding in that area).

At my old job I was one of most senior staff, and I certainly did my share of eye-rolling and, “How can he not get this already?” when new employees would get hired. So to be that new guy, to be the one always a step or two behind, who has to take those extra few seconds to process everything, it's been a humbling experience to say the least. (And a few seconds may not seem like a lot, but when you're on the floor and you're supposed to be executing flawless, synchronized service with the other servers in front of the guest, it's pretty noticeable. You know when you bump into someone going in the opposite direction, and then there's that awkward dance where you both try to step out of each other's way but you do it in the same direction, and then maybe go back and forth a couple more times? Yeah, it's like that, but with meals the guests are forking over $200 a head for).

I think one of the main reasons it can be so frustrating in trying to learn a new skill, or to grow in an unfamiliar area – creatively, professionally, whatever – is because we have the ideal in our mind; we know what the end result is supposed to look like, so each and every time we fall short of that result (which is going to happen, and going to happen a lot when we're in the process of learning) the natural inclination for a lot of us, I think, is to criticize ourselves for not “getting it” fast enough and we get frustrated, and start to maybe think "well, I guess this just isn't for me."

Of course, this is ridiculous. Yes, we all have certain innate talents or leanings, but even those in the tops of their fields didn't get there without making lots of mistakes along the way. The main thing I've had to remember is just to be observant, to learn from those mistakes, and try to be aware and not do them again. We recently had a new sommelier come on, someone with years in the business, and he had a great introductory speech to the crew where he basically said, “I know wine, but obviously I don't 100% know your system or how you operate. I'm going to make a lot of mistakes – hopefully not too many the guest will notice – so just correct me as we go and I'll do my best to get acclimated and have things running smoothly as fast as possible.” That was such a great attitude (especially fom someone in a senior position) – just the knowledge and acceptance that, yep, things are going to be a little choppy at first. I especially love that he didn't say “I may make some mistakes,” but rather “I'm going to make a lot of mistakes.” Because that's how it is at first for a lot of us. There may be some people who only need to be shown something once, and then they do it perfectly each and every time after that. But that's not me. The key is to pay attention to the moment, and to continue to learn. As long as we continue to do that, growth is inevitable.