As I‚Äôm sure many of you have read, this is a tough week for many of us in the restaurant business here in the Twin Cities. The loss of Jon Radle is profound. He was extraordinarily talented, and so very young. Our community has been robbed of his creativity, his passion, and his unpretentious yet truly elegant food. He had what was destined to be a fantastic and prolific career. It was with this loss in mind that I chose to focus strictly on the positive this week, and take a look at the joys of service. I asked my constituents for a few words on why it is that we all stay in this business ‚Äì this is why do we do what we do.
We agree as a community that service becomes a passion, sometimes an addiction. There‚Äôs quick money, and a flexible schedule ‚Äì that‚Äôs attractive to almost everyone. My friend Matt Helgason, Assistant General Manager of Barrio Lowertown went so far as to say, ‚ÄúWhat other profession can you work 3-4 days a week and still live off what you make (when you‚Äôre) really only stressed out two hours a day?‚Äù But ultimately, even those of us who earn great tips don‚Äôt earn a tremendous living. And that flexible schedule isn‚Äôt so great when your friend‚Äôs birthday party falls on a Saturday night. Taking that night off can mean giving up a third of your week‚Äôs earnings! And yet we stay. There are a few big reasons why.
First, as I‚Äôve previously mentioned, frequently your server is really into food and wine. I started my career at restaurants that could only be referred to as simple: My first serving job was for a small Mexican restaurant franchise for which the tagline was, ‚ÄúChips are free, dinner extra!‚Äù Believe me, that line got old reeeeal quick when at least two or three tables a night would remind me they would like more chips since their ‚Äúdeeee-ner would be extra!‚Äù After three or four years in restaurants of this caliber, I followed a young man to Boston for a summer and got my introduction to fine dining service. Ambrosia on Huntington was a French-Asian fusion restaurant ‚Äì one of the first. The restaurant had an elevated kitchen, and the guy standing on the opposite side of the line from the chefs (referred to as the Expo or the Expeditor) would fire our courses when he saw the table was ready. What does that mean? We (the servers) would ring up the table‚Äôs entire meal at one time; first course, salad and entrees would all come to the kitchen on one slip of paper, referred to as a ‚Äúticket‚Äù or ‚Äúchit‚Äù. The Expo would then watch the table through a giant window in the kitchen that looked out over the dining room. He‚Äôd ‚Äúfire‚Äù each course (tell the chefs to start cooking an item) as he saw when the table was going to be ready to receive it. The system was flawless, outside of having to carry hot, heavy plates with artfully constructed towers of food down a flight of stairs. The guests always had perfectly timed dishes, and the food was to die for. I learned everything at this place ‚Äì and began my addiction to service here.
At Ambrosia I tried more food and wine that broadened my horizons than I ever had previously. I will never forget being handed a large piece of raw tuna resting on a bed of squid ink capellini, and being questioned by an incredulous Expo, ‚ÄúDo you even like tuna?‚Äù
‚ÄúShe‚Äôs from Minnesota! She thinks all tuna comes out of a can,‚Äù one of the chefs sneered at me.
‚ÄúThank you, I love tuna!‚Äù I exclaimed, having never eaten it raw before. Thank the restaurant god, I loved it. I learned ravenously at this restaurant: How to stand, what language to use, about wine regions outside of California, and about what real fine dining service meant. That job single-handedly changed the trajectory of my career. Because of my experience there, I‚Äôm a wanna-be foodie (we‚Äôll discuss the foodie movement sometime in the future), a true oenophile, and a service professional. When I left that place, it was like graduating. The ensuing ten years have been continuing education. I could never afford to have dined and drunk the way that I have were I not in this business. My husband, a ten year veteran and current lead server at a hot restaurant in downtown Minneapolis agrees, ‚ÄúAfter both serving and managing throughout my career, my passion for food and wine, and the magic that happens when you put them together correctly, is bigger to me than I ever thought possible. If you‚Äôd told me eight years ago that I‚Äôd be looking for micro-greens at the local farmer‚Äôs market, or that I‚Äôd be writing wine descriptions in my spare time, I wouldn‚Äôt have believed you.‚Äù
So, servers love what they‚Äôre bringing you, what else keeps us in the trenches? There are the people who seriously enjoy the delicacy of providing really good service. My friend Lori and I have worked together at several different places over the years, both as servers and in management of one of the most difficult properties in the Cities. (I won‚Äôt tell you where, but just trust me.) You‚Äôll currently find her smiling face welcoming you to the afore mentioned Corner Table. ‚ÄúI love food, I love (LOVE) wine, and opening people up to new experiences, introducing them to a wine or region they’ve never had before, or getting them to try *and like* a food they’ve not enjoyed before, is just so completely satisfying.‚Äù Anthony Bourdain said once that Mis En Place is his religion. I feel very similarly. There is nothing better than finishing a night knowing that everything was executed with a quiet level of perfection. One of my first dear, lifelong industry friends Shannon Hoh says, ‚ÄúThere is such a lack of great guest service in this country. I feel a great amount of pride and job satisfaction knowing that I show people that you can be treated like a king… if just for an hour or two.‚Äù I couldn‚Äôt agree more.
Even more than administering tremendous service, dealing with the public directly allows each of us to touch the lives (if ever briefly) of our guests. Making someone‚Äôs birthday special, or just their crappy day at work a distant memory, can be the most fulfilling thing in the world! Chris Brawner, server extraordinaire at the Loring Kitchen and Bar, said it simply: ‚ÄúEvery day I get the opportunity to meet amazing people. I get paid to laugh and to make others laugh… it‚Äôs wonderful.‚Äù My dear friend Mark Roberts (whom I‚Äôve previously mentioned) agreed, ‚ÄúChris hit it right on the head. If you are not enjoying the adventure maybe something else might give you more satisfaction.‚Äù He went on to tell me that he‚Äôd be in the service industry until he was no longer able, winking at me that he might even ‚Äúdo this for free.‚Äù Another great gentleman from La Belle Vie, Johnny Michaels told me, ‚ÄúIt’s great when your job is to make people happy, and if you’re successful, you get to see the results. Everyone works hard, and it’s fun to be stewards for their precious good times… the times people live for.‚Äù
More than anything, the people I asked said that it is the bonds with their coworkers they value the most. My friend Erika Olson, who fastidiously works the room at 20.21 (and has for the entire life of the restaurant), gave me this gem: ‚ÄúThe army of hooligan chums I‚Äôve acquired slanging food are hilarious, talented, and ridiculously good looking. We are damn good at kickball and can drink civilians (yeah, that‚Äôs right, we call you civilians) under the table. Take that to your ‚Äò9 to 5‚Äô and sit on it for eight hours.‚Äù The idea that an office existence just isn‚Äôt as fulfilling is pretty pervasive. Barb Gettel (currently pouring your favorite foamy beverage at Brit‚Äôs Pub) agrees. ‚ÄúMore than anything, the people I have met in this industry are some of the most hilarious, radical people and every day I get to go to work and have fun with them and call them my friends. Not everyone that sits in a cube day in and out gets to say that about their job or life ‚Äì in fact I don’t know anyone that can. (Said with experience from the cubical world.) No matter how hard I try to keep an office job I ALWAYS find myself back in the industry; it’s like the biggest, funnest team anyone could ever work on!‚Äù Off the tip of my brain, I can tell you of three couples I know who have gotten married as a result of meeting their spouse through the industry. (Myself included.)
I‚Äôll go back to what I said before ‚Äì your server is most likely an incredible person with diverse interests and aspirations, hobbies and (additional) professions. I currently work with an Expo who has been to Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Tanzania, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico for extended trips. He travels on the money he makes at his restaurant job ‚Äì the same job that allows him to take a month off at a time to pursue his love of travel. How many people do you know who can say that?
I‚Äôm going to leave off with sage words from a bartender. Pip Hanson writes a column about liquor for Metro Magazine when he‚Äôs not consulting for the next new hot property. When he‚Äôs not doing that, you can get a fantastic drink from him at Caf√© Maude. ‚ÄúI like making things with my hands. And I like girls. So my job is great.‚Äù True enough, friend. Now pour me one of those ‚ÄúThinking Man‚Äôs‚Äù chocolate martinis and let‚Äôs toast. To us!