"Managing a restaurant is not glamorous!" I was warned. (But I was never in it for the glamor.) "It's a hard lifestyle," my mom chimes in once and again. The exceedingly nice man who has owned the bar nextdoor for thirty-some years told me that he strictly forbid his now grown children from working in restaurants: "Didn't want them going through what I went through."
I never planned to pursue restaurant management. I wanted to be a writer (still do!), or a chef (no more), or a political strategist, or a professor.
But all through college I worked in New York restaurantland. I slugged away in a kitchen making Niçoise salads and cherry clafoutis. I hostessed in a fancy fancy French place and a wildly successful restaurant where everything came from their farm. I flipped and massaged wheels of muenster at a wholesale cheese operation. And I waited tables at a cheese and wine bar for more than two years.
I wasn't an amazing cook, or hostess, or waiter. Or even an amazing cheese nurse. I wasn't terrible. My best qualities: I have a brain, and I am passionate about what I do. But I was—and always will be—too clumsy to stack a million plates on my arm. Every night, I left a broken glass or two in my wake. I got wildly, miserably bored taking people to their tables all night, or grating Everest-like mountains of parmesan.
Still, with my anthropology and creative writing degree completed, it was the "food/bev/hospitality" category on Craisglist that I browsed relentlessly. And after graduation, I moved to California to try my hand at restaurant management. A year and a half later, I'm still plugging away in this wonderful, difficult, crazy industry.
This business, it's a drug. Easy to get in, harder to get out. Here's why:
1. It's not a desk job. I don't think I have the attention span to sit at a desk all day and do something. Even the most interesting something in the world. The restaurant biz is great for those of us afflicted with a bit, or a lot, of attention deficit. I run around doing a few dozen things at once, and this makes me happy.
2. There are neverending surprises. Champagne corks crashing. A waiter (the only waiter) walking out during Saturday night rush. No-show deliveries. Critics. Crazy crowds when you least expect them. Ten tops canceling five minutes before their reservation. Health inspectors. Explosive plumbing catastrophes.
"It's not avoiding problems," my boyfriend Micky says, "It's how you solve them." There will always be something to solve. This keeps me on my toes and makes my sometimes repetitive work interesting.
3. I get to meet new people all the time. Guests can be, on occasion, genuinely wonderful people. This renders my night a million times better.
When they're awful, it makes for good stories. Like the older gay couple who screamed anti-gay slurs and curses at our bartender because their coats fell on the floor. We kicked them out.
In New York, I met some of my best friends at restaurants. Jenise, the cheese bar chef, and I exchanged secret hugs in the prep kitchen when we were stressed. Soon we were sharing nights with wine, cookies, and movies and traveling to Seattle together.
I have found my coworkers to be smart, interesting, creative, fun, and even inspiring people. They are not dull. They are former Broadway stars, military men, circus performers, thugs, Wall Street execs, and opera singers. They tend to have a sense of humor and of adventure. Of course there are also the dull and the jerkish. But mostly I love the people I work with, and this is perhaps the most important thing.
4. In Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Orcas Island, Philadelphia, and New York I've been lucky enough to enjoy over-the-top (sometimes with free courses) meals. Foie gras! Oysters! Champagne! And a few times, less than delicious dishes I snuck into a napkin and smuggled out in my purse, so as not to offend the chef.
Restaurant people are used to welcoming everyone, but we welcome our own with all the more enthusiasm and warmth. There is a definite community. I feel crazy lucky that at the age of 23, I've eaten at some of the world's best restaurants. This is one of the reasons I've embarked on professional path.
5. I get to be around food and wine. And beer. And sausages. And tiny cucumbers, half the size of your pinky, with yellow flowers. And I just got an amazing cheese in from Corsica, gentle and slightly sheepy and coated with rosemary and fennel. I love food unabashedly, and to spend my work day geeking out about it is a privilege.
When your guests love it too, and appreciate what you are doing, it's pretty cool. To see a cauliflower parmesan soufflé stop a conversation in its tracks, it makes you feel good. Making people happy: that's what this biz is all about.