A Hamburger Today

Served: The Accidental Manager

"I often yearn for the role models and mentors I have in other parts of my life."

20080616-servedbug.jpgIn my writing, my academic, and personal life I have been blessed with great mentors, role models and teachers. Passionate people who love what they do, and who create inspiring books, great websites (like this one), and who thrive on teaching and inspiring young people.

But in my restaurant life, I have often felt alone. The inspiration, energy and passion seem to live mostly in the kitchen, where the chef's vision reigns.

The front of the house is a different story. My managers have been "accidental restaurant managers," people who started working in restaurants on their way to other things, other things that never materialized. The chefs I have known, including my boyfriend, are doing exactly what they love, and can't imagine doing anything else.

The managers I have worked with have arrived at their jobs without this clarity of intention. There is sense often of disappointment: roads not taken, possibilities not realized. It's a hard way to learn. I genuinely envy the spark of creativity and joy in the kitchen, and I strive to make it happen in the front of the house. I want to be inspiring and inspired.

My front-of-the-house life has been almost exclusively without passionate, focused mentors, without the company and examples of people who love what they are doing, who are living their dream. I have never seen a wonderful restaurant manager in action. I have learned a lot, but much of it on my own.

At my first restaurant job, as the Gelato Girl on the Hoboken waterfront, I learned to focus and push when it was busy, and how to fake busy and bide time when it was mind-numbingly slow. I started to order the product myself, since I fast learned what was selling and what was languishing in the hard-working freezer. My boss ran the franchise, owned by his father, a mini restaurant mogul. The father-son relationship was tumultuous at best, and they spent a lot of time cursing each other over the phone.

Since my Gelato Girl days, I have worked at New York City restaurants with waiters in suits and chandeliers on the ceilings. At one, the GM , a sullen and sad man, talked poetry with me. His only advice during the one year I worked for him was to tell me to smile, sometimes dozens of times in a single shift. At first, I smiled. Later, I seethed with rage.

When he left to work for a rival restaurateur, the sommelier was promoted and became the new GM. The new GM didn't speak to me. Not a peep. "Hello!" I would greet him upon arrival, "How are you?"

His response? Nothing. Not even a affirmative glance. Not even a head nod. The only time he spoke to me was to accept my resignation. "Good luck," he told me.

My best role model was Allen, who worked with me at the Hells Kitchen wine bar at which I spent most of my college years. An aspiring and talented artist and writer, Allen was trained at Danny Meyer's restaurants. He had a generous heart and a love for food, wine, and people. He taught me to bring that love to my work. From Allen, I learned how to to talk to guests, joke with guests, and give stellar service.

But there was an underlying assumption that I was passing through. College graduation loomed, and even my employers knew there would be a new chapter for my professional life.

I took a Corporate Chain job with the very best of intentions. I wanted to learn how to do things in a professional way. The GM walked at breakneck speed, even when the restaurant was empty. It was funny watching people try to keep up with him—most couldn't walk so fast, so they would jog. He was notorious for making people cry. It was rumored that he had upset his kitchen staff so much that the whole line had walked out in the middle of a Saturday night rush, leaving the GM no choice but to bring his management team to sear strip steaks and toss salads. He worked 80 hours a week for a Corporate restaurant, and I quickly knew this wasn't for me.

I am 23, nearly two years out of college, and I'm trying to figure things out. So often, I love the camaraderie, the pace, the energy, making customers happy, feeling like I'm making something wonderful happen.

I've learned to do the P and L, manage costs, and hire (and fire) staff. I'm learning to run a small and increasingly successful business. I am proud of what we have accomplished at our little restaurant. But I often yearn for the role models and mentors I have in other parts of my life. I wonder what's next. I don't want to be another accidental manager.

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