Served: When Restaurant Folk Forget to Feed Themselves


Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

20080616-servedbug.jpgMy boyfriend spends a minimum of a dozen hours a day cooking, but he never has time to feed himself. He's taken up some emergency measures -- protein shakes, Clif bars. But these are poor substitutions when body and mind are calling out for some real food.

Debbie, our owner has the same story. "I own an amazing restaurant, but I've had cashews for more than half my meals this week!" People who spend their lives feeding others are often last on their own lists.

Not me. My boyfriend's constant thinking about food is theoretical, creative, and even artistic. He daydreams about sous vide dates, making noodles tableside, infusing butter with smoke from burning hay, creating the perfect "egg" from apricots. My thinking is about what's for dinner, and how I want his new dish with toasted barley and faro, fried eggplant, and San Marzanos in my belly.

Upon graduation from high school, I embarked on a diet. I was never huge (although like many women, I felt huge), but I was tall and curvy and quite a lengthy distance from thin. The diet worked. I bought new clothes. I saw myself differently, and so did others. I went to college with a new body, feeling new.

My skinniness no doubt played a role in my hire at the fanciest of fancy Michelin-starred restaurants. Hostesses are the trophy wives of the restaurant biz. I was pretty enough, skinny and becoming skinnier, and pursuing an Ivy League degree. Never mind that I had no experience, I was hired on the spot.

My diet became an anorexia diagnosis. I have always loved food passionately; I was just terrified of its fat-making attributes. I made elaborate meals and nutty muffins for my college housemates, braising short ribs all day and mixing big bowls of cookie dough at night. I just didn't partake. I would save all my calories for the bites of cheese the fromager would dole out to me at work—meaty tommes and buttery robiolas so good and satisfying I wanted to cry.

I loved food so much, loved the experience, loved the ritual, and not eating started to pain me. I resented my calorie-counting nutritionist. I could count calories myself, and had become quite good at it. So I dropped her and started to eat on my own. I nixed calorie-counting. Or tried to, sometimes numbers still swirled menacingly in the back of my mind. I didn't weigh myself for several years. As I graduated from hostessing to serving to managing, my weight seemed to matter less, or differently.

As I dove deeper into the food and restaurant worlds, I found myself surrounded by ample eating opportunities. A summer internship in the Serious Eats office meant my days were spent in the company of ice cream samples, bagel samples, charcuterie samples, granola samples, and much, much more. Not to mention office field trips to assess street food and review restaurants.

At night, by the time my shift wrapped up at Casellula, it was 2 a.m. and I had been working off my butt since morning. After starving for the better part of two years, a big loaf of chewy bread drizzled in olive oil, stuffed with slow roasted pork butt and cheddar and slathered in chipotle aioli was obscenely, dangerously, heart-wrenchingly wonderful. Oh, the wonders of Casellula's pig's ass sandwich.

I befriended a mixologist who concocted cocktails into the night and kept going after the sun was high in the sky. I received invitations for dinner parties with dozens of courses and wine--and beer, and cocktail--pairings to match. I went to restaurant openings and tried hamburger egg rolls (not good), skewers of porcinis and killer paella. I dined with my pastry chef friends and slipped undercooked beignets into my napkin under the table, so as not to offend the generous chef. I slurped oysters and sipped champagne and dug into mac n' cheese with a heady exuberance.

I gained weight, of course. I was no longer skinny. I was insecure about this, and sad about this. On a conceptual scale, I don't see thinness as adding value to a person. Yet when looking in the mirror, I felt I had failed. Yet I loved being and working around truly wonderful food, and not having to restrict myself to a few carefully chosen bites of cave-aged cheddar.

My boyfriend and Debbie can realize that evening's approaching and they haven't eaten anything but a sugary coffee. Me, I rarely skip a meal. Even if that meal is a banana, yogurt, and cappuccino.

We restaurant folk are notorious for leading an unhealthy lifestyle. Work at night, party late, sleep late, drink too much. No food all day, and then colossal eggy sandwiches at night. A few beers to unwind after service, and then a few more.

I'm an exception. I'm definitely a morning person, a bit of a goody-goody even. I don't like the feeling of drinking too much, except on rare occasion. A few months ago, I stepped back on the scale. I weighed what I did before I had embarked on this glee and misery-inducing diet six years ago.

And so I am in search of a middle ground. I shouldn't eat every gougere that comes my way, every marcona almond macaron, triple crème, tawny port, ricotta gnocchi, or Margherita pizza. But I should eat some, for sure. What's ahead of me, I don't know. I work with food; I love food. I owe it to myself to create a happy relationship with feeding myself.