Beginnings.

Food, Hospitality Industry, Story

There’s a line out the door.

There’s been a line out the door for a good three hours.

“Shiiiiit.”

I sorta mumble to myself.

The pastry chef leaves us with cakes and tarts that are terrible for our busy lunch and dinner rush. The instructions for the overly sweet marshmallow chocolate torte, “Heat knife, then cut. Use blow torch to toast marshmallow.”

WTF!? In this rush? (And marshmallow?? Seriously??)

I’m totally in the weeds. Well, not so much as the weeds as just running on all cylinders with a line of people that will not shorten. They just keep coming and coming. All wanting to be treated with kindness. All wanting to be fed carbs and wine and liquor.

Sink or swim man…sink or swim.

So I decide to swim and just laugh it off. Being busy is not a bad problem to have. A line is good publicity. It shows people you do good stuff. I don’t see why people complain about a line. Unless people are just twirling their thumbs behind the counter, a line is something you have to deal with.

And folks, it’s just a line. No need to get bent out of shape. If you want the goods, you have to do your part too, okay?

These are some new things for me. I’ve worked in busy shops. But nothing like this where a rush lasts for hours.

To update a little, I’m moving off the front lines a little. Doing a little less front of house work and spending more time with food. At least I think this is what’s happening. This is what I came to do. To gain experience. To develop skills needed to continue kitchen/food service work while keeping my standards at a somewhat respectable level.

I’m working a little on saute, and have a couple of heat blisters to prove it. Also, the hair on my arm 2-4 inches above my wrist is pretty much singed off. Oh fire and timing and ingredients. The things we work with the most. The things that are most stressful. But there’s nothing like it.

The buzz after the rush. The cleaning up. The prep for the next rush and/or day. The feeling that your day is complete when the oven hood shuts off and the music is hushed.

You go home and rest your feet but want to do something fun because you know the next day you’ll have to do the same thing. The times after you get off act as some sort of rebellion towards the next day. When you only have two hours before 12am and you want to make them count.

It’s the best feeling, that is, unless you’re completely exhausted.

Because it is exhausting work. And you will get whooped. You can only hope that you’ll have enough time to get your shit together before you have to do it all over again.

These are the beginnings.

And once you’re in…

you’re in.

the cook and the comedian

Food, Hospitality Industry, Story

I’d like to say that I’m a student of the human condition. I watch as all wallflowers do; gaging conversation, mood, and the like.

I’ve been watching a lot of Louie C.K. The guy is a genius. Well, he seems miserable. But it’s funny, because it’s true. At least the things he says about life. I can look at Louie and understand life a little better. He’s realistic and captures humanity at its best and especially at its worst.

Comedians (read: good comedians) do best when they nail the human condition. That’s when they’re most funny. They point out the mundane and turn it into something brilliant. They have a sense of humor and timing. They orchestrate words to fit at just the right time with just the right amount of punch.

As a student of this condition, I find myself wondering the same about cooks. I suppose industry folk in general. That if you’re good at what you do, you understand the human condition at its best and worst. 80% of the time customers are awesome. They are nice people with nice things to say.

But then there’s the 20% — the people who make you say “piece of sh*t” under your breath. We’re all entitled to rant on this 20%, but that’s not what I wanted this post to be about.

What I am trying to say, is that it’s important to know how to handle these things. To be quick, intelligent, and skilled at rooting around the flow of serving a customer.

Like a comedian, a cook tries to connect with the audience. We send things out when they’re supposed to (usually), and tasting the way we want them to taste. We are both (comedians and cooks) in the pleasure business. We are not here to make you feel bad about yourself. We indulge you by placing large amounts of butter and fat in your food (hurray!) and ultimately, facilitating a delicious experience.

All the chefs I’ve worked under are usually pretty sane. They’re also really connected (to both ingredients and people). They hardly ever forget things. They hold on to words and keep them festering in their brains. It’s part of what makes them good at what they do, but also what weights down their conscience. In the way comedians are craftsmen (and craftswomen) at telling stories, cooks use their past to tell another kind of story.

The cook and the comedian are raw and transparent. You can see right through em’. By standing on stage in front of a crowd, or by asking the patron, “How was everything?” The response of the public always hits you the hardest. That’s the truth. The quick affirmation is addicting.

So while I’m not technically using my college degree in psychology for the betterment of humanity, I am learning what it means to understand people. Whether it’s the people we serve or work with, we are always learning from what’s around us. We, in part, take these things and give them away.

The comedian tells a joke, we plate a dish.

And deep down, we hope that both fill you up.

Back Pain (And Bacon Grease)

Food, Hospitality Industry, Story

So much can happen in a week.

And it did.

I’ve changed jobs. I’ve gone from working in a pastry shop serving some serious coffee, to a market in the smack-dab-middle of Oregon’s wine country. I’m still making coffee, taking orders, and running food, but decided to make the transition because I’ll be able to dabble in some heavy duty kitchen work.

It wasn’t easy. The choice to leave Woodlawn C&P was always hard. It was such a sweet setup. Coffee, pastries, and a little bit of food. Our coffee program was killer and I worked under one of the best pastry chefs in Portland, Gretchen Glatte (Alum of Wildwood, and various other delicious eateries.)

I started a week after they opened. Both the owners (Gretchen and Matt, chef/owner of Firehouse across the street) would collapse on the couch and fall asleep while business hours ensued. I watched and learned. I discovered the heaviness of starting your own business. The scary, deep feeling of having a slow week. Then, things picked up and never slowed down. Even in this Oregon rain, we were still busy.

We made some transitions with the staff and grabbed hold of a few solid baristas and bakers. Good people. Funny as hell. Great with customers and even better to rant with after a few drinks.

Being there from the beginning gave me a rare look into what I don’t usually get to see in a business. It also set in my bones that I’ll have to get used to 14-hr days.

Making the transition out of Woodlawn was somewhat fast. I’m actually leaving for vacation tomorrow and needed to train at my new job. I was pulling double shifts for a few days which in my head didn’t seem too terrible. Working 6:30-12pm at Woodlawn and driving out to Red Hills to work 2-9:30pm.

It was a lot. I picked up fast. I made one of the cook’s a cappuccino and he pulled me aside and said, “That’s the best f***in’ cappuccino I’ve ever had…” One of the others cooks saying to me after the first day, “Dude, you were actually useful today!” That felt good — my feet — my back — did not feel so good.

I told myself I was lazy because they hurt so bad. Standing on your feet all day can do this. But it got better. Funny how your body adapts to work. Even after a couple of days my body was starting to better handle it all. The running. The lifting. The cleaning. Red Hills is a totally different monster than Woodlawn, but both were and are challenging in their own ways.

I forgot how hot a commercial kitchen is. Try standing in between a wood-fired oven and a giant commercial range with a searing-hot flat top.

Yeah, make sure you wear your deodorant.

It’s different when you leave a place because you hate the work or the people. But I loved my work and my boss. I made this move realizing it would lead to bigger things. It will give me the experience and knowledge I need to either work in a bigger kitchen or at some point, start my own place.

So much about restaurant food is replication. Can you replicate a dish over and over again efficiently and perfectly? Can you, at the end of the night, clean and prep your station for the next day? It’s a lot of work. A lot is an understatement.
At the end of my first night, I was exhausted after a double-shift.

I saw both the main cooks on their knees scraping bacon grease off the floor where the dishwasher works. Deep cleaning the floors. Pulling out low-boys and stations, sweeping and wiping clean the days labors. I decided at that point I wouldn’t complain.

I was tired, but thankful to be among a crew of really good, hardworking people. I will learn lots from them — if not just food — then the labor it takes to work in this industry.

Gretchen, at Woodlawn, is and will always be a dear person in my life. It was a great place of healing for me. Not just through work, but it allowed me to work on myself. It gave me the space to grow into a healthier person, both physically and emotionally.

Gretchen was the first person I watched, day in and day out, work to make a business succeed. And I love that I was there to help be a part of their growth as a popular cafe and bakery in NE Portland. So many folks call her the hardest working pastry chef in the biz. Can’t say that I’ll ever disagree with that.

As I leave to go on vacation, I will know deep down that I deserve some days of rest. In my head, I will think of the troops in the trenches, making food and cleaning, telling customers “No” and getting a mouthful of mangled non-sense. But that’s the job, ain’t it?

And while I’m sitting on a beach, drinkin’ something sweet, I’ll probably be wondering whether or not 20% was a good enough tip.

On Meaningful Work

Food, Hospitality Industry

What is meaningful work?

Blah, blah, blah. I know, I know.

I feel like I fight with this notion on a weekly basis. Are lawyers and tax specialists more important than cooks and dishwashers?

Here comes the battle over what is and isn’t. At least in my own head.

In this line of work, we attract the folks that are in transition. College students or folks who need some way to make money on the way to their “dream job”.
I thought I was on my way to a dream job. Something like non-profit work where I would help folks out of poverty or something. Ya know, something meaningful?

And then I graduated into a terrible economy. On my way up to Portland, I was offered a job at a cafe by some friends of Hannah. I fought it hard. I didn’t want to get into this stuff. My heart was headed elsewhere. A sit down job, maybe a few errands for the boss, but something ultimately fulfilled with meaning and purpose.

I spent most of my first week bent over in front of deep sink washing dishes and showing people where straws were. I had my first angry customer experience and didn’t figure it would get any better.

But it did.

And I’m still doing it.

I read an article a few days ago on meaningful work.
It talked about why some work is not deemed “meaningful” by society. Like the folks who pick up our trash and make you your coffee in the morning. Because, these are jobs that people don’t want, right?

The piece goes on, digging through issues of self doubt, when the writer exclaims that it’s these jobs that give us the most. It gives us work ethic. Just because it isn’t the job you want, doesn’t mean you can’t learn great things from it. We learn that it’s good to be on time. We value customer service and are ultimately nicer people for it. (At least in my experience.)

Good work ethic makes you less of an asshole.

Being on time is huge. Getting the job done well takes time to learn. These are SUCH meaningful skills.

Most people I know wouldn’t argue with me. Mostly because I give them free coffee from time to time. (E’erbody loves a hook up in the food industry, that’s fa sho.) And why can’t being a cook be good enough? There are thousands of cooks in this world. Many of them don’t like it and cook shitty food. Then, there are others who understand. They understand that their work is important, regardless of the money and long, back breaking hours.

I guarantee you put a cook or industry worker (who’s been doing it for quite some time) on another type of work, and they will pound away at it. They will be pissed at themselves for inevitably screwing up. As a cook knows, you will screw up and you’ll learn how to NOT do something.

I think if you’re allowed to be yourself at your job and if you come home feeling good about what you did, your work is meaningful. And you may have your own reasons for finding meaning in your work. That’s what is most important.

I’ve learned so much from the people I work with and under. They are true lovers of humans and their condition. Tired, frustrated, and so happy when they see people enjoying something they made.

We may not be professionals in the modern sense…this being most of the people I make coffee for in the morning…

but I can tell you one thing…

We’re damn good at doing dishes,

and that’s something to be proud of.

Restaurant Depot (We’re All in this Together)

Food, Hospitality Industry

Life in the industry is another world where one must learn the language…

…the head nods
…the attitude
…the solidarity.

Since working at Woodlawn C&P, I make runs to Restaurant Depot once a week or so to pick up supplies. Cups, napkins, etc.

You can only shop at RD if you have a membership. You can only have a membership if you have a licensed business. This cuts out the Costco crowd. Yes, it’s all bulk, but less buggies full of flat screen TVs and cigarettes.

Restaurant Depot does not have the best ingredients. They’re decent, at best, which is why we only grab paper goods and the occasional block of cheese or frozen fruit. The refrigerated section in this place is massively rad. It’s a little scary to imagine myself stuck in there without a way to leave. Slowly freezing to death at Restaurant Depot is not how I want to die.

But, there are the folks who own little restaurants and food trucks. In fact, on any given Friday (which is a dangerous day to go), you will find carts loaded to max capacity with giant pork shoulders, Mexican Coca-Cola bottles, onions, potatoes, etc.

My best advice when shopping at RD — Get in, get out. As fast as you can.

As I pass the vats of sambal oelek and plastic bags holding (it seems) an endless supply of dried porcini mushrooms, I happen upon one of those sweet moments.

When you witness an interaction that makes you glad to be doing what you do. Like the woman tossing a 40lb bag of AP flour on her cart as she adjusts it to fit beside her 30lb bag of C&H sugar.  A man and woman walk up beside her, pulling their own heavy load saying, “There’s some more flour down that way…$10 bucks cheaper…on sale.” The woman replies, “OH! Thankyou…wow, you’re my new best friend…”

As the other man and woman walk on, he yells back, “I hear that…hey…we’re all in this together, ya know?”

And it hit me. Sort of got me a little teary eyed. In the middle of Restaurant Depot, an act of solidarity. Where the industry defends and supports each other knowing deep down that they will never make it rich like the TV folks do.

All they can do is buy flour on sale…and hope that it makes another person’s day a little easier. Because the work they do…is not easy. When you have glorious ideas of opening up your own bakery to sell cupcakes, you’ll probably want out right about year two — when you realize the amount of work you put in is not equal to the money you get to pull out. (If any..)

But don’t let that discourage you.

These people work hard because deep down, they love doing it. And if they do it well enough, they can actually make a living and have a life — although maybe a year or two after the restaurant opens.

I love these people. Genuine. Hard working hospitality workers fighting to make a small living in a world where so much is fake and lacks the genuine community they aim to build.

Things tend to move when you realize that we all are in this together. It takes away the sting and we become better people for it.

And we could always use a little more of that.

to defend and serve (…hospitably)

Food, Hospitality Industry

Okay, let me explain the title to this piece.

I’ve been wanting to write for quite some time about the relationship I have with co-workers behind that invisible “customer/server” line. I use the word “server” loosely, because it’s not always divided by a bar or kitchen. I use it in a way where one person serves another, either by cooking, waiting, or making.

The bonds formed “on the line”, in the trenches, and behind the bar can be sacred.

When a new person is hired, there is a time where we are unsure. Can this person be trusted to defend me? Will they put me in the weeds? Will they make our tips suffer?

These are things to look for in a person. Someone you can trust and work through a huge line with. Someone who knows the ebb and flow of customer service and beverage/food production. The flow is so very important. Say I get backed up making drinks, you chat with the people in line a little. Create a little space to finish orders. If people are ordering too much of one thing and someone asks you what you like, give them the other option because most likely, the people in the back are slammed with six of the same plates.

Most importantly, you have to listen. At least in my position, where you are balancing several things at once. For example, on a busy day this is what I have to keep in mind:

There’s a big line out the door. You have six drinks in line. Two of which are triple shots, one person, for their peace of mind, orders a “wet cappuccino” in a 12oz. size, which is a little ridiculous because that’s basically a latte in my eyes. So now I worry that the dude will want more foam, which would cause a hiccup in my flow.

There are two drinks sitting on the bar that no one will claim because they are chatting. Which is okay, but they’re going to mess things up once more drinks hit the bar. People will grab the wrong cup and I’ll have to remake something. Listen for your drink. We don’t mind if you ask us before grabbing.

In the midst of making drinks, I listen to the person at the register taking orders so I can hear it in my brain. Sometimes we miss things. If I hear an order as well as see it, there’s very little possibility of me messing up, which I rarely do at this point.

While making drinks (meaning: pulling shots, steaming milk, rinsing pitchers, and repeat), people are asking me for extra forks or a napkin or that we’re out of water. In between making drinks, I refill the water pitcher only to be met with a question about the color paint on the walls of which I say, “uhhh…get back at me in juuuust a minute”.

Buh.

Then I hear the inevitable last splurts of coffee coming out of an empty airpot. “HEY! It’s empty!” — “I-I-I gotcha”  There is a fresh, full pot behind, ready to go, but not everyone picks up on it. So again, I have to step away, change it out, and if I have time, grind coffee and refill the empty. This is my job…I don’t mind it. Just the sequence in which they happen can be rushed.

“Do you have any clean spoons?”

I rush to the dishwasher and throw some in, tell them it’ll be a minute before they’re done. The customer usually uses a plastic straw by then, therefore making their suggestion for a clean spoon invalid.

All the while, keeping your co-workers in check. Are they okay? Do they need a break? How’s their blood sugar? Do we need to jam something in our face before crashing into the auto-chlor that nips on my heels?

Cool. The rush dies down.
We empty the OVERFLOWING bin of dirty dishes that people stack so cautiously high, that as I pick it up, one loose spoon causes the dishes to collapse into a loud clatter. Thanks. That’s gonna be a bad Yelp review from someone saying, “I wish they were quieter with their dishwashing…”

But probably not. I make this stuff sound bigger than it probably is, though Yelpers are becoming the thorn in the side of the restaurant biz. Complaining about bad service when they’ve only been to a place once and are probably themselves, thorny assholes.

It is a process of defending and serving. Making yourself confident while smiling and being hospitable.

The relationships you make with people behind the bar or on the line are solid. You determine that you’ll probably do anything for them at some point and fight for and with them if something happens. You become a tight knit group — knowing how to work well in a small space — covering where the other falls behind or misses inevitably at some point during the day.

It is, at times, fast and demanding work. But it is rewarding. Instant gratification. Day in and day out, you perform and go home finished, leaving what you did for the past 6-8 hours behind the dark wood and steam and heat.

It’s intense, but I do love the work. I like being tired.

Even when I do find myself scrubbing off dried egg yolk from a plate…

..because as we all know, it can be kind of a pain in the ass.

on tipping. [a rant]

Hospitality Industry

I see the conversation all the time.

hear it even more.

“How much did you leave for tip??”

The age old question of: How much did you value your service?

Truth be told, it’s in the eye of the consumer.

Granted, Portland is a city filled to the brim with [hospitality] industry workers. I work in a spot that serves a lot of em’. So basically, when I see them pull out a messy wad of cash from their pocket, they usually got it working the bar the previous night or by some other means of service.

I will say Oregon’s minimum wage is one of, if not the highest in the country. So that’s helpful. But it’s not enough (At a whopping 8.40/hr. it never can be). Our income is supplemented with tips. It’s that little bit extra you give us for remembering your order, treating you warmly, and giving you the best of our skill. It is common courtesy. Or is it?

Now let me get to the part where I say, “Now I know some folks are tight and tipping is not in the budget.” Well, I can surely understand that. But, if you are eating out or drinking things that you can be drinking at home, I’d recommend saving a little before going out and having the wrath of the wait staff be passed on you upon leaving. It happens my friends. If you’ve ever left a bad tip, more than likely you’ve been talked about after you’ve left.

For example. A small family comes in. Orders $40 dollars worth of breakfast, pastries, and coffee. Not a dime left for a tip. Most of which I would have shared with the kitchen for cooking all the food. But no. Nothing.

I got angry. As I watched them shoving these things in their mouths I wondered if they had ever worked behind a bar or in a restaurant, hoping their tips would cover dinner and lunch (and groceries) the next day. Probably not. It seems those of you that have worked for tips understand. And for that, I’m grateful.

But a $40 dollar tab and NOTHING. Not even a quarter? Why did I get so angry? Was it that big of deal? Just 10% is $4. You should be prepared to tip AT LEAST that much. Even if the service is bad. But no, they got kind service and great quality goods. Alas, we can do nothing about it.

You do orchestrate, in some scheming part of your brain, ways to confront them about being cheap a**holes. Then you realize that in the larger picture, it’s gonna be okay. Maybe they’re tight and this a luxury for them. And hey, at least they’re supporting a local business.

It’s an odd thing: counter service tipping. Ya know, you go pick up food to-go at a joint and are tempted to not leave a dime because you’re in and out and they did nothing to deserve it?

You’re dead wrong.

There are cooks. Most people at the counter give the kitchen a good chunk of change because they’re not getting paid much either.

If you’re working with someone else at the counter, that .50 cent tip you left turns into .25 per person. Granted, we’re truly thankful you gave us something extra, but you should know the implications of how it all works.

What happens if your waiter is crappy? That’s between you and your conscience. I do know people that will tip poorly if they didn’t think their server did a good job. I think that’s crap. I’m always a 18-20% tipper. If they’re bad, I frequent the establishment less often. The boss will usually take notice. I don’t take it out on the person. Some people aren’t great at communicating or are awkward or are just having a bad day. We all have them…except our smiles and upbeat tone help our means of getting a little bit more. We hope, at least.

Leaving a bad tip is passive aggressive…and nobody likes that.

It’s like the middle finger from across the street…or a car honking its horn because you’re turning against traffic.

Be thoughtful. If they screw up everything you order, I can understand not giving a big tip. They should learn, but they probably know when they mess up. Be grateful. They are standing on their feet for long hours at a time taking crap and not being able to ever, ever, ever, give it back. It’s just the line of work. We’re happy to serve you. If not, you’re in the wrong line of business. It’s not for everyone, no doubt.

Personally, if I see someone tip above and beyond, which happens quite often, I do my best to give them my best. That’s what they’re paying for.

I know many will disagree, and that’s okay. I just need to get this off my chest because your tip helps feed bellies and pay rent.

It is that important.

hmph.

PS.

If you ever get “hooked up” at a restaurant or cafe, that’s basically a way of saying, “Dude…you best leave me a decent tip…”