“Service Compris” is an article in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about the humble staff meal, as interpreted by the chefs at Per Se, the famous Thomas Keller eatery located in the Time Warner Center. The author, Randy Kennedy, tells us that the employee meal is a “hallowed restaurant tradition” when the people who “make and serve food for a living finally get to take a busman’s break and feed themselves.” As the beneficiary and victim of many staff meals over the years, I read the article with great interest. Complete with recipes, it’s cute and well written Manhattanite foodie p0rn.
P0rn? Hey, I’m not busting on Mr. Kennedy. He’s writing for the NY Times and I’m not. But when I read lines like, “Often the fascination was simply in seeing how ingredients were alchemized, how that same English cucumber, vacuumed, compressed and barely recognizable in a Sunday-night salad, became the dice in a fine, simple yogurt sauce” I can’t help but thinking about the sweaty florid language used in Letters to Penthouse. For example….
“When I went over to repair Mrs. Jones’ Sub Zero she greeted me at the door, vacuumed, compressed, and barely recognizable in her leather corset and spiked heels. Slapping a wooden spoon against her full ripe thighs, she breathlessly explained that Mr. Jones was out shopping for organic artisanal bread. Pulling me inside she poutily asked if I’d help stir her yogurt sauce. It wasn’t long until my pot boiled over – if you know what I mean.”
Is it just me or can you hear the electric guitars twanging?
A wise man once said that a good restaurant makes everyone in it look just a little bit better than they actually are. Pornography performs the same function, making sex look more glamorous on film than it does in reality. By that same token food writers who fetishize foodstuffs and write fluff pieces about chefs often portray the restaurant industry as more glamorous than it really is. This is nothing new. Food and sex are both primal activities so it should come as no surprise that food writing shares similarities with erotic writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the staff at Gourmet hones their skills by writing internet smut on the side.
Mr. Kennedy’s article is culinary erotica because it reinforces the romantic fantasies that foodies who buy newspapers often subscribe to. I wish all waiters got to dine on a “North African family meal of lamb and falafel” while sitting down in “the breezeway” uninterrupted by pesky things like customers. I’m sorry to burst everyone’s bubble — staff meals are NOT a “hallowed tradition” in the American restaurant industry. While many restaurants great and small treat their employees to tasty and delicious meals, there are many restaurants that couldn’t care less.
Mr. Kennedy glosses over this fact when he writes, “In America, the (staff) meals can take wildly different forms, too often that of warmed-over takeout…” Are you kidding me? Warmed over takeout? Many places don’t even have that! To bolster my point here’s a list of some of the stuff owners pull regarding that “hallowed tradition” we call the staff meal.
1. Don’t feed the staff at all. Fuck ‘em.
2. Don’t let the staff eat anything on the premises.
3. Don’t feed the staff but take a deduction for “providing employee meals” on their taxes.
4. Take money out of employee checks to cover cost of staff meals then don’t provide them or provide them sporadically – and still take a deduction.
5. Tell staff they can order food off the menu at half price, but restrict the employee’s food choices to items that will still yield a profit after the 50% discount.
6. Tell the staff they can’t bring in food from home or from another restaurant.
7. Feed the kitchen staff but not the waiters. (I’ve seen that quite a bit.)
8. Carbo load the staff with day old pasta, bread, and mashed potatoes but be stingy with expensive ingredients like protein and vegetables.
9. Don’t give employees time to sit down and eat like human beings. All waiters everywhere know the joys of eating standing up. (At least the article’s picture got that bit right.)
10. The owner stuffs his face in full view of the staff but begrudges his workers a piece of bread or a bowl of soup. When asked why he’s not providing food to his staff his reply is “These guys make too much money.” (I actually heard that once. There’s a special place in hell for those guys.)
Mr. Kennedy pops the money shot, however, when he says the “humble staff meal can provide a subtext for the kind of highly choreographed dinners, nine courses, that are the restaurant’s (Per Se’s) trademark.” That’s because how a restaurant treats its employees has a direct impact on the quality of service those employees provide. Thomas Keller is no fool. He knows from direct experience in the trenches that you can’t run a restaurant of Per Se’s caliber with hungry waiters and resentful cooks. Mr. Keller’s approach to staff meals is a combination of empathy and enlightened self interest. While many restaurateurs share his philosophy, many others do not. Restaurants operate on notoriously thin profit margins. Owners will squeeze out every cost savings they can in order to increase the bottom line – including skimping on staff meals. (Not to mention cutting back on the exterminator, failing to replace broken safety equipment, and buying substandard food products at big box stores. That kind of stuff will be in my book!)
Of course not everything written about restaurants can be a hard hitting expose. Restaurants, like p0rn, are in the illusion business — making every one look “just a little bit better than they actually are.” How can people have fun when they know how the magician does his tricks? How can people enjoy a skin flick when they discover that the flawless p0rn queen has a big red zit on her butt? I know fluffiness is the spirit in which Mr. Kennedy wrote this article. It’s all good. Cue the p0rn music and thanks for the falafel recipe!
OK, I’m done ranting here. I invite everyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant to share their staff meal stories, good and bad, in the comments section. That should make for some interesting reading.