I always had jobs in college—New York restaurant jobs. I helped bejeweled ladies with their furs and walked them to table 47. I massaged feet-scented cheese with white burgundy that I spritzed from a lineup of spray bottles. I shaved Everest-like mountains of parmesan and finished off bowls of risotto to order, folding in fist-sized knobs of butter into the hot, fragrant pan, a bandana sopping up my forehead sweat. I was finding myself in the lightning-fast, barky chatter of service, tasting wines from Hungary with Hungarian winemakers. I dropped off Bobby Flay’s dry-cleaning at his Chelsea apartment. I wrote Facebook posts for a B List celebrity chef who showed me pictures of his cars on his iPhone while I asked him questions about his famous spaghetti, perched on barstools in his Meatpacking hotspot. I was hooked on the intensity, the insanity, the passion.
Senior year was time to plot the next chapter of my life. My friends were going to grad school for neuroscience, or moving to Seoul to teach English, or working for music startups deep, deep into Brooklyn.
After a million interviews and a trial day mixing up a giant batch of remoulade in a trash can, I got a job offer: a management training program for a proudly upscale steakhouse chain that refused to call itself a chain or a steakhouse. It was a legit company with a ladder to climb—there were 50-ish locations across the country, benefits, a big pay check, and a signing bonus. They sent me chocolates in the mail. It felt real. I loved restaurants, now I would make them my grownup career.
I wore the mandated black suit, kitchen clogs, hair pulled back—”No flyaways! Use more hairspray!”— no jewelry, no nail polish—it might chip into a $50 ribeye. As a manager, I got armed with a bottle of hairspray. I was to dole out spritzes to employees with out-of-place hair.
It was a busy restaurant—a ruthlessly busy, successful restaurant—though I never quite understood its appeal. Was it the ribs, which Morning Prep Cook #2 dipped one by one in a vat of bacon fat? The promise of absolute by-the-book consistency? The designer fishies swimming in the pond by the entrance? Sure, the steaks were fine and the lighting impeccably lovely, but there were so many more places to dine in New York, places with more soul and less hairspray.
There were tests. Newly liberated from school, I was now memorizing the 36 varieties of single malts behind the bar, the biography of the artist who sculpted the giant sculpture behind the koi pond, and the temperate of doneness for medium rare (130-135 °F).
Training managers learned the ropes by working for a week or two in every restaurant position. At the service bar, the senior management tested me by ordering up margaritas, rob roys and sazeracs. I had a crush on the service bartender, an Iranian comedian, but managers were strictly prohibited from “fraternizing with employees.”
Dishwashing wasn’t so bad, the swoosh of the machine was almost therapeutic, my hands got used to the steaming hot plates. I liked doing the prep in the morning—mixing big bowls of barbecue sauce and brownie batter and singing show tunes with the body-building prep cook, his muscles bulging through his starched chef whites. He didn’t speak much English but he sang Fiddler on the Roof, and that I could understand.
I would close the restaurant, stumble home drunk on exhaustion at 2 a.m., and get up at 5 a.m. to open the restaurant. “It builds character,” they told us. Our shifts were twelve hours, but if we left after twelve hours, it was some kind of moral failing.
There were three fellow training managers, most of them also miserable. The company recruited from big-name schools, and my colleagues were smart and ambitious. The Senior Managers scolded us for spending our 30 minute break together. They wanted to foster competition, not camaraderie, but we weren’t having it. On our days off, they gathered us for management classes where we conducted mock-interviews (sample conundrum: the potential employee is qualified and sharp, but he is wearing flip-flops!) and climbed on the roof to learn about HVAC systems.
I came to love expediting, especially when it was busy. Expediting, you were at the helm of the restaurant. Adrenaline flew like crazy, the time went by fast. “Pick up, pick up, I need hands!” I had a great coach, a dapper older manager, who gave me wonderful advice—be louder, be more confident, know everything going on, set the pace.
Before the steakhouse, I loved being around wonderful food and wine, the revolving cast of fascinating (and sometimes awful) people, the perpetual motion, the obscene laughter, the camaraderie, the smell of clean dishes and buttery gougères baking, the soreness in my calves after a long shift. I loved restaurants, but not all restaurants, not this one.
I got in trouble with the GM for giving a hostess a hug when she returned from vacation. Actually, she initiated the hug. But as a manager, I was the one who could be sued big time for sexual harassment. Or get the company sued. Really?
I felt a robot would be better suited to do my job. I have always hated hairspray.
The GM hated me from the get-go. Or if his hatred was a motivational tactic, it didn’t work. “You’ll never be a good manager,” he told me. Corporate disagreed. They told me I had incredible potential and begged me to stay, after I quit upon my promotion to legitimate manager and an offer to move to Nashville.
I learned it is not restaurants I love. Not just the filling up of the reservation books, the theater of the tables turning and turning, strawberries getting macerated and sides of meat seared, deals done and proposals proposed.
It’s the creativity, the spirit, the heart. The feeling that anything can happen, because it can. Pouring the sparkling shiraz for your best friend’s mom, changing some teenager’s mind about blue cheese, creating a place for people to celebrate, to go out to, to come home to. The Corporate Steakhouse could never be home. Handing in my keys, I felt the vast freedom that comes from knowing this, from setting off to find the place that is.
Featured image courtesy of Nutrition for Swimmers