It’s You, Not Me!

My Dear John Letter to the Foodservice Industry

The real estate crash of 1997 put a fork in the road for me to choose a calling. I chose the fork and jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. 

I love cooking. My crazy life of food had just begun. Leaving corporate America, I used a generous severance package to enroll in cooking school. I started begging a regionally-famous chef for a job. Begging means spending like $250 on a meal for two just to get a chance to bug the hell out of him. Like a bunch of times. 

He finally relented and agreed to hire me. I went from Fifty-K to five an hour. But it was so worth it. Chef sent me to Dishland for the first week and I had to earn some respect to make it out of there. You can read about that career-change here

I used to joke to the owner on paydays that she was paying me back my investment!

But make it out I did. All the way to the Anaheim Convention Center, via a few detours and re-routes. And I was on the top of my game. I managed over 60 accounts simultaneously. I planned massive events and meal services. My portfolio was worth over five million in business a year. During one of my last events, we served 30,000 meals in 84 hours to 5500 attendees. We rocked! 

I was just close enough to the fire, but I didn’t always get burnt. It was a grind for sure, and some clients refused to be satisfied. But it was a good honest living and I was proud to make it. Our team was amazing. Our leaders were in the thick of battle with us. It worked. 

In America, I believe working in a fast-food unit should be mandatory for all 16 year-olds. Military Service teaches them how to kill. Food Service teaches them how to serve. 

But I keep hearing a common refrain from platforms and politicians alike. The 2020 K-T Boundary of before and after has never been more stark than the Now-Normal. I came across a thought-provoking piece by Daniel G. Jennings on False Normalcy that calms me down and gives me hope when I hear people ask the most stupidest question ever:

When can we return to normal?

God, that so makes me want to puke. For so many reasons. The answer I pose is another question:

Why on Earth would you want to return to an eviscerated idea?

Normal. Normal. OK. Number One thing is what the fuck is normal? Please explain normal to me. Because my life before the lockdown was not normal. And it is not normal right now. 

And in fact, it wasn’t normal five months ago or five years ago or 50 years ago. Or ever. That does not mean it has not been good and wonderful and tragic and fulfilling. It totally has been. It just has not been normal. And I do not know too many people that have normal lives either. 

Number One-A thing is that the question is usually asked of a politician, and the asker is usually searching for a comforting word-ointment from a Daddy-or-Mommy-figure that makes all of us mindless-morons feel oh-so-better about this whole thing now. 

Please stop treating me like The Wife treats her classroom of 2-and-3-year-olds. It really pisses me off. 

Number Two is the cognitive dissonance needed to ask about returning to an eviscerated idea. Like asking the dude who escaped HELL if he plans to return for the Reunion BBQ. 

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Seriously, is the person asking the question even remotely aware of what life was like for a ton of people prior to March 2020? It sucked hard. And they ask with a weird crooked smile. And nod unthinkingly at the word-vomit served up as a plateful of platitudes. And stick you with the check.

Like everyone else, I just can’t wait to get up at the crack of dawn and sit in a crawling parking lot for an hour, where the cattle in the field next to the “freeway” are ambling along faster than I am driving. 

And, better still, I get to go to work so that I can perform great acts of service for the following collection of soul-suckers:

  • a demanding boss

  • an ungrateful client

  • a humorless vendor

  • a disrespectful guest

For all day or night, weekend or holiday. Then jump back into that 20-year-old-beater for another two hour schlep back home. I love normal. Are you fricking kidding me?!

This bullshit utopian normal is now the next illusionary holy grail. I seem to remember an edgy marketing take pre-pandemic was “don’t be normal!” Keep in mind, as an owner or customer, normal to you means something quite different than to the cook, server, busser, or bartender.

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It is time for some real talk about your food, and the people who make it and serve it to you. And your emotional love/hate relationship with what you shove down your piehole.

And why you demand actions of others you are not willing to do for yourself. And never cut the frazzled worker any slack. And constantly complain about us. Uh, I’m standing right here while you’re speaking to my manager.

And we just kept sucking it up. Constantly telling ourselves it’s not our fault. They’re just having a bad day. Well, having a whole year of not dealing with some asshole’s bad day was nice. Eating and sleeping in regular cycles are activities I have not done in 25 years. And are enjoyable.

Yeah, that is harsh. But so is restaurant work. And restaurant workers always call it like it is. We have to. We mess up and you tell us about it. Ever send a plate back to the kitchen? Instant Feedback. Brutal Honesty. Usually in extremely rude terms. With profanity attached. And race or class components are involved. Not always, but enough times to always go viral. 

So yeah. Let’s go back to that. I cannot wait! To make a mistake and serve a burrito instead of a tamale. And compound that mistake by asking if the order is correct. At the drive-thru window. And ducking the flying burrito hurled at me in response! Guess I will retrieve that tamale for you now…

Or, maybe I can experience again the joy of driving up to the unit on a Saturday afternoon after leaving my one-year-old daughter’s birthday party to serve a few hundred pieces of chicken to all of my loyal hangry patrons. Oh yay! 

And encountering 30 cars wrapped around the building with said patrons out of said cars all visibly pissed. Chicken place is out of chicken. I suck! Damn that yellow shirt. 

Or maybe I can relive the wonderful Sunday afternoon after-church-rush when an painfully-obese out-of-breath patron wearily collapsed on the salsa-bar sneeze-guard. Oh fun! 

A shotgun blast of shattered glass brought the two cops eating in the dining room to attention with guns drawn. The embarrassed patron gathered his wits and just left. 

The first question from another patron was 

Will you have fresh salsa out soon?

Or how about the morning my tortilla vendor had a seizure delivering product to the kitchen. He was on the floor flopping like a fish in a chicken joint. The paramedics wheeled him out the front door. 

Again, the emotional concern shown by others patrons was touching

Is that gonna delay my burrito much longer?

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Listening to the charade-parade of establaticians heap blame and scorn on food industry workers as being too greedy to give up the unemployment bennies and too lazy to want to return to such noble work just cements the disgust I have for them and their complete willful ignorance of the common person. 

You are berating the same people who worked their asses off for you for years for peanuts and that you are now begging to come back. To work even harder for even less money.

Your the wifebeater who sobers up and realizes he needs the person he beat the shit out of last night to cook him breakfast. Good luck with that.

Here is a good read on the situation by Adam Reiner The Restaurant Labor Shortage Was Inevitable. Take some time to read his stuff, he has a pulse on the beat.

There are so many stories of good owners doing the right things, but they are not nearly the whole picture. Scan any platform feed for story after story of workers abandoning the industry they loved for so long. They describe the decision as one of the most difficult of their lives. 

I just subscribed to a great writer named Luke O’Neill, and he features a guest post by Em Cassel wherein they drill down on this subject, Why should we go back to a job that doesn’t value or pay us enough to live? Great read with tons of comments from real life workers sharing this most painful decision. 

Not going back to an industry one has spent decades in is a difficult personal change. Millions of workers not going back to make and serve you food is a profound societal change. 

I agree with them. I chose this industry and kept falling up and up to more and more responsibility. I worked and fought and created with the most intense people I have ever met in my life. We manufactured beautiful moments.

I met and fed some of the most famous celebrities in the country, and cooked in their kitchens for their families. I was in their kitchens for holidays, not my family’s.

I had occasions and opportunities to meet personal icons and interact with them on a personal level, and cook them great food. I spent more dinners with them than my wife and kids.

I have eaten the best food and drank the best wine. I have been on top and at the bottom. I have been fired and rehired, and walked out and walked back. I have yelled and screamed and have been yelled and screamed at.

I have been a follower and a leader, out all alone and part of the team. 

The emotional highs and lows of a busy Friday night cannot be overstated. You are part of a crew that cranks out 500 covers, and the ticket-spitter never stops spitting. The kitchen brigade is 12 strong, manning traditional French stations. 

Heat, noise, aroma and passion create a crucible unexplainable to one never fortunate to burn in one. Anger, frustration and pain blend with love, creation and joy to transform rawness to completeness. In food and in humans.

It was brutal and hurtful. It was beautiful and amazing. It was all at once, at 100% for hours. It was relief and joy. It was love and hate. It was life.

I love cooking and creating something so in the moment for someone that they can remember that flavor-feeling forever. It is a special and indescribable instant that disappears as it arrives, but never actually leaves. 

But the moment is gone. It’s time to move on.

It’s you. Not me.

Ric