October 31, 2010

From the back of the house

By Bryan Riek, cook and zinester.

Why are cooks such assholes?

It can sure seem that way a lot of the time in a lot of restaurants. I have witnessed it and perpetuated it myself numerous times. To answer that question, we have to look at the types of people this work environment attracts: drunks, drug addicts, students doing homework instead of work, artists, child support-dodging trash,
single moms/dads struggling to get through the day for their kids, immigrants with language barriers, entitled family members, the undereducated, overly educated but surprisingly bad culinary school graduates - everyone and anyone who just cant take the regular 9-5 routine.

I wound up in a kitchen due to flexible schedules and later hours. I was a huge drinker and loved to shovel anything that came my way into my system. I did finally kick my bad habits mostly and realized I was not skilled to do anything else besides write and paint things no one reads, so, over ten years later, I'm still shoveling food onto plates. Hey, these things happen.

So back to the why. Well, looking from the list I must say #1 and 2 dominate, so the well can be a bit tainted, so to speak.

Add to that the fast-paced, sometimes non-stop, environment with long odd hours and a design that is set to pit front of the house with back by exchanging pressure back and forth from one another. Pressure to get the order in the kitchen, and then the cook has pressure to cook it up to standard in a timely fashion, then get it out the door while its still hot, a minute behind on either end could have a waitress staring down a cook for an order she wants, or a cook yelling for a waitress to take the food out before they have to remake it! That's just one of many traps a restaurant worker has to avoid in a night - not to mention how it's also all set up in a big brother-like fashion with everyone making sure everyone else is working up to par. It can bring out the worst in ya sometimes and its not hard to see why a front vs. back mentality is established.

As I stated, I have been guilty of this, but have tried to actively combat this infection of a work place. When this aggression rears its ugly head I try to turn to the person and ask, "Why and where does this come from?" Sometimes a base question can knock someone into seeing what they might not even perceive as negative in such an environment, just part of the job right? Well, no, it's certainly not. Let's not sink the boat we are all in.

As workers, we can try not to let what are essentially minute mistakes and problems that seem worse get worse due to being amplified by pressure. As customers maybe we can give that waitress/waiter a break next time your steak is a bit underdone for your tastes or that side of ranch that was forgotten. They might already be getting it from their co-workers.

After all, it's only food.....right?

Email Bryan at: thinkcreep [at] yahoo [dot] com

I've recently been chatting with Bryan about the whole front vs. back of the house mentality and how detrimental it can be. In the SMBHBD zines, I do my fair share of complaining about back-of-the-house coworkers (namely, creepo dishwashers and unstable line cooks), but I think it's important that it be known that there are some great cooks and dishwashers out there...and that servers can be, and often are, the crazy ones. 

October 24, 2010

Amy Bezunartea turns serving into art with 'Restaurants and Bars'

The lovely and talented Amy Bezunartea will be releasing her debut album Nov. 2 on Brooklyn-based Kiam Records (a label founded by the equally lovely and talented Jennifer O'Connor). "Music? I thought this was a blog about waitressing!" you might be saying. And you're right. But Amy's album, called Restaurants and Bars, is quite pertinent to the plight of the female food service worker. Amy spent years waiting tables (in fact, she still does), and she's managed to do what I've tried to with the zines and blogs, and what I hope all former service industry people eventually can: to turn her FFSW experiences - good and bad - into a source of creative inspiration.

Amy was kind enough to answer some questions about her service industry experience and her music for us. Make sure to support her by buying Restaurants and Bars - check out the player after the Q+A to stream the title track if you'd like a sneak peek (Kiam also has a couple free downloads from it on their blog).

SMBHBD: Tell us about your history working in food service. Which came first, the music or the desire to write about the subject matter?
Amy Bezunartea: I already played music when I started working in the service industry.  I think writing about work just sort of happened naturally.  Working in restaurants was all I did for so long and it was all my friends did and all we talked about- who worked where, how much money they made.... So it just sort of seeped into my songwriting.

Do you still work in the service industry now that your music is at the forefront? 
I still work as a waitress.  I have tried many times to get out of it, but restaurant work always saves me.  I'm able to work less than I did when I was younger and supplement my income with other odd jobs and music, but 2 or 3 nights a week I am still running around waiting on people.

It seems like people who work in bars and restaurants many times are also
writers, artists and musicians. Do you think there's something inherent that draws creative people to this industry?
I do.  It's not a conventional world or way of life.  It allows a lot of flexibility and freedoms that a regular job does not. There's also a lot of fast money to be made in restaurants, so people can move, travel, make records, take the winter off, buy fancy clothes, etc....

What sort of specific topics about the industry does Restaurants and Bars address?
Well,  it's a rough job and you can really get stuck in that world.  It's hard to break out of and into something else and you're not really working your way up any sort of ladder.You just get older and more beat up.

What positive effects do you think working in food service has on a 
creative person?
The nature and the pace of the work leads to all kinds of odd and hilarious situations.  Waiting on people is so fascinating.  It's a great opportunity to observe types of people and how they act.  It's also a job that you can move from city to city and do.  You can travel, do more of it, or less of it.  It's a good tool in that way.

What is your worst experience from working in food service?
Worst?  I currently work at a German beer hall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn 
and I've never really experienced anything like it before. I've worked I've worked there for almost a year and I've seen enough vomit to last me a lifetime! People vomiting into their beer mugs, on the table, on each other, people walking out on their checks, fighting, crying, falling asleep, making out. It sort of wipes out all my other waitress horror stories at the moment.

What will you do once the album is released on Nov. 2? Any plans for a 
I am doing a Fall mini-tour with Winston Troy.  She's this great one-woman band with looped guitar tracks and effects.  We're playing 5 East Coast shows. [See the dates here].

October 13, 2010

The Wheatgrass Preacher

Today I went to a natural foods co-op juice bar (different from the one where I used to work). As I was picking out my iced tea in the store's beverage cooler, I heard the phrases "cleans you out" and "so good for you" coming from behind me, followed by some disinterested "yep"s and "uh-huh"s. I immediately knew what was going on. I closed my eyes, turned and looked. And sure enough - a wheatgrass preacher, with an unsuspecting victim in her grasp.

Wheatgrass preachers are a strange breed of customer. They usually appear out of nowhere one day, confidently sauntering up to the barista to ask for a shot of wheatgrass, REALLY LOUDLY, so everyone around them can hear. They often whistle or sing to themselves and act friendly - in a creepy, born-again, cult-y way. While the barista is completing the arduous task of preparing the wheatgrass shot (which is extremely tedious and labor intensive and looks like this), the wheatgrass preacher will take the opportunity to educate whoever happens to be in a 20-foot radius about what they perceive to be the many benefits of drinking wheatgrass juice. For example:
  • It's good for you. 
  • No, it's really, really good for you. 
  • It removes toxins from your body.
  • It helps heal your liver.
  • It's good for your skin.
  • It tastes a little weird, but it's worth it!
  • It "cures" cancer, emphysema, dengue fever, a cold - or whatever ails you.
After a wheatgrass preacher has announced to an uncaring audience his or her intentions of drinking a wheatgrass shot, they will get all worked up when they see the first drop of juice come out of the juicer. "Oh, here it comes!" "It's gonna be so good!" they yell. They hover around the machine, like a cat waiting for you to finish opening a can of tuna. They'll then either slam it back like it's a shot of Jag, or they'll savor it and slosh it around in the little Dixie cup like brandy in a snifter. If you've ever been around one of these WPs, you're probably wondering what all the fuss is about and you might be curious to try this miracle juice the next time you're at the juice bar.But before you drink, heed the advice of someone who's served (and drank) her fair share of green nectar. Here's what the wheatgrass preacher won't tell you:
  • "Cleans your system out" is code for "make you poop."
  • It's going to "clean you out" almost immediately and maybe make you throw up - quite possibly at the same time. (I'd probably rather just have a bad cold for two days than poop and throw up at the same time.)
  • The faster you slam it, the faster you're probably going to have explosive diarrhea. So slow down there, cowboy!
  • It smells and tastes like if you laid face-down in your yard immediately after mowing it. A squeeze of lemon juice makes all the difference, though.
  • Your teeth, lips and tongue will be all green after you drink it, and it looks really creepy. Don't smile at your barista.
  • It is good for you. It probably won't change your life, but you'll probably feel a little more energetic for about a day. 

October 10, 2010

Zines are available again!

I know you've all been losing sleep over Microcosm being out of stock of the SMBHBD zines, but fear no more! I got my lazy self all the way to the post office this week (it was a trek - like half a mile or something) and filled their order. Buy away!

October 2, 2010

8 Cringe-worthy Customer Antics

By Rebecca

Reading this week’s City Pages list “The 7 habits of highly annoying food servers” got me thinking. First, kudos to City Pages for giving props to the good servers out there, and secondly for nailing the nuances of “annoying” servers on the head. (These servers annoy the good servers, too, as they are the ones skipping out on side work, leaving dirty dishes strewn or just generally getting in the way.)

While some servers just suck, are bitchy, or dish their anger/disappointment with their job to customers unfairly, customers can have some pretty unflattering habits themselves. Here, a reflective look at the eight customer behaviors that incense and degrade, turning dinner out into a hellish day at the office for food servers. While most customers are generally amiable, tip properly according to service and treat their servers like actual people, here’s a rundown of those who don’t:

1. The Obnoxious Interacter
 Waving someone down, especially when they are walking toward you anyway, is obnoxious. So is shaking you glass at your server (which is supposed to mean you need a refill right? I’m not fluent in Caveman) and commenting on how you were “wondering where I’d been!” or “thought I’d never come back!” after you had shooed me away/ignored me ten times in the last 20 minutes as I tried to take your order. Suddenly, you’re starving, and need to order. Right. Now. Meaning that although I have been attentive and have been given strong vibes to leave you alone/not intrude on your highly important conversation (see #3), I shall suddenly drop the tray of food I’m carrying to a neighboring table because you’re waving me down to place an emergency order.

2. Sticker Shock Abusers
 As a server, it is my sole decision to charge $34 for the ribeye, to have a side salads be an upcharge, and to skyrocket the market price on the lobster, and I should be admonished for the appalling price points.  Better yet, don’t ask the price of that glass of wine you ordered, and then balk when it’s $9. I don’t want to assume you’re cheap or insult you by an “Excuse me, sir, you do realize that’s a nine-dollar glass of wine right?” Okay, just checking, since now you think I think you look like a person who can’t swing a nine-dollar glass of wine.

3. The VID/C (Very Important Diners/Conversations)
 How dare I, the lowly bringer of food and drink, approach your table and expect interaction concerning the bringing of said food and drink. I didn’t realize you were out to eat and wanting to be brought cocktails and food without discussion between your server and your table. Yes, your business lunch is important, and that HI-larious story regaling your girlfriend’s dating gaffe is enthralling, but if you want to eat or drink, you’re going to need to take a polite pause from conversation and acknowledge me standing beside your table waiting for a break in conversation to wait on you, or it is sure to turn into an Obnoxious Interaction (see #1).  

4. The Campers
 It’s a free country, and diners can sit as long as they damn well please. Sure, it may bend the unspoken rule of “taking up a table” or whatnot, but generally we servers don’t care. What is rude is when you and your gal pal want to sip water for four hours after your meal, the last sixty minutes of which you refuse water refills and insist there’s nothing else you need in an annoyed manner. You are completely done, and want us to leave you alone already. Yet, you asked for the check, it has been sitting untouched, and we know you will suddenly need it taken care of immediately after sitting there unnoticed forever. (Again, see #1).  If you ask for it, please, pay it in a somewhat timely fashion! If you don’t ask for it, fair enough.  You know you’re going to have to pay eventually anyway, and maybe if you don’t request the check, we won’t feel like we have to stop by every fifteen minutes drowning you in damn water refills.

5. The Common Senseless
 Yes, I know you asked me for some extra dressing. I acknowledged and confirmed I would supply it. I also know that you saw I had a huge tray of plates on my shoulder as I walked by. I could see you stare me down out of the corner of my eye as I handed out your fellow diners at their fare at the neighboring booth. As I grab the now-vacant tray to head back to the kitchen, you repeat coldly “Miss? My dressing? Hello?” Really? You remember that huge tray of hot food I had on my shoulder? Remember seeing me pass it out? That’s right, I haven’t made it back to the kitchen in the last thirty seconds after your request, and I know you realized this, as your gaze was fixed on me the entire time. Unless you have some kind of medical condition that requires more blue cheese stat, I figure you’ll understand that I’m working on it. If you do have this blue-cheese deficiency, maybe grab us by the arm as we walk by with a heavy tray of food. We love that. 

6. The Insult Comics
 A word about the insult comics— they aren’t funny. You want a Rob Roy, dry, up, with blue cheese olives? Got it. No, I got it. Your drink order is not the most sophisticated or complicated part of my day, and there’s no need to do the slow speech/loud voice thing. Also, it’s so hilarious that you joke about me groveling for gratuity, or when the prime rib is out, you comment, “There goes your tip.” Since I do make the all the rules (see #2). Har har har. It amazes you when I can actually split up you and your cronies’ tabs, divide the app in thirds to be shared on the bills, and run your credit card. Wow, pretty good “for a server,” you say. Your server may be studying for her doctorate in psychology for all you know, and may have some insight on why your date looks less than impressed with your flashy ordering (see #7) and uncouth regaling of your server.

7. The All-Flash, No-Cash Big Shots
 This customer announces (loudly and more than once) that the evening’s “on them,” they’ll be one check, and that everyone should order whatever they want. Their dinner party goes off without so such as a crumb disgracing his or her table, everyone was catered to, and is happy and full. Mr. or Mrs. Bigshot repeats to you that they’ve got it, “bring the bill to me.” They have set up quite the stage of generosity, yet you have an eight-percent tip staring you in the face.  As a polite server who would never want to insult your customers, you take it quietly. You smile and say no, thank you, and are repaid with the famous verbal tip: “You did an excellent job. Everything was perfect.” This isn’t for your benefit, it’s for the audience of diners at Bigshot’s table, and you won’t be applying that verbal tip to your hefty student loans, it seems. Wonderful.

8. The Preemptive Askers
“Hi folks, how are we this evening? My name is Rebec-…“  “Captain coke. Lime” Wow, ‘cause I wasn’t getting to that part, dude. This customer can’t wait long enough to hear your name, and will then ask you snidely “were you going to tell us your name?” Yes, I was getting to it, but your need for a Captain/coke took over, and you cut me off.  They will bombard you with “Well? Do you have any specials, or what? “ just as you’re saying “Tonight we have a few spec-“ You’re going to wish you hadn’t cut me off when I was trying to ask what brings you out for dinner that night, Rude Dude, cause it’s your birthday, and now you’re going to miss out on our stellar cheesecake and champagne that comes complimentary on celebrations.  Next time, let me get a word in.

October 1, 2010

Slowy McSlowpoke

Some of you have written to tell me that Microcosm is sold out of zine #1. It's true--and it's totally my fault. Microcosm ordered more a while ago and because of several reasons (work, more work, leaving a stack of copies sitting at Kinko's and not realizing until a couple days later...) I haven't gotten more to them. But thanks to the many manic sleepless nights I experience (which were the subject of a completely different zine a few years ago), I'll be sending issues #1 and #2 off, fresh from the printer, tomorrow. Microcosm should have them in a few days, and if you'd like you can order them directly from me: shemustbehavingabadday [at] gmail [dot] com. Word.