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The View from the Grease Trap
Restaurant advice you won’t get from
Emeril, Bobby, Rocco, or Wolfgang
…unless they’re really drunk

By
George Mortensen

 

Preface

 

An American culinary Renaissance has arrived and with it restaurant service and ownership has emerged from the shadows of condescension to become a celebrity. 

The rich and famous who once were satisfied with the fortune and fame afforded to them by Hollywood, New York or Nashville have now turned their talents toward bistro ownership in search of additional visibility and greater status.  Culinary schools are popping up like mushrooms in a Pennsylvania cave and thousands of young people, who once thought Postal work was the answer to their career prayers, are now investing in expensive knife sets, cook books and chef whites.  Paisley work pants and nine inch tall starched hats have graduated from tools of a trade to the new symbols of status.

To be the next Emeril Lagazzi or Wolfgang Puck is the new American dream.   Want to dazzle your friends and mingle with the stars?  Bam!  Open your own restaurant.  Want to be the envy of your neighbors and make your Momma proud?  Bam!  Open your own restaurant.  Want to be seen as creative, sophisticated and sexy?  Okay, you guessed it.  Bam!

Although cynical, I do understand the attraction. Who wouldn’t want their face on television as well as their name on a kitchen appliance or a line of cookware?  Who wouldn’t desire to wake up and find themselves at the helm of their city’s premier gastronomic emporium fighting off the fawning solicitations of the town’s movers and shakers?  Ah the glamour, the excitement, the sex and, of course, all of that money!  

Well, I have a question for all of you intrepid restaurant dreamers.

“Do you even have a clue what you are getting into?”

Unfortunately, your average virgin restaurateur or cook does not, ergo, this book.  It was written for everyone who thinks the ability to arrange a fairly decent dinner party foreshadows an aptitude to effectively manage a commercial food enterprise. It is for culinary students everywhere whether they sit in the hallowed halls of the Culinary Institute of America or are simply working their way up the food chain one burnt entrée at a time.  It was written for anyone who has ever been interested in building, buying, investing or eating in a restaurant.

Ah…I hear the groans already.  Who needs another “how to” book about restaurants?   You are probably asking yourself, “why is this one different than any of the myriad of boring tomes devoted to this subject?” 

Fair enough.

Let me start by giving you a reason why this book may not be for you! 

Yup, you read that last sentence correctly.  Maybe you should leave this book on whatever shelf you find it and simply walk away!  In fact, most of you should do just that!  How’s that for openers?  Honest enough?

In the last thirty years when cornered by someone expressing a serious interest in the food business, I have always offered the same advice.  If you also suffer from restaurant fever, I suggest you do the same. 

I recommended you take Aunt Sadie’s inheritance or the money you are about to steal from your children’s college funds and head for either Las Vegas or Atlantic City.  Once there you should walk up to the first roulette table you see and place the entire sum you were thinking of spending on your culinary adventure on either black or red.  When that little sphere finally settles in its slot, your work will be done, your chore complete. 

If you win, you should take the proceeds to a good financial planner and have him help you invest for your future.  If you lose, you will have achieved the exact same results as ninety percent of those who open a restaurant with only one exception, you have been spared a lot of time, sleepless nights and unnecessary pain.

What’s that you say?  This isn’t the plan you had in mind?  You still are seriously considering a career in restaurants?  You are not dismayed by hideous restaurant survival rates or rumors of rampant insanity afflicting restaurateurs?  Do you mean to tell me you actually still have an interest in becoming America’s next culinary star or finding out what it takes for a human to approach this height?   Are you sure? 

Okay, if you have the passion, then you should buy and read this book!

Be aware, however, this work is not your normal restaurant primer.  Although I will take you through some basics and offer anecdotal nightmares for your intellectual digestion, I will not be offering a lot of tips about how to lower food costs or how to negotiate the best price for raw monkey brains.  You will not read one word about proper sanitation techniques or even the appropriate way to present your grandmother’s poached pancreas recipe.  Many fine and talented authors have tackled these chores with varying degrees of success.  I will not be one of them.  I am, after all, far too lazy and my Scribner skills to juvenile to attempt anything so majestic. 

My chosen topic is far less grand.  What I offer you is an honest backstage glimpse of my former vocation.  I offer you fair warning.  I will be shining a bright light into some pretty dark corners and imparting some authentic survival techniques that many of my former colleagues would prefer remained hidden.  I am not doing this to make friends.  In fact, it may cost me a few, but it is my belief that anyone who is wacky enough to follow in my culinary footsteps should be forewarned ahead of time about the potential landmines they may face.  That and after serving thousands of inedible meals and accidentally poisoning my share of patrons, this is my attempt to make amends, to give back to my community[1]

In short, if my labors prevent one dumb bastard from losing his life savings trying to give birth to yet another unneeded bistro, then I will have done my job.

Although my personal observations may seem a bit sharp, please know that these critiques are offered by a loving insider.  Whatever opinion, feelings, or revelations you gleam from this work, never forget that I love restaurants and the people who work in them.  From time to time you may get a different impression.  If you do, you would be in error. 

Some of my friends in the business may be annoyed by this effort.  Some may cling to the belief that certain information exposed within these pages should have been kept in reserve, that full disclosure was unnecessary.  I will take my chances with their disappointment.  Most, I hope, will be simply amused.

Finally, as this advice has been over thirty years in development, I hope my counsel comes across like a well stored wine, interesting and a bit impertinent.  I hope its flavor will offer you just enough humor for sweetness and a pinch of bitterness for balance.    

Those comments offered and with all appropriate caveats now given, dream and read on at your own peril!

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Welcome to the real world

 

Dan, the restaurant owner, looked around his domain and sighed.  He was not a happy camper.  He hated covering the Sunday shift, but his assistant manager had the flu and his general manager was still on vacation. 

As was typical, half of the waiters had straggled into work exhibiting all signs of acute alcohol poisoning from the previous night’s debauchery and their grumpiness was beginning to infect their more sober peers.  

Leaning on stainless steel tongs, Roger, the lead broiler man, was staring into space and paying little attention to the small fire beginning to spread across his grill. Dan knew his cook wasn’t lost in thought.  The truth was he was still high after his morning appointment with Dr. Ganja.  Dan shook his head in disgust.

To complete the scene, Emir, the restaurant’s Farsi speaking dishwasher, still hadn’t shown.  Dan knew that it wouldn’t be long before he would be wrestling with a hot water spray arm, a recalcitrant garbage disposal and a collection of greasy plates.

Trying to muster his courage and postpone his agony, Dan looked across the rapidly filling restaurant for comfort, but found only more disappointment.  His gaze settled on his newly hired blond teenaged hostess. She was the daughter of his grocery purveyor. Completely ignoring the pleading eyes of an elderly couple who were holding unto the hostess stand for stability, her attention was confined to mirrored compact she held in her left hand.   Dan was about to cross the room to come to the couple’s rescue when he felt a tug on his shirt sleeve.

“Hey, Boss, check out the blue hair on twenty two.”

Turning slightly, Dan gazed into the glassy and smirking eyes of Gary, one of his most senior waiters and a young man of questionable gender. 

“What now?” Dan moaned.

“You’ll love it.  She’s a classic,” Gary answered glibly.

Dan took a deep breath and heaved a sigh.

“Okay,” Dan said sadly.  “I will take care of it, but right now I want you do me a favor.  Help Suzie up front seat those folks.”

Shrugging his shoulders and with little sense of urgency, Gary slowly sauntered off in the general direction of the hostess stand.  

Dan shook his head, turned and walked toward the back of the restaurant and booth twenty two.

As he approached the table, he noticed it was occupied by a poorly dressed couple in their late forties.  The male was sitting calmly reading his menu, but his more corpulent companion had her back to the dining room and appeared to be struggling with something on the wall. 

As he grew closer, Dan’s eyes widened. He watched in incredulity as observed the obese woman work her butter knife like a chisel against two small screws holding one of the restaurant’s small decorative artifacts securely to the wall.  She had already managed to chip away most of the epoxy that protected the screw heads from sabotage but seemed to be having less success turning the exposed metal below.

“Excuse me, can I help you?  I’m the owner,” Dan said with some authority hoping to embarrass the brazen vandal.

The woman slowly turned, smiled and said in a pleading tone, “Why, yes, you can.  Do you have a Philips head screw driver?”


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I tell this true story so the reader knows it takes a certain breed of human, a masochist of sorts, who can successfully engage the general public on a daily basis.  Some people take to the challenge of running a restaurant like a fish takes to water; others unfortunately handle the challenge like hippos to quicksand. 

Before you hire your first employee, plunk down a single penny for equipment or sign your future away on a building or a lease you can not afford, you must know into which category you belong.  

For starters, I want you to stand naked in front of a mirror and take a good look at yourself.  As ridiculous as this may sound, humor me and do it.  I promise I won’t peak. 

Are you there yet?  Good.  

Now, while you gaze at the questionable gift your parent’s gene combination offered you, try and focus on who you really are, where your talents lie.  Above all, be honest in your attempt.  

If you love food but hate people, find a new dream.  If you have a physical or mental disability preventing you from doing manual labor or can’t stand for long periods of time, look elsewhere for your spiritual fulfillment.  If you are a person who by nature is a neat freak and you abhor getting wet or dirty, consider accounting instead of food service.

The first truth you need to know about restaurants is they are about hard physical labor, people and little else.  Knowledge of food and its preparation is important, but this skill is not the cornerstone of a successful restaurant, standing on your feet and being able to deal with and dazzle all shapes and shades of the great unwashed is.  

If you are thinking of starting your own joint to get away from your disgusting office mate, you will only find disappointment.  Odds are he will probably become one of your best customers and if you find him irritating sober, just imagine him perpetually drunk. 

Restaurants are a creature centric enterprise and nothing in a restaurant gets done without compromising with your fellow human.  If you are the type who likes to bark out orders, you will soon learn that you will have no one of worth at whom to bark.   If you are submissive, you will find the virtual ownership of your business up for grabs to the first employee with initiative.   It takes a certain gentle arrogance to make an eatery work and if you don’t possess the right skills, you will fail.  

As you continue to gaze at your form, look into the darkest recess of your soul and be candid about your social skills.  Too often people who should be running a strip club try to fool themselves into believing they have the ability to give the late Julia Childs’ legacy a run for the money. 

Now, I’m no snob.  From my perspective, there is very little difference between what the trade calls “tittie bars” and your basic “fine dining” establishment.  Both concepts charge exorbitant prices, appeal to man’s insecurities and when you leave you are never quite satisfied, but the point I am trying to make, albeit clumsily, is that restaurant customers and particularly restaurant employees may appear stupid, but they are not.  The only person who will look stupid is you, if you try to outclass yourself. 

Above all else, the restaurant business demands realism.  Becoming a successful restaurateur requires someone who knows both their capabilities and their weaknesses.  If, for instance, you do not know the difference between a china cap and a china cup, do yourself and family a favor and stay home.   If your plan is to hire a chef to cover your culinary insecurities, think again.  True chefs are about as rare as a forty year old virgin and twice as ornery.  They also come with their own agendas and their own baggage. If you doubt me, pick up a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential”.

The best you can hope for, if you are lucky, will be to find an arrogant pimpled faced, heavily tattooed child fresh from culinary school with little life experience who will demand half your restaurant in return for his questionable expertise. 

What should you do if you bring limited experience to the table?  The answer to that is simple.  Do something about it.

If you can’t cook, get out there, burn yourself (literally) and learn.   Can’t wait tables?  Take a part time job doing it before you make the leap to ownership.  Don’t know the difference between a Fuzzy Navel or a Hop, Skip and Go Naked?  Enroll in your local bartender’s school.  Don’t have a basic grasp of Spanish, Ebonics, Farsi or whatever language the cooks and dishwashers in your area speak?  Check out a Berlitz course or two.  Don’t know a thing about restaurant management?  Then start at the bottom, find work in a good chain restaurant and make your initial mistakes on someone else’s dime.  

If you think you will only need management skills and can hire the talent you lack, you have already started down the road to bankruptcy.  Whether you want to or not, I will guarantee you that one day, when it is both inconvenient and financially critical, you will find yourself having to cover for someone.

  You may find yourself taking orders from a table of disinterested and ugly women who will demand separate checks or you may be called upon to pan fry the walnut encrusted salmon without the pimpled face kid’s supervision.  Either way, when manure happens, you as the owner will be called upon to shovel it out of sight.

The cold fact is you will have to become a jack of all trades or at least have the ability to fake it.  Whining to your customers that you can’t do something only makes you look like an ass and it will not encourage repeat traffic.  

Further, be aware that restaurant employees are like a pack of carnivorous hunters.  No matter how sharp your acting skills, they can smell fear and weakness.  They live for it.  Besides their own customers, there is nothing restaurant employees disrespect more than a supervisor who is incapable of doing their jobs.  If they know they have you over a barrel, someone in their ranks will take great delight in rolling you off it.  Expose a bit of flank to them, and I will guarantee someone in your employ will bite it off.  

I am not saying this because I dislike restaurant employees…far from it.  In fact, I love them.  I believe they are the most underrated workers in the world.  It is true that some are little more than drug addled alcoholics, but most are smart, witty and hardworking.  And as is true of all intelligent life, they are also demanding and the first thing that they will require from you, their captain and boss, is competence.  If they don’t smell it, you’ve got problems. 

Oh…they will understand if you are not perfect.  After all, that’s their job, but the average waiter or line cook will not tolerate a useless idiot.  They deal with too many fools on a daily basis to give any quarter to the jackass who signs their pitiful checks.[2]  They may stay in your employ out of pity or to steal what they can, but trust me, they will know very quickly if you can offer them what they really want and need and that is a steady stream of well paying and well tipping customers.  If they do not support your vision and you are unable to fathom theirs, fold your tents and move on, because your failure will be simply a matter of time.

Returning to the mirror, I want you to ask yourself one final question.  What kind of lifestyle do you desire?  If you expect in a year or two to be like Ted Turner with a chain of restaurants, minions at your beck and call and a fancy office somewhere, think again.  Some achieve this status, but most do not.  

There is an old joke in the food business. 

“Do you know how to make a small fortune in the restaurant industry?” asked one old cook to his much younger assistant.  

“Yeah, sure,” answered his compatriot without a moments thought. “First, you start with a large one.”  

This, dear reader, is the hard truth.  

If your only desire is to make money, have fast women on your arm, show off to your friends and live large, the life of a restaurateur may come as a disappointment.  But, if you don’t mind working sixteen hours a day, six and sometimes seven days a week and are able to wake up every morning free from the fear that you may poison someone at any minute, then maybe, just maybe, this is your calling.

Okay.  Put your clothes back on and step away from the mirror.  You’re starting to make me feel creepy. 

Still interested in a culinary career?  If so, then turn the page and listen to another true toe curling anecdote.  The name of the restaurant and the owner has been disguised to protect the innocent…that…and the statute of limitations on the civil suit has yet to be reached.


 

[1] If you believe this, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in buying.

[2] Unbeknownst to many, waiters receive very small paychecks. Often they are in the pennies and occasionally they are zero.  The government demands at least an 8% tip declaration and taxes take most of their pay. Oh, and for all of you outraged do-gooders who demand that restaurant management pay a living wage to food handlers, again, be careful what you wish for.  Do you really want your five dollar hamburger costing you thirty dollars?  Never mind.  I forgot, you’re a Vegan