Back to School 2014
Because you're a college student, you don't have loads of experience in a specialized field. And unless your parents are so wealthy you don't have to work, you're going to be in the market for entry-level employment. Welcome to the thriving Seattle restaurant industry! Here are a few things I learned the hard way:
• Show up. It's a small town. The hiring manager who graciously gave your green-in-the-gills ass a chance is probably drinking buddies or, at the very least, drinking acquaintances with every other hiring manager at every place you might actually want to work. Unless you want to work at Subway.
• Don't fuck where you work. Maybe you think you're in love and you've met the one. Maybe you think you're two responsible adults having a mature, no-strings-attached sexual relationship with clearly defined boundaries and it's completely removed from the workplace. Let me just remind you what the road to hell is paved with. And if it really is love—or deep and enduring lust—it'll still be there after you're no longer employed together.
• Don't ask anyone to do something for you that you wouldn't be willing to do yourself. If you're too busy, that's one thing; if you're too much of a dandy, that's another thing, and it's unacceptable.
• For fuck's sake, say "behind" when you pass behind someone and "corner" when you come around a corner. Don't forget. Don't assume the person you are trying to slip past knows you are there. Just say it. If you don't, you will get burned with hot pans, break tons of glassware, get all manner of food and slime spilled on you, and be hated.
• Clean the bathroom every day. Even if it's not your job, check it anyway. If you are a server, it is in your interest to make sure your customers don't get skeezed out by the bathroom and never want to return, because if they plan on never returning, they're not going to give you a good tip. By the same token, if you're a customer and you find yourself at a restaurant with a filthy bathroom, leave. The rest of the place is likely just as bad.
• Move fast. I know a restaurant owner who used to say, "If you're fast, easy to slow down. If you're slow, hard to get faster." Seems a little unnecessarily Confucian, but it's very true. Do everything fast when you're slow and you'll find work to be a breeze when you're not.
• Take off after work. Shift drinks are like glue for your ass cheeks. And bartenders, like misery, love company. By all means, have one. Lord knows you need all the free shit you can get while you're in college. But get the hell out of there after one. Don't linger longer than a half hour after your shift has ended. If you do want to become a brilliant astrophysicist, or the next president, or even just a competent mid-level sales manager, you won't accomplish that by getting plowed after work and talking shit with your coworkers. Speaking of talking shit...
• Don't talk shit. Verbally annihilating someone behind their back is the most ineffective agent of change. If they suck at their job and you're an ace, help them be an ace. If they're awesome at their job and they suck as a person, you have nothing to complain about because there is no clause in your employment contract that requires you to like your coworkers. If they are going out of their way to make your life miserable, ignore them. Do your job. The only thing more pathetic than office politics is restaurant politics.
• If you're a cook and you're getting into one of your mise en place containers for the first time, unwrap it completely. Don't just poke your hand through the plastic wrap and grab shit. It literally takes two seconds to pull it all the way off, and it's one of those tiny hallmarks of professionalism that your chef will notice. When you're done with your station, leave everything spotless, fill up the mise en place for the next guy, and label foodstuffs you've left with the date and a brief, accurate description of their contents.
• Never leave a tiny amount of something in a big-ass container. Break down empty boxes. Stack things that are stackable. Space in restaurants is like crack: There's no such thing as extra.
• Put things back where they belong. This is extra important in the kitchen because there is fire involved. If you borrowed someone's oil bottle and wandered off without putting it back at their station, they could very well burn some expensive shit when they have to run off and look for it. And whose fault is that? Yours.
• If you are support staff, don't interrupt waiters when they are talking to a table. It doesn't matter if Godzilla is marching up the front steps—just shut up and wait. Feel free to silently fill water glasses, remove dirty plates, or what have you. The whole waiter/customer relationship rests on the illusion that everything is hunky-dory. There are no hiccups, no fuck-ups, no surprises. When you come up and tug on my sleeve and whisper hurriedly in the middle of me telling them the specials, it looks real bad. So don't.
• Be honest in your recommendations. If someone asks you what you like and you say you like the most expensive dish just because you want a bigger tip, you're a piece of shit. If, however, you just adore ribeye and that's truly your personal favorite, say so. Also, if someone asks you about a specific dish that you don't like, it's okay to say it. You won't be taken out back and shot if you admit to not liking a dish. You will, however, earn the respect of your tables for being honest. If you say, "I like everything, the food is all amazing," either you work for Thomas Keller or you're a liar and you should be taken out back and shot.
• Triple-check your plates before they go out. You see this food over and over again; you should know every element of its composition and appearance. You should never forget a sauce or a garnish or extra aioli or anything ever. Most of the time it's the kitchen's responsibility to only put out dishes that are complete, but people make mistakes, and it's your job to catch them. And if you're the guy who spots missing chives with laser precision, you can actually feel good about yourself when you put the phrase "detail-oriented" on your résumé.
• Thank people for coming when they leave. Doesn't matter if they behaved like a petulant child and tipped 8 percent, there are a bazillion other restaurants in this city they could have spent money at and they chose yours. That's worth at least a modicum of gratitude.
• Enjoy it. Working in restaurants will make you a harder-working, more mentally organized person. You'll meet some delightfully insane people. You'll have great stories. You'll eat and drink like a king despite your pauper's wages. And you'll probably break some of these rules. Just make sure it's not the one about cleaning the bathroom and you'll do fine.