Iam currently reading Kitchen Confidential; an impossibly entertaining exposé of the simultaneously hedonistic and violent culture of cheffing by the late and wildly great Antony Bourdain. More Iggy Pop than Jamie Oliver, the book is famous for shocking revelations of drugs, sex, heinous intimidation and blinding loyalty as hidden currencies that pervade the very same spaces turning out plates of crème renversée to society’s cosmopolitan elites.
Look, I’ve seen Wolf of Wall Street. I get that intense work—and high speed cooking for 15 hours in a literal oven is the most intense it gets—fosters intense behaviour. But, having just started work in my third restaurant as a waitress, I feel cheated. Why should only chefs be our city’s hidden rockstars? What about the kind waitress that actually has to put up with all of your crap. She has to stay till midnight too. Where’s her free pass to be an arsehole? As my exasperated colleagues will tell you, I am no expert.
However, in an attempt to right Bourdain’s wrongs I present to you some pearls of wisdom for the unpredictable world of hospitality, as I see it, so as to highlight the challenges of working in the same fickle, cut-throat industry that chefs seem to get most of the credit for. Conveniently, this will also allow me to write like my hero without going through the hassle of slicing and torching my delicate lady hands in the frenzy of a scalding kitchen, which suits me fine.
1. Find gratitude in the small things.
Due to the fact that I am a raging narcissist, I require full time attachment to an IV releasing a steady solution of praise into my bloodstream in order to feel any meaningful sense of self. Such a disposition, I have discovered, is not suited to the world of hospitality. Or the working world in general, for that matter. If you have so much as a smidgen of a god complex, I’d get this harsh reality into your superior brain sooner rather than later to avoid any existential fracture. I know you deserve it so, but your manager is unlikely to congratulate you every time you don’t spill an oat milk flat white on a paying customer because, as it turns out, that is literally your job. Rude.
Learn instead to gain encouragement from the small things. Not being called back as you leave for the night because for once you successfully closed the bar despite the process having more intricacies than Takeshi’s Castle. (Drain the glass wash, take out the filter, clean the filter, put the filter back in, date the used wine, go down to the stock room to replenish supplies, you were meant to bring up four bottles of Gavi not three, you good for nothing turd, back down you go, etc). Perhaps there was the gentle offer of a cigarette from a fellow colleague that you swear you saw last night on Crimewatch. Or maybe the corner of your manager’s mouth rose ever so slightly as you dove—like Djokivic in the Roland Grand dust—to successfully intercept a free-falling fork before it hit the floor. If you’re on good terms with your colleagues and the majority of your customers, you are the Obama of hospitality (that is to say, doing the best possible in a relentless job) so be proud of yourself.
2. Don’t go on your phone.
Not because it’s rude. God no, I think that argument started taking on water the minute they gave iPads to seven year olds as “learning aids”. Rather, keep away from all screens because it will make your shift feel so, so much longer. A quiet night seems like the perfect chance to lose yourself in Instagram reels. “I’m essentially being paid to do what I do naked on the floor of the bathroom” you smugly chuckle to yourself.
However only when you stop are you awash with tired nausea. Next thing you know you’re ready for bed just as Karen requests tasters of all the white wines in the house for her and her posse. I’ve fallen into this trap many a-time. It’s far better to leave your phone in the staff room and, while you’re at it, actively avoid all digital, analogue or sundial clocks. Immerse yourself and eleven hours will fly by.
3. Piss on the proverbial tree.
Bourdain’s kitchens are further presented as Colosseum-esque battlegrounds in his revelation that chef’s mark their territory. Though line cooks—instrumental craftsmen serving the vision of the head architect—they are simultaneously the kings of their station, a fortress mercilessly defended. According to Bourdain, favourite pans are hoarded in ceiling vents, dry towels are stashed away in personal stores - and god help you if you mess with a cook’s meticulously and specifically prepared mis en place.
As invaluable participants in the same do or die, 60% failure rate business, I see absolutely no reason why front of house cannot figuratively piss on their favourite tree in similar fashion. Your life will be considerably easier if you have your favourite pen with the perfect ink to paper glide handy in your apron, some paracetamol in your back pocket, a supply of clean linen cheekily tucked behind the Aperol so you can always polish glasses to standard, and an energy-dense snack on hand (I’m partial to a blueberry nakd™ bar).
But more than this, what the crafty chefs have worked out is that to thrive, to find purpose and gratification in a work riddled with cruel customers, manual labour and missed Saturday nights, you have to have a stake in it. As any man who’s sought therapy will tell you, wonderful things can happen when you take ownership. Lion King yourself as you internally declare with majestic grandeur “Simba, everything from the coffee grinder to the glass wash is yours.” At least for the next eleven hours.