For the past six months, stories of abuse and inequality in the restaurant industry have pervaded news coverage, and not just in food magazines and websites. Chefs and restaurateurs have been increasingly called out, and paying the price for creating an environment that isn't always safe or healthy for the people working in it. But restaurants aren't restaurants without one key ingredient: the diners.
The people who choose to come in to spend their hard-earned money at any particular restaurant are absolutely crucial to its survival, but they can also be a tremendous source of stress to the waitstaff and cooks whose job it is to keep them fed and happy.
At the recent South Beach Wine & Food Festival, we asked 10 chefs what role they think diners play in creating and sustaining a better restaurant culture for everyone.
Justin Carlisle: Ardent, Red Light Ramen, The Laughing Taco, Milwaukee
Don't come in and treat us as servants. We are humans like you. Treat us as equal, and be fair. I'm not a fancy chef. I provide a service to people who want to come and partake in it. They need to understand that they have to respect us in this service as much as we respect giving them that.
Amanda Cohen: Dirt Candy, New York
Diners can go to restaurants they know have good policies. Diners need to use their money to affect change. Diners think they don't have a voice in this industry but they do. They can make comments, they can be a part of the tipping debate, they can be a part of what restaurants get reviewed. They can get really angry with their money about what restaurants get reviewed or why people are going to certain places. Everybody has a voice in this industry, they just have to use it.
Kelly Fields: Willa Jean, New Orleans
Diners have to be the same accountability as employees, as ownership, as anyone. Diners are probably need to be held to a higher standard than my cooks, as far as how they treat the people in the restaurant. Keeping vulnerable people safe is so innate in who we are as a restaurant at Willa Jean. I can't say that we actively have done X, Y, and Z. It's who I am and who I've always tried to be. It's who my management team is.
Michael Gulotta: MoPho and Maypop, New Orleans
It's the old adage that you can tell the character of a person by they treat their server in a restaurant. I think people need to realize that serving is a person's job. They want to make you happy, they don't not care about you. When a mistake happens, be reasonable. My brother is my general manager and my front of the house partner. He's dealt with psychological stress for years because everyone unloads their stresses on the server. He always says this is the one industry where you're judged on your misses and not your makes. Someone's constantly looking for what you're going to do wrong, and never they congratulate you for doing anything right. It's a hard way to be. Just treat people like humans and I think it would be easier.
On days like Mother's Day, which is a brunch, when everyone is hungover or they have to sit with their sibling or cousin who they don't like, they unload on the server. It's always these family days. That's why we've closed for major holidays since we've been open because one, we want to be with our family and two, people are typically nasty on holidays because they don't want to be with their family. New Year's Day, Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, Easter Day, Mardi Gras Day, we're closed. Sometimes the worst person to deal with is the customer.
Also people should understand that if you have a dietary restriction and you're at a restaurant that's really trying to please you, you can crash the kitchen because we want to make you happy. I have to burn a whole cook to make you a specific dish. The best is when someone says they can't eat a certain thing, and then they reach over and end up eating off the plate of the person next to them. Dude! Oh my god! Like you don't understand the five minutes of hell that I went through trying to juggle the food going out of the kitchen, while pulling a cook off the line and making a special dish.
We go through training with our cooks, because we have specific dishes set up for people with dietary restrictions: This person can have this dish, as we know we can easily remove the gluten or dairy. We have our servers steer people toward certain dishes that we know we can do quickly and efficiently. Otherwise you're waiting an hour. If you have a dietary restriction, we're going to do everything we can to make you happy, but be understanding. Work with us. We'll get there.
Ashley Christensen: Death & Taxes, Poole's Diner, and more, Raleigh
We don't use the term customers. We only say "guest." I think part of being a guest is understanding that you're in you're in a relationship. We all know there are good guests and bad guests. Be more respectful of what goes into the work that provides you with the meals and the entertainment. Be aware and treat people like you would treat your family and friends. because you're talking about a group of people who have dedicated their entire lives to service. Somebody walks into the restaurant, all we want to do is make you feel great—and do that without compromising our values or integrity. I make sure that guests are aware of that, because as we talk about all the. issues culturally and restaurants, it's the thing that comes up.
Part of my commitment to our team is saying, yes this is what I'm asking of each of you as you work together and spend time together. But also know that we have a policy that when a guest, the person who brings the linens, whoever it might be comes into our restaurant, our expectation is the same of them. We've been challenging those guys to make sure that if they ever experience anything that is below our standards as far as how they're treated or spoken to, they should speak up and we will reach out to those companies and guests. It's never worth a product or the money that comes in from a diner to disrespect or compromise how we have committed to treating our staff.
Rick Bayless: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco, and more, Chicago
They can treat the service staff with respect. That often doesn't happen. It's a very interesting thing that sometimes I will go to talk to a table and they're fawning and lovely and all that. Then the server will say, "Oh god they treated me like dirt." And when you get that kind of divergence, that's the hardest thing.
A friend of mine who is a restaurant owner in Mexico just posted a thing that said, "My mother taught me to respect the person that was cleaning the floor in exactly the same way that you respect the person that was doing all the hiring and firing." I wish more of our diners didn't think of our employees as marginalized people, because they're not. I say that our profession is one of the great noble professions because we get to take the abundance that the earth gives us, transform it into something that people nourish themselves with in several different ways. One is physically obviously, but the other is emotionally because when you have a great meal, it's like any kind of art. Your whole being is enriched in a full way.
It's very important for people to recognize that even though we don't work 9 to 5 jobs in cubicles in mid-level management jobs, that we're actually doing stuff that is a major contribution to the development of our culture. I'm the luckiest guy in the world because my job is to make people happy. Who wouldn't want to do that for a living?
Shane McBride: Maysville, New York
It's going to get expensive. As the wage goes up it's going to affect every step of what we do. And I think there needs to be a little bit of understanding. I can't speak for every chef and restaurateur but I'm definitely not out there trying to gouge your pocketbook. I'm just trying to meet my budgets, and pay my bills just like everyone else. I think there needs to be a little understanding in that sense. It's going to be expensive to eat in New York City soon.
Sarah Grueneberg: Monteverde Restaurant and Pastificio, Chicago
Be open to trying a lot of different things and not just come in looking for filet of beef, or those kind of cuts that are just mass produced. Have something that's a little more different, maybe more vegetable-focused, and don't feel like you have to have a big steak. At least here in Chicago.
Matthew Jennings: Townsman, Boston
Diners have the role of voting with their fork or dollar and they're intertwined in this conversation now that it's so public. They have the duty of dining at establishments that they respect and they know are treating their staff well and are working to make a change. Ultimately. they're as much involved as the restaurateurs themselves.
Matt Abdoo: Pig Beach and Pig Bleecker, New York
Chefs and restaurants can't exist without their customers embracing what they do and loving what they do. As a chef, I always thrive on constructive criticism. You can never become better unless you know if you're doing something wrong. I encourage all guests to not be afraid to voice your opinions and speak up. Be like, "Chef, you know I love you, you know this is my favorite place on the planet, but the pork wasn't as good tonight as it was last night. It was a little fatty or overcooked." Probably the most important thing as a diner is be honest so the chef and the restaurant can have an opportunity to correct the mistakes and make you happy. The last thing you want to do is not say anything and smile, nod, and say you had a great meal, and then never come back again.
Yelp is exceptionally frustrating as a chef because there are few industries under such scrutiny from an anonymous website where people can be downright hurtful and not even really know the person involved. I have certainly been subject to that. I've been blessed with doing a lot of videos and Today Show appearance and things that have been very good for myself and my career in the restaurants. And you'd be surprised how many people can be exceptionally hurtful to someone they never met, and know nothing about.
If you're upset about something, or you don't like something or something is not cooked to your liking, say something there so we can fix it and we can help you. Generally speaking we're going to take something off your check or we're going to send you some extras. We're going to go out there and give you a little bit more attention because all our goal is, being in this industry, is to make you happy. If we don't know you're unhappy, we can't make you happy.
By Kat Kinsman
March 29, 2018
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