May 14, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This blog is more than two years dead now. Sorry, folks. (Not that I have regular readers anymore, of course, but every so often, someone still links to this place.)
After the last time I posted, the restaurant lasted a few more months, but finally I simply had to admit the truth: I could not make it work. Making everything from scratch was too fucking expensive, the labor costs were too much, there was no possible way to break even, much less make a profit. I was deeply in debt (seriously I could have paid for medical school a couple of times over, I think), mostly to individuals rather than banks. There was nothing to do but close up. So we did.
Nothing has ever been more heartbreaking for me. Not losing a grandparent, not breaking up with someone I thought I was going to spend my life with, nothing. My therapist compared my loss to losing a child. I’ve never been a parent, so I couldn’t say, but I know that I was utterly crushed. Much too much so to talk here about what happened.
In the months leading up to the closure, I fell in love. My partner got me through that incredibly dark time. We registered a domestic partnership last year, and are planning a wedding for December.
I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, now that that dream is dead. I can’t possibly work for someone else in restaurants anymore, for all the reasons I talked about here, and there’s no point in even trying to start my own again. I’m trying to get a job at a nonprofit now, really change careers. It’s hard, though. I’m 35, and my last ten years of experience are completely irrelevant to anything I think I might want to do now. Nobody wants to hire you without experience, so there’s no way to get any.
But I’m managing. We’re managing, my partner and I. Life goes on, even after your dream dies.
I tried to keep this blog strictly pseudonymous because I was airing the dirty laundry of the restaurant industry, and I knew it could affect my career and my restaurant if I did so under my own name. Now that I’m out of it, I don’t have any reason to keep it a secret anymore. I was never very good at it.
My name is Rebecca Scott. I live in Seattle. My restaurant was called The Night Kitchen, after the Maurice Sendak book. I blog and comment in various places under the handle MadGastronomer, which is a unique signifier — if you spot a MadGastronomer, that’s me. Feel free to say hi.
Otherwise, though, it’s time and past time to put up the chairs, turn off the lights, and lock the doors on this place, officially. Thanks to anybody who’s read it and liked it. (Haters can go fuck themselves with a hot saute pan.) I’m not turning off comments, because that would erase the ones already here, but I won’t be approving any more, or indeed looking at them.
March 16, 2011 § 5 Comments
I am, to put it politely, well-endowed. Busty. I have Huge Tracts of Land. I actually get the reaction, when I mention my cup size, “They make bras that big?” And let me tell you, they are a pain in the neck. And back. And shoulders. And themselves. Especially in the kitchen.
For one thing, they’re in the damn way. Even wearing a minimizing bra, reaching across my body is significantly more difficult than it is for a man or a smaller-breasted woman. The classic elbows-in default posture of the cook is essentially impossible for me. I have more than once burned myself because my tits were in my way, and have, many times, knocked things over with them.
I was once in the prep kitchen, steadily chopping away, standing next to a pair of (male, of course) sous chefs chatting about jock itch and how they dealt with it, whether or not to powder, what kinds of underwear helped most. (I’m unsure to this day whether to be bothered by the fact that they thought this was appropriate to discuss in front of me or pleased that they counted me as “one of the guys” enough to do so. The kitchen is pretty much the only place I’d take the second as a good thing.) I considered jumping in to tell them that I regularly had problems with bra itch, no matter how much powder I used, and despite my wicking-fabric sports bras. I didn’t. Too embarrassing.
Oh, and let me tell you, finding a bra that provides enough support, minimizes my profile, wicks away sweat, and isn’t actively painful or uncomfortable is . . . well, quite the challenge. I have to keep not just multiple bras but multiple models on hand to account for the day by day changes in size and sensitivity. And they are not fucking cheap.
This shit is, of course, only one of the many reasons I’m not fond of my breasts. I’m not even going to discuss the social issues of having large breasts in the kitchen. I mostly avoid them through minimizing bras and having a lot of belly fat, which definitely decreases how obvious they are.
One of these days, I’m going to get around to having a breast reduction. When I have insurance, when I can afford it, when I can afford to take the time off, when I’m sure I’m not going to have any/any more babies. Until then, I have to cope.
January 19, 2011 § 8 Comments
“We’re all the same, the Men of Anger and the Women of the Page.” -”Virginia Woolf” by Emily Saliers
I was listening to this song, over and over, when I decided to start this blog. This line, in particular, always sticks with me.
My namesake called them The Professors in A Room of One’s Own. The equivalent in kitchens are what one of my chefs in school used to call Certified Screamers. But I think Emily’s description is pretty accurate: The Men of Anger.
A while back, a blogger I read made a brief, inconsequential post about Gordon Ramsay and his show Hell’s Kitchen. He clearly enjoyed the program, and just wanted a bit of banter about the reactions of the contestants when they came up for dismissal. It could have been an interesting topic, I guess, if I were interested in talking about what makes for good TV. But all I could think to say was, “Fuck Ramsay.”
And of course, some goddamn male cook had to jump to his defense and say he’s a genius, and talk about how that behavior is perfectly normal, and what kind of kitchens had I been working in that I didn’t think so. I, relatively patiently, explained that it’s not a matter of whether or not it’s normal, but of whether or not it’s acceptable, and that I am pretty firmly in the NOT camp.
What it is, is abusive.
How many professions are left where that’s acceptable behavior?
A few, I’m told. But generally it’s unprofessional behavior. There are few offices in which that shit will fly.
Because here’s what we’re talking about. Ramsay yells and screams at them, insults them, and curses at them. He throws their food in the garbage. Marco Pierre White, Ramsay’s former mentor, once actually cut open the back of a cook’s jacket and trousers with a paring knife because the man complained of the heat. (White is also known for racist language, and for having made Ramsay cry. And for being an amazing chef, but if he wasn’t, what would be the point in bringing him up?)
Contestants on Ramsay’s show break down crying, scream back at him, threaten him with cutlery, and generally react badly. Some people attribute the depression that led one of his contestants, Rachel Brown, to kill herself to her time on his show. And, as that male cook said, this is not just on TV. This happens in real, professional kitchens.
Why the fuck is this considered OK in kitchens? Why the fuck do we put up with it? Why does anyone put up with it?
Yes, yes, I get where it comes from. It comes from the military manner in which professional kitchens have been run for a century or so now. It comes from the current trend of casting chefs as artists instead of managers, and from the notion of “artistic temperament” — a pretty, romantic euphemism for an ugly and unbridled temper — being something people should just put up with as the price of genius. It comes from a culture of adrenalin highs and extreme behaviors and bigotry. It comes from the idea that because professional cooking is a difficult, physically taxing and stressful job, you must be tough enough to endure anything.
It is complete and utter bullshit. Abuse does not make for a tighter, more efficient crew. It breeds resentment and hatred, drives out talented and skilled cooks before they can achieve their full potential, and creates fear, none of which is good for creativity or precision.
I have now fired two kitchen managers for (milder versions of) this kind of behavior. It made for a terrible work environment, not just for the kitchen staff, but for everyone. A chef who treats their cooks that way will also treat front of house staff, managers and owners that way.
I’m asking you not to support this behavior. Don’t watch the shows of celebrity chefs who behave this way. If you’re in the industry, refuse to work for or with abusive chefs. If you’re a restauranteur, refuse to employ them. All of you, refuse to patronize restaurants with abusive chefs. And all of you, tell people why. As long as we put up with and reinforce this behavior, it will continue to be accepted and even encouraged. Help me make it unacceptable. Please. If you don’t support abuse in your personal life, don’t support it in your professional life, and don’t support it as a consumer.
Abuse is never ok.
This post has taken me more than two months to complete. I simply could not focus on the topic. It’s too upsetting, and was too close to home as I dealt with a kitchen manager who felt free to vent her anger on everyone at my restaurant. The righteous fury I felt when I began this piece faded to pain and weariness and sorrow. What began with a backlash ended with a plea.
What I have asked you to do is the only thing I can think of to fight the pervasiveness of this behavior. The abuse continues because it is accepted, and even rewarded. Most people are not in a position to prevent it, but they are in a position to refuse to accept or reward it.
January 10, 2011 § 2 Comments
My little restaurant had its first anniversary just recently. So many regulars and friends came in. It was a beautiful thing. For six hours, we were packed to the rafters. The kitchen ran smoothly, the staff were enjoying themselves, the guests were delighted. A fine time was had by all. It was fantastic. One of those perfect moments of restauranting that reminds me of why the hell I got into this ridiculous project to begin with.
And then the next night was one of the worst nights at work I’d had in the entire first year. Easily in the top ten, probably in the top five.
New Year’s Eve. We knew it was going to get super busy as soon as the bars closed. There aren’t a whole lot of places in the city open that late, and most of the others are crap. So the kitchen was supposed to be well-stocked and prepped by the kitchen manager early on. She had dinner shift, along with one prep cook. Now, this prep cook is notoriously lazy, and will do scant and/or shoddy work if a close eye isn’t kept on him. We’ve only kept him this long because he shows up reliably, and there’s usually someone around who’s a bigger problem. The kitchen manager was the bigger problem just then. I’d promoted her to the position after the fiasco following the previous incumbent, because she asked for it, because she insisted she could do it, because she wanted it badly, because I was in a bad position, because I liked her. At first, she did pretty well. I was proud of her for stepping up, for getting a handle on her temper, for taking responsibility. We started her on just the basics of kitchen management, but as we slowly started adding her other responsibilities, she went to pieces. She didn’t sleep for days at a time, she’d start screaming at her staff, or at the general manager, she’d break down crying, she wouldn’t come in when she was supposed to, her ordering was a mess, she wouldn’t cover for her cooks. It was rapidly falling apart. So I sat her down and talked to her, and gave her one more chance, and she started to improve. Really. She was doing a lot better.
And then there was NYE.
The prep list was written on the chalk board, and all crossed off. Everyone knew she’d been on that evening, so apparently the incoming people hadn’t bothered to actually eyeball the prep and make sure it was solid. She went home around 12:30, telling her cooks that she was just five minutes away, and if they needed her, they should call.
An hour later, the cooks came to tell me and the GM that there wasn’t enough prep done. I wound up in the kitchen in a semi-formal gown (I hardly ever get all dressed up, but when I do, I do it right) cutting sweet potato fries and cursing. As I headed into the kitchen, I heard one of the cooks calling the kitchen manager and asking her to come in. He reported that she’d be there in 5. Twenty minutes later, she called to tell me that she couldn’t come in. I think she started to give me some explanation, but I cut her off, I was too busy and it was too noisy and I had to go.
We got slammed only minutes after I stepped up to the cutting board, and the kitchen crashed completely. Forty-five minute ticket times, running out of things left and right, drunk asshole customers (who, yes, my staff do not have to put up with, and they tossed out at least two that night), perfectly nice customers giving up on their orders and leaving, fucking everything. I had to tell the servers to stop taking orders to give the cooks time to clear the rail and get prepped up for breakfast. It was an absolute nightmare for me, and once there was no more I could physically do at the moment, I went back to my office and cried.
I had to fire the kitchen manager the next day. There just wasn’t any way around it. I hated to, because I like her, but she took it pretty well. She knew she’d fucked up.
I promoted another cook to the position promptly. This one is older than the last, although still young (cooking is a young person’s game), but she has management experience, she’s on good terms with but not too close to the rest of the staff, and she’s got good solid ideas and a good grasp of what the job is. I have high hopes for her.
But goddamnit, I had three and a half chefs/kitchen managers in my first year, and my fourth-and-a-halfth two days into my second. I know restaurant turnover is high, but this is ridiculous.
The first I’ve mentioned before. She thought that the correct way to run a kitchen was to terrorize her entire staff. She was a friend from culinary school, young for the job, but she’d been a sous before, and wow, could she cook. What she could not do was deal with people. She desperately wanted my little bitty all-night comfort food place to be a high-end, expensive, rarefied sort of place. She didn’t want to allow alterations or special orders, didn’t want to put condiments on her burgers, didn’t want to present her very tasty matzo ball soup in a way that kept it warm for more than two minutes, didn’t want to follow a budget, didn’t want to get her food costs below 30%. She thought it should all be her way. She didn’t understand that I was her boss. We had, I swear I timed this, and hour and a half argument about a fucking salad. The staff was always coming to me with complaints, the GM (to whom the chef had introduced me, and who was a close friend of hers) was always coming to me with complaints, the customers came to me with complaints. I think I finally fired her over the $150 worth of very very nice locally-grown organic potatoes she allowed to rot, and tried to tell me I shouldn’t be mad at her about.
We went without a kitchen manager for a bit after that. I did a bunch of it myself, and various cooks stepped up and did other bits. After a month and a half, it got to be too much, and I placed an ad. The candidates were pretty abysmal, but I hired the best of the lot and went with it.
The new guy never did fit in. His food was a mess, his menus looked awful, his “jokes” made people wildly uncomfortable, he wouldn’t put in overtime (which is why you get a salary in a restaurant, to avoid having to pay overtime), he wouldn’t help his staff. He resigned about forty-eight hours before I was planning to fire him.
Just before he gave notice, I got a text from a friend I hadn’t heard from in months. He was the only friend I’d made at my last job, he’d been a chef, he was a really great guy, and he wanted to know if I had a job open. Oh boy, did I.
Right around then, the kitchen manager I started out this post talking about told me she wanted the job. I told her I needed to at least try to get someone in with management experience, and I had a candidate, but if that didn’t work, she could give it a shot.
(Yeesh, this gets complicated without names. Next time, pseudonyms.)
My friend came in and we talked terms, came to an agreement, and he gave notice at the place he’d been working and gave me a start date. He met the staff (who liked him) and gave me a sample menu. And then, a week from his start date, he vanished. (This is why he’s the half: I hired him, but he never started.) Didn’t respond to phone or email, never got back in touch. As far as we can tell, he decided to stay at his old job and couldn’t face telling me. Six months later, I still have not heard from him.
So I gave that last young lady her chance, bringing me back to the beginning of my tale.
Of the five people I’ve hired to run my goddamn kitchen, there have been three women and two men. Two women and one man did terrible jobs, one man failed to show up, and one woman has yet to prove herself. Restaurants have high turnover, sure, but this is ridiculous.
I keep wondering how much of it is my fault.
December 12, 2010 § 5 Comments
Oh, hi. My health problems finally started to improve, and then I had to fly across the country (for a very good reason: to meet my new nephew and spend some quality time with the fam), and meanwhile there’s been a whole stack of work craziness and drama that’s been eating up my energy.
But I have not forgotten my little blog, and I hope to get some time to finish the long post on angry chefs over the holidays.
Meanwhile, the last few days have seen me spitting nails in various internet arguments (because I cannot resist telling people they are Wrong On the Internet). First I ripped a few rape apologists new orifices over the Julian Assange charges. If you’re not familiar, WikiLeaks founder Assange is being held for rape charges entered against him in Sweden. Charges were filed back in August, and have been dismissed once already, and are pretty blatantly being used as a political tool against Assange in retaliation for his leaking US diplomatic cables. But that doesn’t mean that the women who filed the rape charges are lying, that they’re bad people, or even that it wasn’t rape. The details are being held pretty closely, but from what’s known, a conviction is almost certainly out of the question (which is why the charges were dropped once). But we simply can’t know whether or not the charges are true.
And then I got embroiled in Round 3000 of the Great Washroom Debate. You know, the one where somebody tries to come up with a reason that doesn’t sound completely bigoted for why trans people using the appropriate bathrooms or changing rooms is somehow a problem. And I maybe lost it a little bit.
I have several close friends who are trans, and I try hard to be an ally. It’s important to me, on levels both personal and principled. Transphobia hurts people I care about deeply, but it’s also one more (and one nastier) iteration of the enforced gender roles and deep sexism I work against. Trans rights are very much a feminist issue (despite any bullshit you might hear from transphobic feminists).
Let me state my position plainly: For many reasons, including for the safety of trans people, the safety and comfort of parents with children of a different sex, accessibility for physically disabled people, the safety of more androgynous people, the safety of intersex people, and just plain the comfort of everyone, I am in favor of getting rid of stall altogether and going with completely enclosed cubicles usable by anyone, with sinks in the cubicles or on a wall outside them. I’m also in favor of changing spaces with private cubicles that can be used by anyone. It seems to me the best solution for nearly everyone.
My restaurant has two restrooms, each a separate room with one toilet, one sink, and a locking door. One of them also has a urinal. It also has a pretty sparkly little chandelier, just for fun. Both of them are labeled simply “Restroom.” I live to tell people who ask about this that we refuse to bow to the tyranny of binary-gendered bathrooms, usually in a portentious, revolutionary-zeal-infused voice. It’s fun. I’m also serious about it, but being serious about something doesn’t preclude having fun with it.
Y’know, I was going to explain why un-gendered bathrooms are important, but it’s a miserable night here. Our ceiling is leaking water into our prep room, and dripping on a (sealed) electrical conduit, and, despite having been trying for about five hours now, I’m completely unable to get anyone in to fix it. I’m exhausted, physically and mentally and emotionally, and while I can muster enough sentiment to go on about it for quite some time, I can’t actually muster the brain power to string the words together intelligibly. Sorry.
One positive note, in the midst of all this craziness: I’m not having mood swings or panic attacks. The Lamictal is working wonders.
November 4, 2010 § 18 Comments
I’m sorry, folks, I’m still having health issues. It’s looking like this is going to be a long-haul kind of thing, and I just don’t have a lot of bandwidth for writing at the moment. I’ll post when I can, though. Maybe I can get that Mostly Martha/No Reservations comparison together, to keep you entertained while I’m out of commission.
There’s a big post on Gordon Ramsay and his ilk in the works, as there has been for weeks, but since I can’t manage to get more than a sentence or two done at a time, there’s no telling when it will be ready.
Some of you might be wondering if my current health issues are related to my disability. They’re not, but there is other news on that front.
For ten years now, I’ve been managing my bipolar without mood levelers or antidepressants (not that people with bipolar should take antidepressants without mood levelers). I’ve used a variety of things, including counseling, supplements, and birth control, and they’ve been working reasonably well for me for about five years now. Well enough that I could go to culinary school, work in the industry, and open a restaurant, anyway.
Tomorrow, for the first time in ten years, I will pick up a prescription for mood levelers.
It’s a big decision for me. I’m not doing it because my bipolar has gotten worse — it hasn’t — but because the medications have gotten better. I stopped taking them a decade ago because they were detrimental to my health, because I didn’t like the side effects, and because everything available was teratogenic (caused birth defects).
Eleven years ago, my bipolar was so severe that I had to be on meds. I was suicidal without them. And then I got pregnant.
No doctor would let me stay on my meds while pregnant. By the time I knew I was pregnant, there was already a high likelihood of damage to the fetus. And I could not go off them. So I had an abortion.
I don’t regret that, and never have. I have always been pro-choice, and had no qualms about the procedure. These days I am, if anything, more strongly pro-choice than I was then. But I wanted, and still want, kids.
At the time, there was no pregnancy-safe medication for bipolar, really, and my reaction to that pregnancy was terrible. Mood swings all over the place. Over the year that followed my abortion, I contemplated the possibility that if I relied on meds, I might never be able to bear children safely. Sure, I could take other options — adopt, find a surrogate, settle down with a woman partner who would bear children — and those were all viable and good options. But I didn’t want to lose the option to bear a child myself.
It wasn’t the only reason. The particular combination of meds I was on at that time gave me terrible rages. I would start screaming at people for no reason at all. My friends were frightened of me. The previous meds I’d been on had made me more depressed, left me weak and dizzy and lightheaded and with severe social anxiety. Oh, and I couldn’t add. And pretty much everything available caused steady weight gain. I was already “obese” (and one of these days, I will get into the idiocy of that — these days I’m a Fat Acceptance activist, thanks), and I didn’t want to think about gaining 5-10 lbs a year for the rest of my life.
And the literature I was reading was not encouraging. I’d devoured Touched With Fire and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. Dr. Jamison is a psychologist and lives with bipolar, on which she has become an expert. While it was comforting to read about how I was not alone, and to see how much worse it could be, things like her Rules for the Gracious Acceptance of Lithium Into Your Life (which I still cannot read without wanted to cry; “humorous but poignant” my ass) left me terrified of meds. The doctors assured me that the side effects I was experiencing would go away in time. Kay told me they wouldn’t.
What with one thing and another, I stopped taking meds, and refused to start again. Instead, I found a GP who worked with my psychologist, one who kept up with studies on things like flax seed oil and bipolar disorder, and slowly, with many false starts and setbacks, I got my life together — without mood levelers.
I still get mood swings, though. All bipolar people do, no matter how well our meds or management work. And if I can improve that, I will.
The meds for bipolar now are a lot less scary, with a lot fewer nasty side effects. With this one, I’m supposed to watch for signs it’s interfering with my birth control (in which case we’ll up my dose of hormones) and for skin rashes (because there’s a very, very small chance that all my skin will fall off and I’ll die; fortunately stopping the meds at the first sign of that specific rash is pretty effective in preventing, you know, dying). But if I got pregnant, I could stay on it if I needed to, if I chose to continue my pregnancy. And it doesn’t generally cause the mood swings it’s supposed to prevent.
As for kids, well, eleven years after my abortion, I still don’t have any. Before I can, I need to be reasonably stable emotionally (check), financially stable (um, mostly check), and have at least one committed and stable child-rearing partner (nope).* I’m in my thirties now, and have a birthday coming up this month. I’ve accepted, mostly, that I may or may not actually be able to get all of those requirements lined up while still fertile. If I don’t, I don’t, and I’ll deal with that when the time comes.
If I never bear a child, though, it will not invalidate my decision a decade ago to go off meds. My decision to go on meds now does not invalidate that decision, either.
It’s my choice, and I’ve made it as best I can. If it doesn’t work well for me, I can change my mind. That’s my choice, too. They’re all my choices.
You know, this post was supposed to be a quick check-in, just to say I was still alive, but having problems. All of this came pouring out. I feel better for it.
Thanks for reading. Sorry there’s no food or kitchen stuff in this post. Wait! I know! I can tell you that we’re adding pancakes to the menu! Mmmmm, pancakes. There, food.
*Please note: All three of these prerequisites for having kids are specific to me and my situation and abilities, especially this last one. None of them are intended as criticism of others’ choices, which are theirs. I simply acknowledge that I cannot be a decent parent without some pre-established stability and a partner, especially during the first few years of childhood. I have enough experience with other people’s babies to know that. If I tried, I would wreck my own life, and probably my child’s as well. These are the accommodations I make for my disabilities, that’s all.
October 17, 2010 § 3 Comments
So, I’ve been watching The West Wing, and the saying keeps coming up: “Those who love sausage and the law should not see them made.”*
I don’t know about laws, but this sausage thing is crap. I love sausage, and I love to see it made and to make it (as long as it’s made with quality ingredients). It’s a fascinating process, and generally people are grossed out by it primarily because of the disconnect that industrial farming has inserted between us and our food. (OK, yeah, and the fact that factory-made sausage often has some very questionable ingredients.)
*Which, no, was not said by Otto von Bismarck originally.