I was asked today how many years I've worked in the restaurant industry and, as is quite appropriate at my age and never-stellar math skills, I had to use pen and paper to do math to come up with an answer. There’s a few ways to answer that question and one of them is like this:
My first restaurant job was serving as the dishwasher in Cranbury, NJ; ironically at their Colonial-themed place, in 1988. I was a dimply and pimply faced kid of fourteen and I found out I was going to be doing this job mere moments after I hopped off the bus the last day of my freshman year. I was anxiously looking forward to a summer full of hanging with friends, swim meets, going to the shore and generally relaxing after a pretty intense year.
I bounded into the house, tossing my bag on the floor and planning to veg out in my room and listen to Living Colour’s “Vivid” and read through my yearbook. I’d been planning it all day-ever since a certain girl had signed my yearbook and I had, with great restraint, forced myself not to read what she’d written until I was home and could properly enjoy the moment in private. Perhaps I’d even make some calls on my brand new rotary phone that I’d earned by spending the year on the Honor Roll…heady stuff, I know. (To my younger readers-a rotary phone is that old clonky unit with the dial thingy and no touch screen.)
As my bag plopped on the ground, my mother was already walking towards me, slinging her purse over her shoulder saying, “Turn around, you’re going to your new job.” I was shocked and appalled at the sudden and immediate end to my summer and possibly childhood, but as usual I did as I was told and grumpily marched to the old Sentra, and off I was driven to learn the basics of my first real job. I’d mowed lawns and shoveled snow and done other things to earn cash since I was like 8, like many of us from my generation, but I’d never worked in a business, until then. The owners and managers of the Inn were very nice and they were very pleased to have me come on board (at minimum wage, which had been among the sticking points with Fred, my predecessor on the dish line. I learned later that he moved on to a “lucrative” career in telemarketing). Everything had been pre-arranged by my mother, who had packed my bike onto the back of the Sentra (which we had named “Challenger” years earlier) and told me to enjoy the ride home whenever they were done with my training. We didn’t wear bike helmets back then, either.
I was shown around the “front of house” which is what we call the area where guests are present. I was told I wouldn’t see much of the front of house as a dishwasher, but it was important to “know what’s what and where stuff is.” They spent considerable time showing me the guest restroom facilities, as cleaning them was part of my new job description as well. (Again-another point of contention with ‘ol Fred.) When we finally made it to the “Back of House,” my head was swimming. I was only 20 minutes into my new career, but you must recall, this had not been previously discussed in any way, shape, or form. Usually, when I came home from school, I was the only one there for at least an hour before my dad came home, and then my mom. To have her not only be there at all, but to then completely alter my world-view in the course of an hour was a record, even for us.
They brought me back into the kitchen, which was very large and intimidating at the time. As I walked in, I remember seeing the prep area and several ovens the size of which blew my mind. It felt at the time like that scene in “Star Wars” where (spoiler alert) Obi-Wan chops that guys arm off in the Cantina at Mos Eisley, and everyone looks over for a silent and awkward moment. There was music playing in the background, “Here comes the Sun” by the Beatles, actually. I later learned that it was one of only three cassette tapes that the player would play without destroying, the others being a mix tape heavy on Iron Butterfly and Cheap Trick and an old Thin Lizzy tape that no one ever seemed to play.
(Again, for my younger readers, cassette tapes were plastic thingys that occasionally needed a pencil to make work properly, and they played music, kind of like your Ipods do, but not quite. Ask your parents.)
After what seemed like ten minutes but was probably five seconds, I heard a loud “ZAP” and turned to my immediate right where hung a bug zapper in a far corner. I looked ahead of me and saw three huge stainless steel sinks filled with pots and pans and kitchen tools the like and size of which I found bewildering. It was as though a giant had dropped off their dishes. The sinks were overflowing with dirty dishes and I felt my heart sink immediately until my terrified internal dialogue was interrupted by, “so, this our new grunt?”
A man, who was probably only about ten years older than me but had a face lined with life walked towards me, wiping his hands on his apron before extending his hand to me. “I’m Leroy, welcome to the Jungle,” he said with a wide grin and an appraising look. Everyone else went back to their work and almost all of them either ignored me completely or looked at me warily out of the corner of their eyes. I shook Leroy’s hand and he put his arm around me and showed me around, at first avoiding the “pit” aka, the dish area (or as I was soon to learn, areas, plural) and introducing me to the kitchen staff. All of them were youngish males. I wish I remembered more of their names. After he’d sloughed me around and paraded me in front of everyone, who to a man could not have been less interested in my fourteen year-old ass, he explained my responsibilities.
“We’ve got two dish stations-a kitchen station and a service station.” The kitchen station was the one I’d seen before, which scared the hell out of me as it looked absolutely insurmountable. The service station handled the dishes from the servers coming back from the front of house. It was a very sleek-looking machine like a miniature car wash. “Servers will bring the dishes here, clear and stack them, and you load them into the machine, and when they come out the other side, you stack ‘em there” he said, pointing at what felt like a cage of stainless steel shelving. It actually felt a bit like being inside a very small fort made completely of silver. I had a moment of “Fortress of Solitude” daydreaming before Leroy redirected my attention to an older server who had come by and just dumped their dishes without stacking or clearing them before running out of the kitchen. He used a delightful four-syllable expletive, before he continued: “You better not let them do that to you even one time, or they will walk all over you. Doesn’t matter that you’re a kid-in here, only that matters is: can you do the work?
That’s one piece of advice I’ve definitely held onto over the years, and it’s come in handy in a number of careers. I seemed very much to excel at being the youngest guy in a number of jobs, particularly when I worked in educational administration. It was pretty common for me over a number of years to be supervising teachers who had been teaching longer than I’d been alive. That was always an adventure.
He had me jump onto the service line for a while and said to yell if I needed anything and to just “try it out, see how it feels,” he said and he headed back to his station on the other side of the kitchen. He called out over his shoulder as he left, “Oh, and don’t be an asshole. That helps too, kid.” The salad station or “cold side” was directly across from the service dish station and was manned by an unbearably tall and lanky kid that couldn’t have been nineteen. He didn’t say a lot, but I remember he looked right at me and said “he’s right about that” before returning to his task of slicing cucumbers.
So there I was, 45 minutes into my restaurant career and I’d been shown the bathrooms I was to clean, a mountain of gigantic kitchen dishes and a machine that, when in operation, sounded much like one had stuck their head inside the Industrial Revolution. I’d been told to not be an asshole and to hold adults accountable if they didn’t clean their plates before I put them on racks to go through the machine.
Did I mention I was fourteen? I was a freakin’ Choirboy! I’d spent eight years in a parochial school! Of course I wanted to yell at adults sometimes, but I never did it--I got my mouth washed out with Palmolive once because I almost said “hell.” My mouth got me in a fair amount of trouble in those days but I was working on it. (Still am.) To put it mildly, I was ever so slightly overwhelmed. That said, I was also something else entirely: I was intrigued. I liked the idea of being judged on my own merits regardless of age-it reminded me of the theater shows and music program I was involved in for years, where you were generally judged by what you could do and how well you could do it. I also quite liked the idea of speaking my mind and standing up for myself. I’d go so far as to say such things came rather too easily at times later on, but those are other stories. The strangest thing for me was that I was almost immediately treated like an adult, as I perceived it at the time. I wasn’t treated like a colleague yet as I hadn’t actually done anything, but I don’t think anyone in the kitchen looked at me and said, “he’s a kid-he can’t work.” I think it’s more likely that they said, “ugh-I hope this dope can work.”
I finished out the shift, maybe two or three hours in entirety. I cleared out the service dishes and put a dent into the kitchen dishes before the evening dishwasher came in and grunted at me. That would remain the extent of our interactions all summer. Leroy told me I did “alright” and that he’d see me tomorrow morning. I was already wondering how I was going to ride my bike to swim practice and then to work and my head was spinning again, but as I looked around the kitchen, seeing everyone doing their job, handling their area of the larger puzzle, the kitchen suddenly became this very interesting world that I found myself looking forward to exploring. I was part of the “Back of House” and I resolved that I’d man my station effectively, especially to those pesky servers who want to dump dishes and run, especially those pure evil servers that would try to drop the damned French Onion Soup Crocks without even a cursory attempt at a scrape. Those things were hell.
About a week in, once I felt like I had my feet under me and had started to really feel and appreciate the rhythm and flow of a kitchen that was really working well together; I had to correct my first adult server. Steven was an older fella and had been pretty dismissive of me, but after a week of mediocre cooperation he started just dumping trays into my station and saying stuff like “handle this for me would you, I’m in the weeds!” Now, occasionally, that’s a request you can make, but for a whole shift on a Tuesday afternoon in July, I saw what he was doing, as did the salad station kid, who kept looking at me and shaking his head after Steven had done this twice in an hour.
I felt like the whole kitchen was watching me, though it was likely only the salad kid, but I’d had it and I was in the weeds myself (meaning “behind-struggling to catch up”) and the girl I’d been dating and I had broken up and I was tired and there was another girl that I liked but wasn’t sure about and there was a big swim meet coming up and all of those things were stressors, but to be honest, I think this shift was the one where I really figured out that I could do this work. That I liked the ebb and flow of the kitchen and that the lines between me, a kid, and Steven, an adult, had been clearly erased by the nature of the work. He was making my job harder on purpose and I wasn’t going to allow it.
So, the next time he came to my station with dishes to dump and go, I pulled out the long sprayer that I used to clear off the dishes-that one with the uncomfortably hard water pressure and temperature and pointed it at his face as he said, “handle this for me….” And he paused as I pointed my other hand at him and said “No-you’ll clear your plates or you won’t only ‘be in the damned weeds,’ you’ll be soaking wet, damnit! Do your damned job so I can do mine!” I sprayed a warning shot from my sprayer at his feet and sent another rack through the machine as he, to my relief, cleared and stacked his plates nicely. He never took advantage of me again and I felt like I kind of arrived in the kitchen fully that day. It may be coincidence, but Leroy almost immediately turned off The Beatles and blasted “In-A-Gadda-da-Vida” on the boom box and the rest of shift seemed rather lively. To this day, any time I hear that song, I hear Leroy’s voice saying, slowly and drawn out, “ I-ron-buuuuter-flyyy….” The salad kid even came over and organized dishes in the big cage to help me out, though they were already kind of fine.
I spent the rest of the summer there and really felt at the end like I had learned how to work hard, as it was truly harder work than I’d ever done. I also learned that I liked the people and I’d liked the industry-I felt like I fit in. I was invited to stay on during my sophomore year and while I worked a few shifts into the fall, I got too busy with school and activities. Later in the school year, when I was invited to the Senior Prom and was told by my parents that “if you’re going, you’re paying your own way,” I got a job at the Market down the street from the Inn. Same family owned it and it was a better fit for my schedule then. I earned enough to go to that Prom and actually have a picture of myself with my friends from work in my tux making change at the register before we drove over to my date’s house for pictures. I had a good experience there, and at the Food Sampler down the road from the Market, and at the Summer Camps I helped run later on and mowing lawns for the state, working for the Postal Service, riding the garbage truck, parking cars at the fancy Princeton hotel, giving tours at Woo, and playing shows and all the other things I did to earn a either a buck or living until I became a career educator.
I always remembered that first job. Not just because the salad kid and I used to sneak into the basement and explore the Revolutionary War tunnels they were excavating under the Inn and the house across the street. Not just because they, as a “special treat” for me on my last shift that first summer gave me the “honor” of cleaning the grease trap. I always held that summer in a sort of fascination that I couldn’t explain until, not long after we got married; the wife suggested I try to pick up something part-time during the summers off from teaching, while I was finishing my Masters. We had an Irish place in our town in North Jersey at the time that we loved, and she, wise one that she is (and having been subjected to every story I’ve ever told about everything, multiple times) wondered if I might like to work there. We were semi-regulars at the place and so the afternoon I popped in for a Guinness with Larry the bartender, it was not without precedent that I was there.
As we chatted, I asked Larry if they were hiring, and he said, “We’re always hiring. What do you do?” I’d done some freelance bartending at school functions and mentioned I’d washed dishes as a teen.” He raised his eyebrow a bit and said, “How do you make a Half and Half?” I took a sip of my beer and said, “How do you make it?” He laughed and said, “I make it the right way” and called over one of the managers to talk to me. I did my training the next week and spent the next three years working there in a variety of roles: I mainly served but also bartended and on occasion, served as the bouncer at the door. There’s probably a whole column of both bar and door stories.
It was a great time as I was young and full of energy, something I only appreciate now. Teaching full time, Graduate program full time, restaurant part time, supporting the wife’s career, planning for the future-I still don’t know how there were enough hours to do all these things back then. I set upon learning the restaurant business from a work perspective but as such, I also experienced my first real inklings that there was a special culture associated with the people I worked with. I might only see some of them at work, but we mattered to one another. There was a community there that was completely and totally supportive as long as, it seemed that you could both “Do the work” and “weren’t an asshole.” People came and went, but I think it was even then that I was learning that there are a special cadre of people that make this industry move, and that I liked being around them.
This was during the time that I was teaching full time and going to SHU full time to earn my Masters so that I could be a Principal or a vice Principal or a Headmaster or something else other than what I was at the time, which in those days was a teacher and a server. I was looking forward in my education career and at the time wanted to make myself qualified to be the boss. I’d had some difficulty working for other people, with exceptions. My mouth occasionally shared opnions that may have been overly honest, but in my career as an educator, now that I look back on it, I kept running into people that either couldn’t “do the work” or “were assholes.” Sometimes both. My plan was to get my Masters and state certifications and then get busy being that guy that made a difference. That was honestly who I wanted to be. I believed in the power of education and in the ability of schools to get things right for kids. I thought I was a good teacher and later thought I was a good administrator.
But even through those years, there was an undercurrent of the “restaurant lifer.” I was a Vice Principal in a large South Jersey School district when we held our end of year administrator’s luncheon at a very nice formal bistro in Burlington. I got to chatting with our server, an amazing man named George, about working in service and how I’d missed it, and he pulled me aside after we were done saying that if I wanted to try coming on board, he’d introduce me to the owner. Next thing I know, I’m moonlighting in a tuxedo serving, among others, my Superintendent and the Assistant Superintendent and their wives, both of whom I had lambasted to their faces in their offices a few weeks earlier when they had transferred me within district without notice. I was completely in the right in my irritation with them, though it may not have been the most tactful move of my career.
I remember the Assistant Supe’s wife seemed upset that I was serving them and she admonished her husband for not paying me enough, that “he has to do this?!” He gave me a “Make this right immediately” look that still makes me smile. I offered that “I love this work and the owners are friends of the family, who I help out when I can.” His wife was placated and I later learned that the effort was appreciated. I remember ending that evening thinking that I had way more in common with the people at the Bistro than the people I had served at that table in particular. I remember being really ok with that, but I guess I wasn’t there yet.
The kids arrived not long after and my desire to make a big splash in education increased. I then left one troubled district, without a job, to seek another and found it in PG. It was a great place for a time, but I was living the sort of hours that would have destroyed me long-term. I was serving as an Assistant Principal and the AD as well. At a minimum it was 12 hours days, six days a week and about 100 miles driven daily. I loved a lot about that job and had so many great moments there with the kids, community and the faculty, but it was too much for me-I wasn’t seeing my children for days at a time. I was overweight, over-caffeinated, falling asleep on the way home, and in the end, I was stretched thin. When the wife was granted the opportunity to go to Hawaii, it was a Godsend. We took it and went to Oahu to reboot ourselves way outside our comfort zone and it was good. When it came time for me to work again, in addition to being the stay-at-home parent that I continue to aspire to be, I knew then it was time to go back to service. Wife and I talked about it extensively, and I applied to pretty much every restaurant on Oahu, but I had schedule conflicts with some, wasn’t cute enough for some, wasn’t quite the proper demographic for others, but in the end, one gave me a shot. And I spent over two years re-learning the industry and realizing that I actually do kind of fit in within it. I was accepted in Waikele and once again found that the same maxim that Leroy said when I was fourteen continued to hold true: “Do the work. Don’t be an asshole.” I loved my time there and it rekindled in me an excitement and honesty that my career in education began to lack in later years.
I like to think I was a decent teacher and administrator. I like to think that my students enjoyed my classes-I certainly hope that they did and that they got something out of them. I know that I did for many years. I loved teaching and I loved being a part of the life of the schools I was privileged enough to serve. That said, there were reasons I walked away when I did. I was tired of dealing with adults that couldn’t, or wouldn’t “do the work” when it came to caring for the kids and supporting teachers. I was tired of dealing with people who were just assholes. I was then and still remain to some extent, an idealist when it comes to education, but I find that experience much better managed through the spectrum of my own children and their lives.
A while back a friend asked me why I couldn’t go back to being a school administrator, instead of “just being a server.” I get asked that rather often actually, and the truth is that there’s nothing precluding me from attempting to return to that work. I feel like it was work I did and could do again, but just because I ‘can’ do something does not mean that I ‘should.’ I made a lot more money in education. But I spent almost no time with my family and time is the far more valuable commodity. And I rather like hanging onto my idealism.
If I’m honest, while I feel like I did my best and had some amazing moments and experiences with some fantastic students and adults, it’s not like anyone’s been knocking down my door to have me come back. I think School life and I left on about the best terms we were likely to leave on. There are days I really miss teaching. I tell a lot of stories about the old days at SKS and PJ and remember the best moments of my teaching career as real moments of collaboration with students and like-minded teachers.
When we left Oahu five years ago the kids were still little and needed my constant attention. We settled into our life here and when we’d gone through a few years of half-day kindergarten and preschool and then made it to the point that our youngest was in full-day school, the question once again arose, “So Kugs-whatcha gonna do now?”
And there was really no question. I still want to be the guy that gets to go on a field trip; to help out in the library; to cook colonial hoecakes on colonial day; to be the one that has to pick them up early for a doctor appointment; to be that guy who knows their friends and gets that smile when I am at school and they see me. I want to milk every minute of that joy they have when they see me at school and are excited to have me be a part of their life. My family is my life and my love and I am very blessed that I am able to be available for these formative years in the way that I am, but I’m only able to be this guy, because both my wife and my job get me and allow me to be pretty much “this guy.”
I tell people all the time that I drive past six places I could “do this work” in order to work where I do now, and it’s really true. I don’t know that I’m good at anything, but I know that now, at my advancing age, I’ve learned a number of things, none more important than this simple fact: I think I’m doing what I’m supposed to. Secondary to that is that dual facts that I like what I do, and maybe I don’t stink at it too bad.
It’s been 27 years since I started my first shift in the Back of House at the Inn. I had to do that math-to date, I’ve not stayed in the same position in any place longer than four years. That’s been my journey and I’m hopeful I will buck that trend with my work at MVI. I’ve been a Stay-at-home-dad for going on eight years now and I love what I’m able to do in that role. But I know now I would be an incomplete creature entirely if I didn’t have my place in the universe as a restaurant lifer. It’s more than what Leroy said 27 years ago. It’s far more. And it’s also not. It’s also very much exactly what Leroy said.
A lot of people have said a lot of things to me over the years. In the end-I love my wife and I love my children. I love my family. While there’s a lot I can do to serve them and our needs as a family, I think that maybe---just maybe---my being a restaurant guy-a lifer-a person focused on service, might just be the best ‘me’ that’s available. It’s a special thing being a restaurant lifer. It only took me a few decades to figure out that it is where I’m supposed to be. Who knows what I might have figured out when (or if) I really grow up? Not sure that’s likely, but I can do the work. I know that now and I can keep working on not being the other thing too.