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The Squander Logs: #002

Posted Sep 22 2012 12:00am

The Squander Logs:  A series of anonymous interviews/conversations specific to food production, cooking and service. The identity of an interview subject is something I do not plan to intentionally reveal at any point, and the acquisition of an interviewee falls into one of three categories that will also not be revealed but are meant to minimize my influence in the acquisition and promote diversity within the subject pool. Anonymity serves various purposes that include but are not limited to:

1-     To keep the dialogue as honest, spontaneous and unedited as possible.

2-     To avoid some of the complexities inherent to self-promotion, cross-promotion, gratuitous social media competition, shark-jumping, over-saturation and various agendas/coalitions geared towards monetizing every aspect of the food community.

3-     To squander what would otherwise be a perfectly great opportunity to capitalize on my connections within the food community and drive traffic to this blog, just because I thought it sounded like a good way to follow a path through the Kansas City food community that creates itself without the same predictable and well-worn stops along the way.

Category: Type 2

Location: Midwest

Industry: Cooking

Topic: Employees

ME:  How do you think that customers view you vs. how your staff views you?

002:  That’s a good one to start off with.

ME:  Yeah, goes deep.

002:  I know a  lot of people that come here that maybe don’t know who I am, they’ll ask the staff is the owner here and they’ll point over to me over at the expo station and they’ll see me and be surprised.  I think I’m really really lucky to have what I think is probably one of the better staffs in the entire city. Our core group of servers especially are probably four of the strongest servers in the city that all work here…all of them started as part time and now they’re all full time. They kind of were feeling it out, and they make a lot of money here and people love them.

ME:  As far as popularity goes with restaurants in general, do you think that a popular chef is better off or worse off when it comes to finding solid help?

002:  I think that really solid help is just difficult to find in this city regardless.  Speaking from my own personal experience, getting really interested in food at the time when I did, your only option at that time was to go work at the one or two really good restaurants at the time or to move away to go work at a “real restaurant”.  So here, you get a lot of really good people that come from places that they don’t have good experience. They’re nice people, they’re trustworthy, they want to work hard, but they just don’t know the difference between working at, like, a shitty bar and grill and working at a place that’s trying to be a good restaurant.

ME:  That brings up a good question, what kind of balance do you look for between experience and passion?  Where can somebody with experience fuck you up, or someone with too much passion end up doing the same thing?

002:  I think that when you run a place that’s really busy or there’s some hype, there’s not as much interest in having a project, whether it’s an intern or really young guy or girl that just wants to get some experience by being in the kitchen..  I’m not really interested in n that.  I know some of my chef friends like to have some of those people around.  I really don’t have time for that shit.

ME:  When I go out, nine if not ten times out of ten it’s from word of mouth.  I’m a word of mouth diner. Are you a word of mouth employer?

002:  We haven’t had very much kitchen turnover at all. Had to fire a couple of guys early on, but a lot of people have been here since the beginning.  I’ve been really, really lucky. The number one frustration is dealing with a different level of passion depending on the type of cook.  A lot of people cook for a paycheck rather than a craft or the love of cooking or love of food, and a really good way to tell that is by bringing in stacks and stacks of cookbooks and finding out which one of them takes them home and even looks at them.

ME:  When it comes to your cooks…their input on a menu, ad-libbing, collaboration, where are you with all of that?

002:  A lot of people come in and are cooking a different type of food they just don’t have any experience with, it can be really new to people.  Food they’ve never cooked or even eaten, different sauces, ethnic identities, so there’s not a lot of collaboration right now but it’s definitely something that I’m open to and would like to see.

ME:  With your experience in other cities, do you have any lessons from the past from other kitchens where now you’re waiting for the shoe to drop….what are you guarding against and what habits are you trying to instill?

002:  Really good questions.  You don’t really need to see their FLAIR; I just want them to do what I need them to do all the time. What I tell them to do on slow nights is to still try to do everything as fast and as good as possible every single time, because then it creates a sense memory. You’ll never do it slower; you’ll never do it dirtier, because you always know how to do it like that. And that’s something that’s really hard for some cooks, be it laziness or being lackadaisical, you want them to always make it nice and that’s something that’s hard to do with the volume of food we do…. I never anticipated having tumbleweeds blowing through the restaurant, but I also didn’t think we’d do this number of covers on a Saturday night. Sure, it’s not all complicated stuff going out but it’s another plate that someone is going to eat.

ME:  It’s still one more thing for people to pick apart!

002:   Absolutely, absolutely.

ME:  I know a few cooks and servers, and this is probably just my own imagined reality based on the teevee, but there’s that front and back of the house rivalry….as far as keeping the peace is that just myth or is it something that can really become an issue?

002:  To me, that front vs. the back is a thing of the past. I’ve hated some servers before. Hard. But that’s something that for me is in the past. Especially as an owner, now these are people that whether you want it or not basically become your family. You see them all the time.

I’ll give you two examples that just happened….I told everyone in a staff meeting that this will never be a place that you get bullied by the customers, this will never be a place where the customer is always right, and this will never be a place where you have tire marks on the backs of your shirts.  I will go to bat for all of you every single time if I think you’re right and you’re doing what’s right for the business.  The other night a guy came in and was pretty drunk when he got here; got a little drunker while he was here. He was being a real dick to our hostess who does a great job. We got word of it and went over and told him “this isn’t a place where you get to do that and your night is done here”.  He wanted to continue the conversation about it, so we all went outside and I stepped in when I thought I needed to step in and told him “these are people I’ve been working with on a daily basis, and if three of them tell me the same thing I’m going to go ahead and take their word over your drunken word since I’ve only known you for three minutes.  So you need to go, and we can call people if you want to make this a bigger issue, but right now you’re just fucking out of here and you need to be out of here”.  So of course he did the whole “well we’re never fucking coming back here”….well, fantastic, you’re a dick and I don’t fucking want you to!

Then yesterday a guy came in and just wants to change the whole menu because he’s so smart and knows so much about the food. “Just do a grilled skirt steak or something”…well, we don’t have that.  Just shit like that, giving the server a hard time, and so he’s like “why don’t you just send the chef out?”  And she says okay, and comes back, and I go over there and I’m like “I’ve been beckoned by someone! Who beckoned me?”

ME:  Me personally, I just don’t know where THAT comes from…..just a control tactic, dick measuring?  It’s just so foreign to me to treat people like that.

002:  And what you do is you totally spin it on them… you came through my doors, you’re in my house right now. You don’t get to dirty up my house.

So he goes into how his kids need a special kids menu, what can they order?  They can order anything on the menu, they’re not restricted. Or we could make them a grilled cheese or something, and he goes “well my daughter is kind of allergic to cheese”.  I started laughing and asked “she’s KIND of allergic?”…”well no, she’s actually allergic to cheese”.  What the fuck?  So, she can have some chips and I’ll give her a pile of chicken or whatever she can eat.  But we don’t have chicken tenders and mac n’ cheese.

ME:  That’s hilarious.  I don’t have a bad meal in this town. I know who to ask, where to go, and when you don’t assert yourself, you treat people normally and you tip well, you’re golden.  Just staying off the radar not asking for special shit, tipping well and repeat business, I mean, isn’t that the formula. That’s funny, my initial question for you before I tried to make it fancy comparing customer and employee views of you was, what makes a good customer?

002:  I think it’s just someone who is open to the experience. I mean, this is really, really fucking hard to do.  People have zero idea how much fucking money it costs to build out a place. You can walk into any turnkey restaurant on 39th and you could go to Thomas and four months later it could be Randy’s and they could do nothing to change it and it STILL costs money…it still takes time to get a new liquor license and to build an identity.  When you’re building a place from the ground up and every single thing is something you’ve chosen, it’s an insane amount of energy and time and care and money and effort, and it takes a lot of people to make that happen.

ME:  When I did the first one of these it was about foodies.  In your opinion, how responsible is a customer for having feelings about ANY of that?  Is respect enough?  Is it an asshole who says “it’s not my fucking deal, I’m here to have a meal, your walls look nice, what do you want me to do?”

002:  The people who do this and do this really well, you have to have the balls to say this is what I like, this is the type of food I like, the drinks I like and I want you to come in and like it.  I’m not someone who thinks food is ART, there are definitely creative and passionate elements to it, but its food, you eat it and shit it out. But there’s a part of it where you zip yourself open and put your guts out there and hope people like it. That’s why it’s insanely offensive to have someone come in and just flippantly say “this sucks” or “I don’t like it”…do you have any idea how hard this is?

ME:  If you don’t like something you can articulate it….well I didn’t like it because you over-roasted the shit out of this, or this sauce has too much of something…

002:  And that’s totally valid. We do so many covers, to say one thing came out and it was too salty….

ME:  Kansas City is really scene based as far as a lot of this goes, and I mean, how much flack do you think you catch from the foodie elite over your clientele?

002:  That’s really funny because you can be tagged as a place to be seen, or for soccer moms, or hipsters or the elite, old people….you know what? Those are the fucking people who go out to eat!   If I opened a place only trying to reach a demographic like the people who eat at The River Club, I’d be fucked.  I have a lot of friends who cook or are bartenders or servers, and I like to not only draw from that pool of people, but we’re lucky because for whatever reason we have people from Prairie Village and Leawood and Mission Hills who LOVE this place.

ME:  And you have to know the next “THING” is going to come along, and what’s going to sustain you is the food.  One thing, you kind of touched on it, where is that point between creating an INSPIRED dish and you just want to fucking crank out a reproducible product every single time.

002:  That’s a balance I don’t even think we’ve found yet.  Before you’re doing anything, you’re trying to see what your cooks can produce on a large scale over and over and over and have it be good every time.  I can put some super fancy shit on the menu, and they can fuck it up every time and it costs me money and people don’t like it and that becomes our identity.  What I like to do is make things I like to eat. Things I would want to go out and have.  Our newer menus will probably be a little smaller, a little weirder, pushing the boundary a little bit.

ME:  How do you depend on your staff for your work life balance?

002:  There are a lot of parts to that question. Part of it is you have a really brief conversation with people you have in authority, in management positions and tell them that if I don’t feel comfortable leaving here knowing that things are going to be okay, then I will fire you.  If I can’t be gone, have to be here all the time, what the fuck do I need you here for?  I’ve said this to people before, that I don’t expect you to care as much as I do, it’s unrealistic because their ass and their money isn’t on the line. If the place goes out of business they can go and get another job and I’m fucked.  At the same time, being someone who is funny or fun to work with or for, that inspires a general notch above other places…

ME:  People want to have your back.

002:  They do, they do.  And going to bat for people…I told the hostess when the guy was being a dick to her, nobody EVER gets to treat you like that here. That never happens. They’ll be out on the street.  We have your back. Those little instances instill so much care and more like family.

ME:  As someone who has done a lot of people management…people, customers, I just wrote down this phrase “blood in the water”.  In order to support that work/life balance you’re going to have to cut some heads from time to time in-house, but it sounds like that can be applied to asshole customers too.

002:  Absolutely.

ME:  If you string somebody up and gut them in front of the staff, toss them out, there’s your credibility in spades.

002:  One night we just had one of those really, really rough services where things were just going bad on every level.  I took the cooks outside and sat them down and started talking to them about what this place meant to me, and asking them what they thought it cost to open a place that looks and feels like this….ten grand? Forty? Four hundred?  I told them, in order to get THAT money back before anybody starts MAKING money, you have to produce and it has to be really good.  I’m an emotional person, and I just sat there and cried…either showed them care or weakness or strength or however you want to view it, and basically said this place really fucking matters and I need you to care about it. And if you don’t go work at fucking Recordbar or fucking Gilhouley’s and sling fucking drinks. Whatever you want to fucking do, but don’t ruin THIS.

ME:  Cut my teeth at Gilhouley’s.  Mid 90’s, good times, lots of FBI surveillance going on at the time.

002:  I don’t know if I’m allowed to go back there after a night I had.

ME:  I always have to ask one gossipy thing.  When it comes to lessons you’ve learned, have you learned any of them from the mistakes other chefs have made in this town?  Any common threads?

002:  The few owners that I know…all of the people I know who run kitchens tend to put out.  If I have a mini-feud with someone, instead of trying to attack their business, I just don’t go there or talk about it and try to run my business really, really well to make it annoying for them.

ME:  No matter who you hate or whatnot, it seems like in this town you just let people hang themselves instead of going around naming names. The dumbest thing you could do is have a vendetta and shop it all around town.

002:  I see how some people act, and you have got to be really, really, really talented and amazing to overcome a bad attitude.  I’m all for confidence and I’m all for feeling really good about where you’re at, but at the same time if you hate everybody and everybody is a dick you WILL go out of business.

ME:  If everyone is an asshole, chances are you are the problem.

002:  Yeah.

ME:  Talent can only make up for so much asshole behavior.  To some degree you probably end up establishing a persona, an image, over time, and you can throw a bit of the FUCK YOU out there….but you’ve earned it and you know how to do that dance.  Too many people lack the social skills to know where that balance is.

002:  The single best thing I’ve done is maintaining and developing collaborations with people that I like, who have done cool stuff, they’ve helped my identity as a person and as a business.  Having our crew of people…I don’t have to spend time and energy talking shit about people because I have too much stuff on my plate where I’m developing things with people I like and respect. I don’t have time for that shit.

ME:  I always get to this phase and call it the random shit part of the interview; it’s a little less cerebral.  So, say some bad things about Yelp.

002:  You know, as a person who cares about what you do and what your business is, you want to read that shit. You want to read what people are saying. So rarely is it a sounding board for people who are educated or have any idea about running this type of business.  You kind of go through phases with Yelp or Urbanspoon where it’s like, when you first open, you just want to see what everyone is saying. Maybe they love it, or they hate it, and I get pissed. But now I’ve taken to…I don’t look at it at all or read it at all.  Part of that comes from, you’ll see two reviews that are one star, they hated absolutely everything about it, it starts to fuck with your head a bit…

ME:  And then if they just misspell shit…..

002:  Then immediately what I do is click on twenty other things they’ve reviewed and it’s all one star…..from a dog grooming place, to fucking Blockbuster, to Chili’s, and everything is horrible, everything sucks.

Longman and Eagle in Chicago totally killed it by printing their Yelp reviews on coasters where people are like “everything about it sucked”  and they just take all of the power away from you.

ME:  That is awesome!

002:  They’re showing people, here is one way to show everyone how stupid you are.

ME:  I understand in a digital age the need for it.  If I want to see a map, hours of operation, a picture of a fucking menu, that’s pretty much what I use it for. And you can read between the lines with the reviews and get something from them, but what I view it as becoming is kind of like a corrupt union….”if we get enough of us Yelpers together we can get them to do whatever the fuck we want them to DO!”.

002:  There was an article a while back, I can’t be certain if it was San Francisco or Portland, but basically that’s what they did. A group of about thirty or forty people that Yelped a lot went to businesses and told them you need to discount our meals or we’re going to try and ruin your businesses by Yelping about you.

ME:  Holy shit.

002:  They should have a situation where you can write a one star review and trash a place, but the next day you have to go and introduce yourself to the owner and see what happens.

ME:  From what I know, there’s generally going to be a difference in the treatment of a well-known restaurant critic when they come in your place, but when you come in as a nobody and depend on power in numbers to bully, that’s just insane.

002:  It’s just a site that I don’t pay attention to at all.  I try to say to all of my friends, I’m an open, open, open book that if somebody comes in here and something isn’t good, whether it’s food or service or whatever the fuck it is, I hope my friends like me enough and care about my business enough to tell me something just didn’t hit it.  I’m open like that.  I don’t have an ego to where I’m like, NOPE! Everything is perfect!  I’m sure you just didn’t like how perfect it was.

ME:  If a little thing is off with a dish or something, and it’s a busy night and it’s just a matter of temperature, then that stuff isn’t worth mentioning. But if I see something that is symptomatic….if I’m in a few times and start to see a common thread, then I’ll say something. Honestly, I’m just pretty easy to please.

002:  A friend of mine came in and later they told me about an issue with one of my servers when they were taking their order.  I asked the person, “Did you do that? Do you know that you’re doing that? Because if so you won’t be working here”.

ME:  When you go out of your way to accommodate dietary restrictions, NOT death from peanuts or something, but more like I MIGHT be allergic to cheese….how much of that is really out of concern and how much is you know you could fuck up your image by being the I’M OUT TO POISON MOTHERFUCKERS guy?

002:  Gluten allergies are easy enough to accommodate, and that’s popular these days, but so much of the time I think people are lying…I’m allergic to cilantro? Just say you don’t like it. I have zero problem if you just don’t like it. I don’t like raw mushrooms, I won’t order them.  As cooks then you start to play this game….you’re allergic to onions?  So you can’t have anything with stock in it? Bullshit!  If someone says they are really allergic to peanuts, I eat a lot of peanuts and we have them in the restaurant, so I say that if you are deathly allergic I probably wouldn’t eat here at all.  I don’t want to kill you.  You just play the game I guess.

ME:  As things stand in KC right now, what is a dish to you that needs to be eaten often?  Off the top of your head, what is a crazy good bite of food to eat right now?

002:  People are very, very surprised where I like to go…

ME:  Are you kidding me? Dude,  (TOP CHEF IN KC’S NAME REDACTED) fucking loves Olive Garden.

002:  To me personally, and you can fuck off if you don’t like it, but one of my favorite meals in town is to go to Jack Stack in the Freighthouse and I have consistently the best meal and the best service every single time.  Grilled shrimp appetizer, Caesar Salad, split the big sampler platter, and then have that huge fucking chocolate dessert.  It’s awesome every time. I love it.

ME:  Love their lamb ribs, onion rings.  I love goddamn Red Lobster.

002:  Yeah, those cheddar bay biscuits.  I went to Houston’s the other night…

ME:  Chicken fingers at Houston’s!

002:  We had a really, really, really good meal.

ME:  I don’t know if they still have it, it’s been on and off the menu over the years, but they do a Hawaiian steak, just a marinated ribeye that is just the shit….  Anyway, is there a piece of produce that you wish was in season 365 days per year?

002:  I think as a cook it’s almost like there’s a double edged sword. If it was available all the time then you don’t appreciate it as much. I think the first time you see really, really good tomatoes; it’s so good to work with fresh and good tomatoes. But at the same time, if they were awesome year around it would be just like Driscoll strawberries.

ME:  Any food, foodie or chef trends right now that you’re done with?

002:  Seasonal. Seasonal American food has been boring for a long time.  I remember at one point last year going online and printing off menus.  I took off the fonts, the logos and just printed the menus and seven out of nine had a beet risotto.  It’s hard enough to get people to come back over and over and over to your restaurant, but especially if you’re all serving the same thing.

ME:  When something becomes the tuna tartare of its day.

002:  I just want to try and have something that nobody else does.  Seasonal American can become so boring.

ME:  Is seasonal and American something that really needs to be advertised?

002:  No, you’re right, it doesn’t. I think people are still just holding onto that, housewives..”Are you SEASONAL?”.

ME:  Chefs I know, seasonal is kind of a given.  Is it going to be December and that night’s special is heirloom gazpacho?  Kind of like organic…if you have to keep saying organic to me I’m going to start questioning it. Goes back to the onion allergy….you can’t have stock?  I start to get legalistic.

002:  It’s a good point that you bring up. What if it IS winter and I really want to serve tomato soup and a grilled cheese?  I don’t want to NOT be able to do it because my customers would say it’s not seasonal.  I think we’ve come full circle to where we’re back to something like fusion…it’s funny to say that, but a guy who really sticks out in my head is David Chang.  He wants to make that kind of food with whatever ingredients he wants, and from Grant Achatz to Adria, you start getting into that…well seasonal is seasonal and local is local but what if the seasonal local peaches aren’t NEARLY as good as the ones you can get from Georgia or wherever?  If you are truly wanting to give THE best and offer the best you’ll use the best product no matter where you can get it from.   If you’re seasonal and you’re local, you basically say to your customers that for two months of the year I want to give you the best thing I can give you. For the rest of the year I don’t really care.  I just have to get what I can get.

ME:  I just have to give you one out of left field to end with because I have to. This cracked me up thinking about it…..celebrity chefs.  Think of that show Jackass, you know how they spring shit on people?

002:  Yeah, kick someone in the nuts or something.

ME:  If you could get a goddamn celebrity chef of your choice who could get surprise teabagged…who would it be?

002:  Probably Paula Deen!

ME:  Ohhh, goddammit! That’s exactly… I thought about Paula Deen the whole time!

002:  Yeah, Paula Deen.  I watched that video over and over where they’re doing an event and they’re tossing turkeys into the back of a semi and she turns her head for a split second to wave at the camera and takes a ham to the face.

ME:  It’s so hilarious that you say Paula Deen because I was thinking of this whole scenario if you said Paula Deen because I think it would backfire….because that twisted old broad…

002:  Yeah, she’d get up  on it.

ME:   “Look at those BALLS!”  “Have you seen those BALLS?!?!”, but spelled B-A-W-L-S…

002:  BAWLS!

ME:  Have you seen BAWLS like that!  Oh my GAWD, y’all!  Get me some black ones and some white ones and everythin’ else up in here!

002:  I think now knowing so many different people in my life who have been on reality TV shows….and I’ve met Tyler Florence and different people, and in real life they’re all really, really fucking cool.  You know, you have to be a character when you’re on TV, they turn you into something, they edit, make you look like a douchebag.  Guy Fieri should be one of the coolest guys in the world. He gets to do whatever he wants!  Why would he be a dick and why would you hate him?  I see Michael Symon, the chef from Cleveland, doing commercials.  You could put anybody in a room, any of the KC chefs we know,  and say that hey we’re doing a commercial for Lay’s potato chips and the first person to raise their hand gets four million dollars.  I’d raise my hand fast as fuck!  Until you’re presented with that opportunity or until you know what that situation is like, fuck off if you’re going to judge somebody.  Do you know how many chefs work for 30 to 38 thousand dollars for years and years and years…and you’re telling me that if you get a little popularity if they offer you a huge check that basically says your kids and your kids’ kids are going to be okay or don’t have to pay for college, or you can pay off your house…I would do that in a millisecond.

ME:  It’s that whole Rachael Ray billionaire syndrome.  Oh, back to the Paula Deen thing and playing a character…who do you think thought it was a good idea to have both of her sons play characters from that “To Catch a Predator” show?  At what point did someone say, hey, let’s get a couple of dudes who really seem like child molesters?  Have you seen Alton Brown in those weird grape commercials…

002:  Yeah, Welch’s. God!

ME:  Me and my wife are sitting there saying he’s starting to look like a toucher.

002:  And I’ve actually heard he’s a total dick.

ME:  Kind of pretentious, like when you see him on that stupid Food Network Star show, seems like a huge douche.

002:  He probably is.

ME:  But you’re right, Guy Fieri should be the coolest sonofabitch in the world though, because to me that is living the dream.

002:  We were watching No Reservations last night or the night before, and Anthony Bourdain should be the coolest guy ever. He should be, and I think he’s at least pretty cool or tries to be.

ME:  He’s got those BAWLS!

002:  Got those BAWLS!  Paula Deen!

 

 

 

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