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Common Foodsense: What Every Well-Seasoned Cook Should be Considering

I was bricking a grill the other day and thinking about the parts of my profession that I don’t like. This was not one of them. There’s something modestly satisfying about taking this odd substance (Where do they grow grill bricks? And how are they harvested?) and using it to turn a ghastly mess into something shiny and clean. Or cleanish, but you get the point. Of course, there are the fumes from the griddle and the occasional spatter of hot grease on the forearm, but few pleasures come unalloyed.

Sometimes a cook wants to rock out, sometimes play a violin for the whiners and sometimes, just scream.

The things that I find tiring are the ones that need to be patched up with duct tape, both the figurative and literal kinds. Tiny little leaks: The Sysco truck is stuck in traffic on 35E and will be 20 minutes late. You are going to start lunch with two orders of the special you’d planned. Do you come up with something else on the fly, or hope that the 20 minutes is accurate and tell the servers to speak veerrrry slooowly to buy more time? Or: Some idiot left the mahi-mahi on the loading dock for an hour in the summer sun; do you remember how to spell the poison that it generates so Google can tell you whether you’re going to kill anybody? Or: The charcutière, working on tomorrow’s pate didn’t listen to you as you told him how to open a bottle of champagne. The cork went straight up into an unprotected 6-foot fluorescent light, which burst with an amazing sound, and the glass dropped straight down into the employee meal (I got to see this one first-hand).

There should be some sort of spiritual law that restricts these crises to one a day. At least you’d come in knowing something was going to blow, and the only surprises would be the location, timing and number of megatons—and then it would be over for the day. In unfortunate fact, these little events tend to cluster like fruit flies around an abandoned mojito.

I have long maintained that the proper response to this is to cower beneath a blanket of superstition. When you’re feeling confident and fearless, avoid the temptation to say, "Well, we’re set for anything," or "What could possibly go wrong?" Honestly, now, do you want an answer? The time to ask forbidden questions is not in the middle of service; it is widely understood that this is when demons hang around the line, hunting for scraps. They’re more than willing to pause their search to help your inquiries. Don’t offer the opportunity.

Yet there are times when the peculiar vicissitudes of our business need to be stared right in the face. If you’ve imagined some of the things that can go wrong, you’ll take a precaution or two: Keep compound butters and IQF fish in the freezer so you’ll always have an instant special. Establish a receiving procedure that factors in the active prevention of histamine poisoning. (Did you remember the name? Full points if you called it "scromboid" instead). Cover your fluorescent lights with plastic shields and have the bartender open the damn champagne.

But what to do about $15 an hour?

I’m getting just a little tired of talking about this, you know. I’d like to get back to ranting about the scourge of single-use inventory, to enlivening the details of cost control by sprinkling it with some memories of the drug-soaked kitchens of San Francisco, and to prettying up the tedious task of recipe development. It’s hard to concentrate on dinner, though, when you’re sitting on a thumbtack.

Let’s not talk too much about the consequences for workers; they seem clear enough. With the majority of the Minneapolis city councilors holding firm against a tip credit, payrolls are going to explode and cooks and dishwashers will never get another raise. The tipped employees, though ostensible beneficiaries of this unwilling largesse, may find their employment upended: either automated away, or joining the wages of the back of the house in a newly tip-free environment. Service Compris. Bienvenue à la France.

The question for employers is whether to make a plan now, with the storm on the horizon, or whether to wait until the roof starts to blow off. You’ll notice a certain parallel here with asking questions in the middle of service. If you want to think of the worst that might happen, do it before it starts happening.

And as for suggestions, I don’t see any way to generalize. Fast food can automate, fast casual can raise prices, casual restaurants can fast-casualize (thus becoming fast-casualties), and fine dining can institute service charges. Or you can mix and match. Or something. But do think about it, and if it involves cutting jobs, send your plans to your local councilperson—just as a heads-up, in case they ever come to eat with you. Or come looking for a job. Or just want to hang around the line, looking for scraps. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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