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From the Ivory Tower Kitchen: Unrealistic Expectations?

As if it isn't enough that we have to not only ensure that the restaurant functions to the high standards of quality, ethics, and philanthropy we have set for ourselves, there is the obvious challenge of always keeping it profitable.
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The essence encapsulating the phrase If you want something done right, do it yourself may be a catalyst, but I sometimes wonder whether my expectations of employees and guests in our restaurant are unreasonable. I also sometimes wonder whether my expectations of my students in the classroom are unreasonable. Essentially, the standards I expect from others are no higher than what I've already set for myself. Practice what you preach is an equally commonly used phrase. Not doing so is a sign of hypocrisy at most and inconsistency at least.

There have been a few high-profile pieces on the darker sides of the restaurant business in the media lately. Most notably by Chef René Redzepi who wrote "Fantasies of a Happier Kitchen" followed by Chef David Chang's "The Culture of the Kitchen". Edward Frame, a former captain at a highly celebrated New York Restaurant wrote an essay "Dinner & Deception" about the trials and tribulations in the dining room. Even though the restaurant is unnamed in the piece, most people know.

As a teacher, I am used to single-handedly setting and subsequently maintaining the standards that I expect from my students. Of course, it is then my job to help all students achieve to their maximum potential, but ultimately, I am obligated to evaluate their performance fairly and often. I rarely read my student evaluations anymore (even though I am expected to and subsequently reflect on them in my annual reports) because despite the many positive ones, every negative evaluation leaves me with a sense of personal failure. The same used to be true about negative reviews of our restaurant, but when those are now made on public fora (review sites), I've chosen to largely ignore them. For sure, I don't dwell on them. But when we receive feedback from guests in private, we always take them seriously and consider all that we could do to mitigate similar negative performances on our part, in the future. The good thing about being around for seven years is that fewer outsiders tell us how to run our business (notice I didn't say they don't). We've always taken risks from the day we opened our doors in one of the most depressed economies in decades and in a town with no history of locally sourced, let alone globally inspired cuisine. In a few days, we will do so again as we re-invent ourselves for the better. We don't have middle management to absorb direct negative feedback from guests and employees. Naturally, we wear our emotions on our sleeves.

I often hear from outsiders looking in that as owners and creators of the business, we should naturally incur the most risk and investment. I agree, I get that, and that is how it is. It would also then follow that we get to set and uphold the standards of operation. As if it isn't enough that we have to not only ensure that the restaurant functions to the high standards of quality, ethics, and philanthropy we have set for ourselves, there is the obvious challenge of always keeping it profitable. To quote one online review, "Either the owners are independently wealthy or they are simply doing this as a hobby." To which we say "wrong and wrong" (the logical negation).

Finally, to the point of this piece. I've come to accept that it is impossible (unrealistic) to expect others to robotically execute to your own standards (high or low). To err is human - there's another one. I have a good grasp of interacting with the 17-22 age group because the vast majority of my students over the past 27 years of university teaching fall in that bracket. So, I think I have a good feeling for when an individual (especially the youngsters) in the restaurant is trying to cruise through or worse yet, being nefarious. Teaching moments are ideal, but sometimes, turnover is best for all parties involved. A healthy compensation notwithstanding, the free education is always included in the employment package. Ideally, all students will pass all their classes honestly and all employees will perform to minimum standards. But that's not the reality. It's a tough business for so many reasons. But, I wouldn't trade it for another professional midlife crisis.