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Personality traits in The Life


Fat Guy
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Over the past decade I've acquired a few friends in the food-service business aka The Life. I guess this is the natural outcome of being in a related field, food writing, where there's so much interaction with those in the biz. I love my restaurant-industry friends -- one of them is even my BFF -- but I've noticed they almost all share certain personality attributes, some of which are just quirky and others of which make friendship harder work than it needs to be.

For example, I've noticed that people in the business are overwhelmingly not planners. If you want to see them, you need to do it on a same-day basis -- usually a same-minute basis. You're not going to get a commitment for three weeks from now. I think The Life may attract non-planners in the first place, because each day in a restaurant you start fresh, and it also probably reinforces the trait because when people with a similar trait cluster together that tends to happen.

Any other observations on restaurant-business personality traits?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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well FG, i don't think that we're non-planners...it is just that "the life" tends to make it impossible to plan. you never know when one of your staff is going to call in sick or when the chef needs you to be at work because a restaurant critic happens to be dining there that evening...

obviously this is more the case with people in management positions as opposed to the typical line cook.

i think people in "the life" tend to be pretty carefree about a lot of things outside of work. because they spend so much time at work, they tend to enjoy any free time they have. they don't worry too much about the future (how can they when they earn next to nothing?) and tend to live in the moment.

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I think it's broader than unexpected events or compensating for an intense work environment. Twenty-five years after leaving the life, I've recently been spending a lot of time in restaurant kitchens, and I think Steven is on to something when he suggests that certain personality types are attracted to restaurants and restaurant kitchens. I think this because I'm terrible about appointments -- it's been a lifelong struggle to figure out a system that works -- and I miss working in a restaurant kitchen to this day. (Hardly conclusive, of course.)

It's not just social commitments. When I set up an interview -- in person -- with a line cook or chef, I have to make the date, then confirm about three minutes later. The cook -- if he's on his game -- will confirm about five minutes after that. I've also found it helpful to reconfirm before leaving, because he's almost certainly forgotten that I've even been there. All the while, my future interviewee is furiously spooning molten butter over three-inch dayboat scallops, with an immutable mental timer counting down inside his head, or carving a filet of 24-dollar-a-pound Yukon River salmon according to a topological algorithm that would defy Stephen Hawking.

Therefore, a reminder email that evening is a good idea.

Finally, the day of the appointment, I try not to forget to call ahead before I leave home, just to make sure. If I'm lucky, the worst that will happen is that the subject will remember our date before asking me to stop and pick up some organic beet juice on my way.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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I don't think us restaurant folk are non-planners. Very much the opposite as in planning for that private party while balancing that schedule to write for both FOH and BOH, keeping in mind who has requested what day off and whether or not to award same. Then there are deliveries, orders to place and to check on how much produce has been used up with that sudden hit as a result of extended play off games (thinking of the Mojitos/Caipirinhas! lol Someone has to!) venturing whether or not I'd have to make a run to Restaurant Depot a day or two down the road.....

Social plans? That occurs at the end of the shift when all are tired and ready for a cocktail, if there is still somewhere open and serving. If not, then it is time busily spent figuring out who has the booze and is able to host an afterwork drink with the sodden bunch.

As for making appointments, most in this biz have a sliding schedule (liquor reps, purveyors, etc.) and it seems to work out well. Those "outsider" buddies just have to learn to understand this is a dynamic, lively thing and doesn't exactly fall into a neat time frame to set up on the PalmOne. (Though I do make an earnest effort, truly!)

Line cooks or management. Feh. Someone will call off. Someone will be called into duty. Someone will get fired. Someone may hurt themself on the job.

Get the picture? :wink:

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Well which came first the chicken or the egg? were we non-planners before we started into this life or are we a product of its environment? i would sway to the side of us being a product of our environments. planning my days outside the kitchen are easy, but in the kitchen, sometimes its a waste of energy.

i had a woman who i work for break down to me the efficencies of a purely proactive person, a purely reactive person, and one who is somewhere in the middle. i think that people in the business tend to be 90% reactive based on the stimuli of our environment with the massive amount of variables it can throw us in a second's notice. you can be proactive and start doing your MEP 3 days out before a large event, but then 2 cooks don't show, one goes to the hospital after the tilt kettle's latch broke spilling 150L of boiling fish fumet over him, the drains in the floor back up and start seeping sewage, you have a health department inspection, and they bumped up the count by 150...

But i will agree with FG about us having certain personality traits in common. we are like moths to the flame. i can only speak about BOH, but we seemingly tend to be night people, overly emotionional and often mellow dramatic, and addicted to stress and adrenaline.

Edited by andrewB (log)
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I'm not sure I buy the unpredictability/impossible-to-plan theory. Lots of jobs are unpredictable. Try being a litigation attorney, or working in a hospital, or for a newspaper, or administering a website that operates 24/7 (those are the other pools from which most of my friends derive). You make plans. If you have to cancel, you cancel. It's not hard. But I've found that restaurant people -- both FOH and BOH, and especially the ones without kids -- often feel it's too burdensome even to keep a calendar. So I think the business attracts that sort of person, in large part because of the reboot that happens each day, and then I think once in The Life the pattern is reinforced because the workplace culture favors it.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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and addicted to stress and adrenaline.

I would go a step beyond and say that BOH people tend to have generally addictive personalities as well as being emotional and even often manic.

Tobin

It is all about respect; for the ingredient, for the process, for each other, for the profession.

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Purely as an aside, don't prostitutes also consider themselves in "the life"?

I knew there was something nagging in the back of my head at that term.

From "Cassell's Dictionary of Slang":

life, the - 1. the world of prostitution 2. (1910s) the criminal underworld 3.(1940s+) the subculture of crime, pimping, drug dealing etc. that makes up the underworld of the streets 4. (1950s+) (gay) the world of homosexuality 5. (1960s) (drugs) the world of drug addiction.

Well, well.

:laugh:

A sixth definition must be added, obviously.

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Well, I am going to have to dissent here. People who work in restaurants are compulsive planners. Prep, purchases, reservations, sidework, etc. Plan, plan, plan.

They are also incredibly flexible. They don't take it personally when all the prep goes to hell in a handbasket.

And it will.

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Well, I am going to have to dissent here. People who work in restaurants are compulsive planners. Prep, purchases, reservations, sidework, etc. Plan, plan, plan.

They are also incredibly flexible. They don't take it personally when all the prep goes to hell in a handbasket.

And it will.

Yea, I tend to agree with this. At least the first part. Myself, I am a borderline obsessive compulsive when it comes to planning. Everything, and I mean e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g needs to be in perfect order and succession, both when at work and not. My almost OCD is multiplied 100 fold at work, for which most of my fellow cooks don't care for. Outside of work, planning is essential, down the minute most times. Schedule, schedule, plan, plan, plan, backup plan, backup plan.

As for "they don't take it personally when all the prep goes to hell...", that doesn't work for me. God help the person who touches my mis en place, my prep, my knives, my parsley, my salt and pepper, and most of all, my side towels. F*cking with another chef's mis en place is the absolute worst kitchen sin you could commit. You had better be prepared to thoroughly defend yourself from anything after you walk away with my deli of salt.

-Chef Johnny

John Maher
Executive Chef/Owner
The Rogue Gentlemen

Richmond, VA

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I wouldn't necessarily equate being organized -- especially just in the time frame of one shift or for handoff to another shift -- with being a planner. That stuff is tactical, it's a sprint. It's the next-week/month strategy, the distance running, that seems to be a problem for people in The Life. As in, making a date for the 15th of next month. I don't think just because someone keeps his station really neat and can keep track of 12 hot app orders at once, that he's a planner. He's just well organized.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Eh, seafood purchase called in a week out? Tourist season coming in three months from now, and winding down now? You know you are going to lose employees to attrition - so overhire now. Holiday's coming up, who ya gonna call? Passover next month and how much chicken soup will you need? Lovely Rita got knocked up and won't be able to handle the big trays in two months?

The best I've known are long term planners, including contingencies. It may be that a personal life is not a priority. It can't be if you are never at home at meal time, or a holiday for that matter.

But, that's just my opinion, and it's been ages since I worked in "the life." <giggle>

FOH is not that divergent from prostitution, come to think of it...

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When a working environment of any sort becomes known as "The Life" in everyday language, an impossible generalization and glossing-over of reality occurs.

Things take on a narrative tenor with hints of romanticism lurking round the edges of a world surmised in the listener's mind as one with perhaps dangerous or at least unknown qualities, far apart from their own lives. The quality of Bohemian vs. Bourgeois enters the scene.

People who work in restaurants are not different than people who work in the stock market, or in a factory, or even perhaps as prostitutes. They come in all sizes and shapes. They are female and male. Some have families that they put first, some put work first, some just don't put anything first but wander along doing their best to enjoy the day.

The romantic image as attached to the restaurant life or to that of being a chef does allow one to use the excuse of certain personality traits if one wishes to, of course. These supposed personality traits have been a traditional refuge from whatever one wishes refuge from in other "artistic" mondes and demi-mondes (let's just slip on that little black silk negligee with those words, too - using monde and demi-monde rather than "worlds" gives a little shiver of pleasurable excitement that hints at a bit of the ooh la la of The Life) since forever.

Great refuge if wanted, tossed round with black silk lingerie and clocks that don't work and calendars that can get lost when wanted.

Ah, The Life.

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The traits I have noticed are extreme attention to detail. The focus a line cook has when plating a dish, the waitron when crumming a table, the manager when making a schedule. The candle that is 1/2 an inch out of place, driving you crazy if you don't fix it.

Many hats. How we can feel comfortable eating a chunk of porterhouse, hot from the grill, while standing at the pass while blood and fat drips from our elbow, or sitting down for a 20ish course dinner. Be charming and graceful for hours waiting on patrons, then afterwork live sordid stories of depraved sex, copious drugs, and booze all to the tune of an AC/DC song.

Masochism. Burns, cuts, patrons, management, employees, schedules, late nights and brutal hangovers, sweat, stress, extreme heat and cold, brunch, smoking, not being able to smoke for hours, never ending shifts, the weeds, standing around not doing anything, aching feet and knees popping like pistol shots, salt in the cuts on your hands and lime juice in your eye, never getting through a cup of coffee while it's hot, slamming scalding espresso down your throat to get jacked enough to make it through.

Sucking the marrow from life. The rapture of a perfectly cooked vegetable, the nirvana of an ice cold beer and twofingers of methuslem at last call (which is your first call), sitting around with your comrades in arms, three beers in and howling with laughter at the escapades of the night before, or the ever surprising foibles and stupidity of the general public. I would rather eat and drink with cooks and bartenders because they love food and drink more than every body else.

A burning desire to please people. Thats what we do, and are good at it. I might extrapolate that people IN THE LIFE make the best lovers. When you throw a party and it's all restaurant people, who should be sick to death of each other since they spend so much time together at work, they never go to the kitchen to get a beer without asking who else wants one, they will bum you their last smoke, give you the shirt off their back if you're cold, cook you food if you're hungry, (even though they spend 100 hours a week cooking) they will roll up their sleeves and do your dishes, empty the ashtrays the next day even though it turns their queasy, hungover stomachs, and generally pitch in and get the s$#t done. We have the ability to take a diverse group of people and accomplish a common goal by using everybody's strengths and covering for all weaknesses.

Exceptional manners. I think it is because we spend so much time in such cramped space, under so much pressure with people, that even if you snap at some one you apologize, and buy them 10 drinks later. We open doors for each other, tip lavishly, genuinely thank people for their hard work since we all know that it's the dishwasher and busboy who work the hardest and are the backbone of every restaurant. Without them we're lost.

This is of course broad strokes, there are exceptions to every generalisation.

Toby

In process of adding things.

Edited by Alchemist (log)

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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Ahh, toby. Where have you been all my life? Yes, extreme attention to detail. So much that it makes you crazy.

All that is what I remember.

Yes, there are plans. But, they can change.

The weeds. the darned weeds. the godforsaken weeds. I hated the weeds.

The only thing I hated more, was admitting, wide eyed, that I was in the weeds.

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But remember how good it felt once you got out of the weeds, when you had time to stop moving for 5 seconds, guzzle a couple of glasses of water, survay the damage done to your station, and check to see if you are bleeding anywhere.

The sense of accomplishment at survivng the weeds puffs up your chest, and gives you the energy to soldier on, with a beer on the at the finish line, you take a deep breath, and start cleaning, or bandaging your poor, battered hands, and then start cleaning.

I guess it falls under the theory of "if you bang your self in the head with a hammer, it feels really, really good when you stop". Embrace the weeds, love the weeds, live for the weeds.

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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When a working environment of any sort becomes known as "The Life" in everyday language, an impossible generalization and glossing-over of reality occurs.

Things take on a narrative tenor with hints of romanticism lurking round the edges of a world surmised in the listener's mind as one with perhaps dangerous or at least unknown qualities, far apart from their own lives. The quality of Bohemian vs. Bourgeois enters the scene.

People who work in restaurants are not different than people who work in the stock market, or in a factory, or even perhaps as prostitutes. They come in all sizes and shapes. They are female and male. Some have families that they put first, some put work first, some just don't put anything first but wander along doing their best to enjoy the day.

The romantic image as attached to the restaurant life or to that of being a chef does allow one to use the excuse of certain personality traits if one wishes to, of course. These supposed personality traits have been a traditional refuge from whatever one wishes refuge from in other "artistic" mondes and demi-mondes (let's just slip on that little black silk negligee with those words, too - using monde and demi-monde rather than "worlds" gives a little shiver of pleasurable excitement that hints at a bit of the ooh la la of The Life) since forever.

Great refuge if wanted, tossed round with black silk lingerie and clocks that don't work and calendars that can get lost when wanted.

Ah, The Life.

Ooh la la aside, while one can sub "world" for "monde" and perhaps still retain the same meaning, "demi-monde" means exactly what it means-try saying "half-world" and see if anyone has any idea what you're talking about.

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Ooh la la aside, while one can sub "world" for "monde" and perhaps still retain the same meaning, "demi-monde" means exactly what it means-try saying "half-world" and see if anyone has any idea what you're talking about.

Ah. But who really ever wants to put ooh la la aside? :wink: Just read Alchemists post full of the most marvellous masculine variety of ooh la la and having taken a taste, how could one want to walk away? Impossible.

But actually I do say these sorts of things all the time and often nobody has any idea what I'm talking about so I don't really worry too much about it. :smile:

..........................................

But to be serious for one brief moment, I was playing with words within my little Sunday afternoon essay. Here is the definition of demi-monde from the American Heritage Dictionary:

1a. A class of women kept by wealthy lovers or protectors. b. Women prostitutes considered as a group. 2. A group whose respectability is dubious and whose success is marginal: the literary demimonde of ghostwriters, hacks, and publicists 

.

Even with a real definition, using that word within the sentence I wrote doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense unless one can put oneself in a zen-like place of thinking where one is trying to escape two varying types of worlds in the same moment, but I decided to write it anyway just for the fun of it. Must have spent too much time over the stockpot in the past - braincells steamed a bit. :sad:

But funny, anyhow, that this thread on temperament has lead back to writers with that dictionary definition of demi-monde.

I've noticed that people in the business are overwhelmingly not planners.

I wonder if it is catching.

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A burning desire to please people.  Thats what we do, and are good at it.  I might extrapolate that people IN THE LIFE make the best lovers. When you throw a party and it's all restaurant people, who should be sick to death of each other since they spend so much time together at work, they never go to the kitchen to get a beer without asking who else wants one, they will bum you their last smoke, give you the shirt off their back if you're cold, cook you food if you're hungry, (even though they spend 100 hours a week cooking) they will roll up their sleeves and do your dishes, empty the ashtrays the next day even though it turns their queasy, hungover stomachs, and generally pitch in and get the s$#t done.  We have the ability to take a diverse group of people and accomplish a common goal by using everybody's strengths and covering for all weaknesses.
Amen, brother. I was too self-destructive to stay in the life, but this is the part of it that made the biggest impression on me, and that I've tried to cultivate in myself over the last 20 years. Unthinking generosity, without an "you scratch my back..." calculation, although of course your back ends up getting scratched just because you're willing to give so much.

Satifying as home cooking can be, there's a rush to the weeds that cannot be duplicated.

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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Over the past decade I've acquired a few friends in the food-service business aka The Life. I guess this is the natural outcome of being in a related field, food writing, where there's so much interaction with those in the biz. I love my restaurant-industry friends -- one of them is even my BFF -- but I've noticed they almost all share certain personality attributes, some of which are just quirky and others of which make friendship harder work than it needs to be.

For example, I've noticed that people in the business are overwhelmingly not planners. If you want to see them, you need to do it on a same-day basis -- usually a same-minute basis. You're not going to get a commitment for three weeks from now. I think The Life may attract non-planners in the first place, because each day in a restaurant you start fresh, and it also probably reinforces the trait because when people with a similar trait cluster together that tends to happen.

Any other observations on restaurant-business personality traits?

About the planning thing.... It's impossible to plan anything more than a day or two in advance because you never know what's going to happen. Staff not show up, ingredients not available, lots of customers, no customers, etc... Not to mention the amount of information chefs need to remember, the other stuff tends to get lost up there...

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I made resos at French Laundry 2 MONTHS in advance, and reso's for Alinia a MONTH AND A HALF in advance. And prison or being in the hospital in traction would be the only reasons I would miss being there on time, dressed to genocide, hungry as a hobo on thanksgiving.

So I think that maybe our priorties are a bit out of wack to the "straight world". I have missed birthdays, holidays, messed up relationships, let work get in the way of family, but wild whores couldn't drag me away from a well appointed table.

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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Concur.

Has anybody noticed that all restaurants share some of the Platonic ideal of Restaurant? That what's in common is much stronger than what's different? The Cook With The Drug Problem; The Very Affectionate (ahem) Waitress; The Screaming Sous-Chef and The Mellow Sous-Chef; The Funny Guy (usually a cook but sometimes a waitron); The Silent And Angry Dish Dog. Maybe it's what makes moving from job to job that much easier, knowing that no matter where you're going, it's not that different from where you just were.

This whole love/hate thing would be a lot easier if it was just hate.

Bring me your finest food, stuffed with your second finest!

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I have just come back to Chicago after over a decade of living in NYC, and I called up some friends that I waited tables with back then and after about six seconds it was like we had seen eachother yesterday. We just had lots of stories to tell. I think that there is something to this. Waiters and bartenders are soooo used to being social that we slide into comfortable social patterens quickly.

The more I think about this thread the more I am wonderiing if we bring these traits to The Life or if they are forged in the heat of the kitchen and grown by hours in the weeds, or if we have the predalictions for our self destructive, and our good traits.

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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