“Good service can make up for bad food but good food cannot make up for bad service”
Ancient proverb (1960’s?)

I just read an opinion piece about the state of restaurant service in this town. I think the point was missed. You see, the writer was lecturing the servers: don’t bring the food if one of us is in the john, don’t grab my glass mid-swig to refill it, and don’t ever, ever…….

Many factors play into why the server doesn’t know good service, not the least of which is that, in my experience, very few of them have had the opportunity or wherewithal to witness it firsthand. They haven’t dined at Daniel, Le Bernardin, The French Laundry, The Inn in Little Washington or a hundred other great restaurants. Who can afford to?

So what about good restaurants, instead of great? Honestly, I’ve gone militant. I’m professionally embarrassed by what I see in so many of the ‘good’ restaurants. In one of Richmond’s ‘best’ spots I witnessed a bartender, at lunch, constantly pushing her long hair back on top of her head and then handling glassware. Oh, and every couple of minutes or so she walked to the end of the bar where she had a plate of food, taking a mouthful, wiping her mouth with a bar towel and returning to center bar. This went on for fifteen minutes or so. I pointed it out to my buddy, a regular there, who ‘hadn’t noticed’.

At another ‘hot spot’ the waiter must have had head lice because he scratched his scalp furiously as he took our order and then went on to another table, where the scratching continued. Again, only I seemed to notice; not other customers, not a manager, not other servers and not the folks at my table. It’s a curse.

Want more? At one award winning Richmond restaurant over the course of a two hour dinner I counted six servers who wiped or scratched their face with no thought of washing their hands before handling plates of food and glasses of beverages. Then one walked by, set the wine next to the wrong customer, and walked away with a check minder stashed in his ass crack. The guest with the wrong wine was left to slide it over to the proper customer.

The truth is that I cannot recall a meal in the last couple of years that didn’t have a bartender on the phone, or a hostess fidgeting with her hair, or a server wiping their brow, swiping their nose or standing with their hands in their armpits. Why not; it’s allowed.

The issue here is not that your server was grabbing bites of food during service, in full view, or fiddling with hair, or checking their phone for texts. The issue is that management does not see it either because they don’t care or they just don’t know better. The other servers allow it. The customers allow it. It’s not the server’s fault; it’s the lowering of standards in the restaurant community; here and in many towns. Most towns.

In America’s great restaurants do you think the cooks wear t-shirts from home, stand at the back door smoking and swigging beer during service? Do they allow the cooks to fight with the servers, or vice versa? Many employees have seen it so many times they accept it as normal behavior.

Richmond is far from becoming a world class restaurant town, despite the food writers and bloggers constant repetitions. You can’t become a ‘world class restaurant town’ if you don’t know what that means. We have some talented cooks, to be sure, but if line cooks don’t share and uphold the same standards as the ‘chef’ then he/she is no more than a ‘first chair’ cook instead of the conductor of a talented and disciplined orchestra.

Ahh, there’s the rub. It’s not about you, chef. It’s about getting every one of your cooks to be able to cook their station better than you could. Taste their food and look them in the eye. “Is that the best risotto you have ever tasted?” you ask them. “Is that the best you can do?” When they say no, have them make you another and bring it to you to taste when they’re proud of it. You will be amazed at how much better the food will get, and quickly. You have now forced them to close their eyes to look into the food, very Zen-like, looking for flavors, balance and depth. With proper encouragement they will apply that to every dish they prepare. Now you can stand proud.

A great restaurant does not have ‘front of the house’ standards and the ‘back of the house’ standards. It’s the level of professionalism set by ownership and management. And if the owners don’t have a passion for the professionalism in our industry, then you can call yourself great all you want, but it just isn’t so.

Sure it’s a new time. The music has changed, the menu structures have changed and the customer’s expectations have changed. If expectations are low and knowledge of food and service is weak then far too many restaurants will dumb down, and get enough rave reviews to feel not only justified, but empowered.

I can tell you that when I question a Richmond chef about where I might go to dinner, I get the same look my puppy gives me when I him ask what day of the week it is. The answer is usually an ethnic stand-by.

Do not get me wrong. There are places where I have had a good meal, certainly a good time. But some of the dishes are ok, and some are fuking misguided. If half of your dishes are great and half miss the mark, you are not a great restaurant. If you really like your server but he/she auctions off the food and hands you a plate to pass to your companion, you are not in a great restaurant.

I have yet to find a restaurant in this town where the servers see their job as enhancing the dining experience for the customer. Most see their role as ‘serving food’, taking orders, flirting and impressing you with how good they are, when they aren’t. You don’t take a customer’s order when it’s convenient for you; you read the table and take the order when the customer has decided that they are ready. That’s your art.

Some writers bemoan the fact that food is served while a member of their party is outside on the phone, or smoking, or using the restroom. If your food has been plated for your table, and the kitchen is now plating the food for another table, they are not in a good position to ‘store’ your food until you return. In fact, many can’t. In good restaurants there should not be heat lamps, under which food dies. A busy place that cooks to order relies on the food being plated and served at optimal time. Respect food. Respect the work of people who care about what they put on the plate so that you can appreciate their passion and talent. As the chef of one of America’s finest restaurants said “I want the fish to finish cooking on the way to the table”. Now you’re about to eat a sweet, moist freshly caught fish that represents everything the chef has worked hard for. Or should it sit under a heat lamp while you pee?

And just last week I ate at a ‘hot’ Richmond spot for the first time. The food was quite good. I ordered the grouper only to have the chef come out to explain that it’s really sheepshead. He was afraid that customers would, um, find that confusing so another chef recommended he call it grouper. You see, customers are like sheep; they can’t be trusted. Really?

While that was no doubt an innocent sleight of hand, some things aren’t. Mislabeling, misleading, and downright lying still have its place it seems. Fresh this, hook ‘n line that, prime cuts only. Style Magazine even ‘outed’ a famous local chef who “often passed off cheaper, inferior products for some of its fanciest dishes. While such deceptions are not unheard-of in the restaurant business, it’s a dismaying allegation about an establishment of [XXXX’s] caliber.

A chef and floor personnel say that the substitutions included tilapia for John Dory; chicken marinated in port for pheasant; marinated pork tenderloin for wild boar; and frozen lobster for fresh.” Such betrayal of our industry should be met with a chorus of outrage. Instead, there is an awards ceremony every year in his honor. Shame.

The bubble
Getting back to the servers, let’s look at it like this: your guests are in a bubble. If your intent is to give them good service and enhance their evening out, respect this. A couple might be discussing the future of their relationship, the loss of a loved one, the circus coming to town or a movie they just saw. They do not need to be interrupted every six minutes with a cheery “Is everything tasty here?” or “Would you like to hear about our desserts?”. GOOD SERVICE IS AN ART. Read the customer. Approach, and if they don’t acknowledge you gently move on. Insinuate yourself gently and professionally, do your job for the most part without them even knowing you’ve done your job. If their water glass stays full and they never saw you refill it, good job.

Funny how when I consult for a restaurant the owner usually points to one or two of the servers and tells me that those are his best servers. They’re personable, quick witted, and fairly attractive, to be sure. But good servers? Not when you poll the rest of the staff. It turns out they’re good at being well liked by the customers; might even make more money in tips. Probably do.

But who’s going to train you to be a great server? Too few managers have had the good fortune to learn it from other great managers or maître d‘s. Many became managers because they stuck it out, wanted the responsibilities and were willing to work hard. Managing people is certainly the hardest part of the restaurant industry. Give your fellow workers high standards, work with them to achieve those standards all the time, every day and never, ever let them down. You will find that your employees will work their hearts out. I’m so sick of hearing “I can’t find good servers” or “I can’t find good cooks”. Good people are not hard to find. It’s your job to mentor them and give them a proud environment in which to work.

Passion is at the heart of a great restaurant. Not ego, not accolades, not self-satisfaction but a passion for cooking and serving great food with pride, and love. That’s what’s missing from so many restaurants. And that’s what’s missing from restaurant reviews. Reviewers look at restaurants much like owner wannabees do. Remember the billboards for cosmetic surgery that said “I can fix that!”? Well, first time restaurant owners often do just what the article cited did: criticize the waiter for not filling up the water glass, or clearing the table too fast, or becoming invisible when you want your check. So they say “Well hell, I can fix that!”

I guess that’s the biggest gripe I have about non restaurant people writing reviews of restaurants. I know, they’ve all ‘done time’ as a waitress. But they seldom, if ever, look into the soul of a restaurant. If they could they would find the good ones have purpose, passion, goals, philosophies, and heart. Instead they rave about the ones that serve them a great dish, or two, or ten and criticize some that are well on their way to doing it right. Many have developed friendships in the industry. No wonder so many places ‘dumb down’. There are plenty of ‘haters’ out there. I’m not one of them. I want to see proud passionate people putting together great restaurants. I want my dilemma to be which restaurant to go to for a really good meal.

The fix is easier than you can imagine. Approach this great industry with knowledge, experience, passion and the realization that it’s the family of servers, cooks, dishwashers, managers, owners and, yes, customers that make it great. The recipe is quite simply 90% respect, and 10% fear. Respect for your peers, the food, the ownership, the customers: the fear is that you’re maybe going to fall short of the standards that you now embrace. It’s a healthy fear.

So you see, it’s not the waiters.


7 Responses to “If You’re Gonna say World Class….”

  1. Craig writes:

    It’s great to see you writing again, I look forward to more. Hope you’re well.

    May 13, 2014 at 9:04 pm
  2. T writes:

    Great piece, Jimmy. You absolutely nailed it.

    Hoping you do more writing on the blog this year- we need more of this in Richmond!

    May 15, 2014 at 6:12 pm
  3. John writes:

    Oh James you haven’t been relevant in quite some time

    May 16, 2014 at 1:55 pm
  4. david writes:

    you had an open window into the kitchen in your last place, when you were cooking i saw several health violations committed by you specifically: not wearing gloves when handling ready to eat food, no beard guard, drinking from an open container, wearing a watch (something i don’t personally care about but is a violation). i will not mention any of the problems with the restaurant itself.

    May 25, 2014 at 12:54 pm
  5. Jimmy writes:

    I think you’ll find that my kitchen(s) are extremely clean, smart sanitation is an absolute, and passion supercedes paranoia. You need to relax and enjoy.

    May 25, 2014 at 1:44 pm
  6. Frank Senger writes:

    You write beautifully, eloquently and make a lot of sense, but dear Lord, shortening is not just used in kitchens. K.I.S.S. Keep it shorter Sneed, so more people will read it.
    P.S. You are invited for Wed.

    May 28, 2014 at 1:13 am
  7. Jimmy writes:

    I write like I talk. Brevity is not my strong point. But thanks.

    June 5, 2014 at 11:47 am