There is a long-standing, pervasive belief in commercial kitchens that says:
Being a “serious” cook = 90 hour work weeks + sacrifice + suffering
This is not a mythology created by chefs, they merely adopted the classic creative construct where suffering is mandatory in order to create anything of value or meaning. Do we really believe that something tastes better because we know that the person who created it made considerable sacrifices along the way? I think we kind of do but that maybe this mythology is beginning to lose its lustre. This doesn't mean that people aren't willing to work very hard, and even to suffer and sacrifice; they just don't want to work very hard, suffer and sacrifice merely for the sake of it.
Which brings me to this amazing question posed by restaurateur Mark Canlis in a talk he gave last year,
"If every cook that ever worked for you wanted to cook like you, but no one wanted to be you- are you the best chef in America?"
(for the record, my answer to this question is no)
While at Cyril's we've never set our sights on being the best chef in America, we do want to be an awesome, beloved, and respected restaurant. Over the past year or so, we've been asking ourselves if maybe we have an opportunity to try out another way of operating a restaurant.
We have decided to focus on the experience of our staff as much as, if not more than, the food and drinks we serve. This past spring we began evaluating our operation to understand what kinds of changes we would need to make to move to a no-tipping model without jeopardizing the overall business. We're not there quite yet and we're certain that it's where we're headed.
Balancing the wages of front and back of house employees and offering income stability is a great first step towards improving the lives of all restaurant workers. And yet it also feels like just the tip of the iceburg.
At the risk of sounding like a pack of lazy fools, we're stepping out on what feels like a very spindly branch to say that we believe there is a possibility of a fruitful, productive- even stellar- kitchen, without so much burnout. A kitchen that supports the people working in it in having healthier and more fulfilled lives both within and beyond the kitchen. A kitchen where suffering and self-sacrifice are no longer table stakes for participation nor the measuring sticks for dedication and committment.
While we've been busy contemplating our own future, our industry has been grappling with this as well. With the announcement from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group moving all 13 of their restaurants to a no-tipping model, and this recent article in the NYT about restaurants struggling to attract entry level cooks, the public is getting a bit more insight into the realities of the lives of food service workers.
Here's the thing- the sands are shifting right beneath our exploding food culture's feet. Our industry is confronting a mounting pressure to change how we operate (as are many many other industries); being pushed to better serve not only our customers but also the people who work for us. We're being pushed by the newest generation of job seekers- yes I'm talking about millennials, and I'm not rolling my eyes about them- but we're also feeling the heat because we have access to more information about what actually happens in the workplace and what we're seeing makes some of us very uncomfortable.
Who are we to think we can create something better?
We're Sasha and Michael, and a small team of fellow mere mortals who believe in taking care of people, meaningful work, and delicious food.
We'd love to host you soon.