I love my job. I learn and grow with every project I do, with every interaction I have. It has allowed me to have some amazing experiences that I may not have had without it. When I leave my company this September, I will have traveled around the world, spoken one-on-one with world leaders, played with schoolchildren in Cape Town, toured a chocolate factory in Vancouver, danced at a gala in Prague, and biked through Montmartre just hours the after the Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 NBA Championship. I even met my soon-to-be husband through my company, 3 years ago this month. I have the pleasure to work for over a hundred top executives around the world, the smartest and most successful in their industry. My job requires me to function well in high-stress situations, to be diplomatic, organized and self-motivated, and to work collaboratively with a wide variety of people from many different cultures and backgrounds.
Whenever I end up explaining exactly what it is that I do, which is quite often, the next question I am almost always asked is “what kind of background do you have to get a job like that?”
I always smile and simply tell them that I worked in hospitality.
Of course sweating over a fryer in the hot kitchen of the seaside pizzeria that I worked in when I was fourteen, I never would have imagined that restaurant work could lead me here. But it did, and this wasn’t even my goal. At the time I just needed a job and working where the hot lifeguards of Fenwick Island hung out didn’t seem like a bad option. It was hard manual work, it was really hot, and we would have all rather been on the beach. But without realizing it we were learning skills that would carry over into all areas of our lives. With lines of impatient sandy tourists out the door all needing special attention, a rowdy group of teenagers who hailed from four plus states came together and got it done. Sometimes singing and dancing while we worked, teasing each other in a language only we spoke, we worked our stations and sometimes the ones next to us if needed, and every customer left fed and, if we had any control over it, happy. It gave us a paycheck and a sense of purpose, and it was a lot of fun.
And this is why I went on to work in many other restaurants in the next few years, through college and beyond, in both little towns and major cities, with various cuisines, clientele, and ownership, and in various positions. And at each one I learned more. Between the customers, the kitchen staff, the bar staff, the floor staff, the managers, the owners, and the venders, you need to be able to communicate with people from every stage on the socio-economic spread, from celebrities to illegal immigrants. I worked with people speaking at least ten different language, none of which I speak fluently. But you learn how to communicate regardless.
You learn how to negotiate and you learn how to problem solve and you learn how to do it quickly. Blaming an error on someone else isn’t going to cut it; if the person next to you doesn’t pull their weight then you pull theirs along with your own to get through the service. There are no excuses. And sometimes the customer is wrong but you figure out a way to make everyone happy while maintaining your dignity (a very useful skill I’ve found). Sometimes the dishwasher has to seat a guest and sometimes the manager has to wash dishes. Sometimes you are working an 18-hour day because you are needed, and you don’t take sick days. In the kitchens especially are some of the hardest working people I know.
Eric Ripert, Executive Chef of what is known to be one of the best restaurants in the world, Le Bernardin in New York City, recently posted on his Facebook page: “In my 1st year cooking, my arms had burns & scars; my hands had many cuts but year later I would achieve the same tasks in the kitchen without a scratch. My lesson? Master the craft; be organized & proactive. Stop finding excuses and reasons.”
I really loved that world, long before I realized it could turn into a career for me. I was in my teens and 20′s, moving around like a gypsy with a bounty on my head, having a great time just trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. But as I grew over the years I was given more responsibility in the restaurants, and towards the end of my time in the industry I was marketing and selling the spaces for events that I would then coordinate and manage. And I still spent a lot of time on the floor and had come to know my midtown Manhattan clientele as well as my staff, making important connections that I still maintain today.
One of these clients ended up offering me the job that I have now, a job I didn’t realize I wanted or could do. But it turns out that I did and I could, and I am so fortunate to have had the opportunities to get here.
Mine is not a rare story. People that I worked with in the restaurants, some of which had started out with no ambition whatsoever, have gone on to work in healthcare, foreign affairs, education, entertainment, journalism, and sciences, and I am certain that they are the hardest working people in their offices. Other friends have stayed in hospitality and have gone on to work directly for Laurent Tourondel, Jean-George Vongerichten, Mario Batali, Vikram Chatwal, Andre Balazs, and Jose Andres, and some have started their own successful restaurants and catering companies, in New York and across the country.
The point is, training in the restaurant world is hardly a dead-end.
At a dinner last month, Chad Houser, Executive Chef at Parigi and co-founder of a non-profit social enterprise in Dallas called Café Momentum, asked the fifty or so distinguished-looking attendees to raise their hands if they had ever worked in a restaurant. Roughly 90% indicated that they had. When asked who still worked in the industry, I saw about four. Which of course goes to show that although there are amazing jobs to be had in restaurants, the skills can be carried far beyond.
Café Momentum takes disadvantaged youth ages 14-17 in Dallas, teaches them culinary and service skills, gives them the opportunity to work alongside the best local chefs and restaurant professionals, and eventually leads to paid positions within the industry. These kids, deemed “throwaways” by our courts after entering the juvenile justice system for committing non-violent crimes, are welcomed into an environment where they learn respect and discipline while finding a sense of purpose. They have first completed a culinary training program at their juvenile justice facility, and then these young men enter the internship-style program and are nurtured and inspired and given opportunities they may not otherwise have had. Graduates leave the program with a list of professionals that they can go to for references or employment.
But training for work in hospitality is not just about working in a restaurant. Danny Meyer, the revered New York restaurateur responsible for Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, and Shake Shack, among others, wrote his book “Setting the Table” about using the power of hospitality in any business you are in. I have quoted from it often; “Within moments of being born, most babies find themselves receiving the first four gifts of life: eye contact, a smile, a hug, and some food. We receive many other gifts in a lifetime, but few can ever surpass those first four.” Knowing how to make someone feel welcome in your space, whether it be your home, your business, your cubicle, your park bench… it is invaluable. It makes you a better person.
Give someone a seat, some food, a smile, and you can change their life, even if only for that hour. When you learn that, it opens a world of possibilities.
“To succeed in the hospitality business you must succeed in making other people feel good,” said Ben Pollinger, Executive Chef of Manhattan’s Oceana, a restaurant I used to frequent and do business with before moving to Dallas. I recently asked him his thoughts on the Café Momentum program. “You must minimize your self-importance and must make others the center of your attention. That’s a pretty radical concept for some people, especially if you’ve come up in a challenged or disadvantaged upbringing where you’ve needed to focus on yourself to survive.
“Long term success in the hospitality business is realized over the years, but the short term results are immediate and can reinforce and support a young person’s efforts. You can know that someone enjoyed your food, you can see it when you take care of a table. You begin to feel appreciated and good about yourself for what you do,” Pollinger continued.
However, as many of my Chef friends were quick to point out and Chef Pollinger specifically remarked “This is all dependent upon positive and strong leadership. All the things that can help a young person, or any person, become a better individual can also drive someone into some dark places without proper guidance and leadership. You need to learn that it’s OK to make honest mistakes and to learn from them. You need to be steered from many of the distractions in this business.”
Café Momentum, an organization founded only last year, puts disadvantaged youth in a positive atmosphere with that strong leadership that is so essential. These young men are given role models who are not only gifted and respected professionals in their industries, but who have become celebrities in today’s foodie-obsessed pop culture. This provides inspiration for people who may have otherwise given up on life, or who have had too many people give up on them.
If my Yankee liberal rant about the good you they are doing for these young men doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, then maybe this will: The disadvantaged Texan youth in these facilities have a recidivism rate of 50%. Because of a lack of support, positive role models, education or skills, half of these young men will end up re-incarcerated. Each of which costs taxpayers $100-$300 per day. For every one youth who successfully completes the Cafe Momentum program and goes one to be a law-abiding self-sufficient individual, $1.7 million to $2.3 million in lifetime costs to taxpayers and victims is avoided.
Believers and supporters are coming fast. The latest pop-up dinner, held last night at Tiffany Derry’s Private Social, sold out in three hours. Even I, who waited eagerly for the opportunity to attend another dinner, missed the window to purchase tickets this time but I couldn’t be happier for them. But there is so much more to do. Cafe Momentum will become a full service restaurant, with the staff being rotating graduates of the program. 165 young men have already graduated from the program, and 116 have received their ServSafe Food Handler’s license and identification, making them more eligible for employment than most. It is a fantastic and impressive start.
The Cafe Momentum concept is sustainable and replicable. More and more “disadvantaged youth” could get their chance through this program. As Chef Pollinger concluded, “In the right venue, a job in the hospitality business can be a powerful force in positive change for a person’s life.”
And who knows where it could lead?
Jayne is new to Dallas and discovering the city with a voracious appetite. You can follow her discoveries @JaynieMarie on Twitter, Foursquare, and Pinterest, and on her website A Moveable Appetency