Thursday, April 9, 2009

Why We Shouldn't Daydream About Running a Restaurant

I recently finished reading Bill Buford's book Heat. Also finally caught episodes of Hell's Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay. Reading Buford's descriptions of being verbally abused by Mario Batali's Sous Chef's, then watching Gordon Ramsay rip his contestants a new orifice, it made me think back to my family's old restaurant back on the East Coast.

My parents shared ownership of a Chinese restaurant with a few of my aunts and uncles. It was tough for them. Lots of fighting. Business arguments pretty soon poisoned the family relationships. When they all finally sold the place in the mid-1990's, it had the effect (over the span of a few years) of healing most of the wounds between them.

At times I thought that all the stupid fights between my parents and relatives at the restaurant were unique to their situation. Running a brown sauce Chinese restaurant in a rednecky town East Coast town wasn't easy to begin with. The narrow profit margins, the growing competition from Fujianese immigrants moving to the suburbs from New York, and having no clear chain of command, probably made it worse. Last but not least -- it was a low end Chinese restaurant, not an upscale American/Italian/French/etc. place. I and my siblings just assumed that the Chinese factor was what made it so difficult, that restaurants run by Chinese people were inherently conflict ridden.

Reading Buford and watching Ramsay hit home the fact that even successful upscale restaurants are tense nasty environments. Managers and chefs yell and fight. Stupid turf wars go on all the time. The staff on the bottom of the ladder get verbally abused. The only difference between Babbo and my mom & dad's place was that all that tension at a place like Babbo somehow (miraculously) leads to a product that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. We were not so fortunate.

At times I and some of my siblings have dreamt of opening somekind of upscale restaurant, catering business, bakery, charcuterie, bar, brewery, etc. The assumption is that it wouldn't be anything like the pressure cookers that our parents spent decades working in, that it would somehow be less tense, more artistic, and not particularly stressful because we'd be following a passion.

Buford & Ramsay remind us that where there is passion there is also a tremendous amount of pain.

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