Spencer O’Meara, executive chef at Paragon Restaurant in San Francisco, is a man passionately in love.
Yes, he has a girlfriend–a sous chef at a competitor’s restaurant. But, during business hours, his love is reserved for his single greatest passion: preparing food.
“To me, the whole restaurant business is, you work really, really hard, and you play pretty hard,” says O’Meara. “You don’t have a lot of time to play, so you play hard to try to get it in. I work 65-70 hours a week.
“So when I do play I play pretty hard. But I’m getting older though, so I don’t play as hard as I used to.”
He turned 40 in July.
“I’m extremely thankful and fortunate that I found the restaurant business as a whole,” says O’Meara. “I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t.
“I know I wouldn’t be earning what I’m earning, I know I would not be as successful as I am, because I was clearly unable to hack it in the other world—colleges and all of that.
“I can go to work every day and say, ‘I like my job.’ Even when it sucks, I still like it. And I wouldn’t sit there and say, ‘This sucks and I wish I did something else.’ And I’ve been in this business 20 years.”
O’Meara likens the people who make up the staff of a restaurant with those who comprise a circus “family.”
“Back in the 1980s and 1990s, before the Food Network and culinary schools got huge, you weren’t attracted to the restaurant business, you fell into it, because you had nowhere else to go, and you could be accepted into the Carney family. I got into the culinary business because I got kicked out of three different colleges, and I needed to make money.”
On a case-by-case basis, O’Meara applies compassion or discipline to keep the restaurant running smoothly.
“It’s a constant babysitting, teaching, mentoring job. If I fired everybody [who made] a decent-sized mistake, I’d be rolling over staff all the time. It’s the restaurant business. You’re dealing with different kinds of people.”
If a cook shows up drunk, O’Meara will pull his shift–once. “I’m going to do you the favor. I’m going to send your ass home, and you’re going to screw me tonight, but you’re indebted to me now. You pull it again on me and I’m done with you. But I’ll give you one, because I’ve been that guy. I’ve done it, so I can’t be a hypocrite.”
But there are offenses for which there is no appeal: “You steal from me and I’ll fire you on the spot. You punch the line cook next to you in the face and you’re done,”
O’Meara has also fired employees with a repeat history of drug- or alcohol-abuse. “We fired a server a couple of years ago who was completely wasted on her shift. She already had one or two write-ups in her jacket, so that was ‘adios.’”
Another touchy issue: Coping with the sort of humor that gives ulcers to lawsuit-conscious HR managers and CEOs.
Restaurant kitchens are staffed overwhelmingy by Latinos in their 20s and 30s, and their machismo takes the form of near-constant jokes or jibes of a sexual–and especially homophobic–nature.
The anonymous author of Waiter Rant relates that on his first day on the job, a cook asked him, “So, you take it up the ass?”
When the new waiter asked, “What kind of question is that?” he got the reply: “You’re a fag. We all know you are. It’s okay. You can tell us. C’mon. We know you’re queer.”
“As a 31-year-old baby waiter learning the ropes,” the author writes, “I’m quickly discovering that the hot topic of kitchen conversation is figuring out which waiter’s gay and discussing the merits of inserting foreign objects into other people’s rectal cavities. Ah, restaurant kitchens–they’re all about tequila, buggery and the lash.”
Says O’Meara: “In corporations—including restaurant corporations—it’s a huge HR nightmare. There’s lawsuits, you’ve got to watch out for them.” Smaller, more independent restaurants are especially at risk for such lawsuits.
You need a thick skin to work in a kitchen, warns O’meara. And if you don’t have one, “you’re the one who gets your feelings hurt” and files a lawsuit. Such people usually don’t last long in restaurants. “They usually sue you and move on.”
Those who work in restaurant kitchens need a thick skin for another reason: People will inevitably make mistakes, and they will inevitably be called to account for them—“maybe a little more harshly than in other businesses,” says O’Meara.
“Do I consider it to be right or wrong? Not necessarily. Do I consider it to be an everyday part of life in the business? Yeah. I don’t want to sit there and deliberately berate somebody, but when I sit there and say ‘What the f—?’ I don’t want to get sued for it, instead of ‘Excuse me.’ So there’s a fine line.
“I believe that as you come into the chef world, it’s sort of what you get molded into. Starting out as a line cook and being in the business 20 years, I don’t know a single chef that walks up to somebody and says, ‘Excuse me, you just burned that.’
“Every single chef I know is going to say, ‘What the f— did you just do?’ I don’t care if you’re in a hotel with a big toque on, to the guy working in a taco truck.”