Scene 1: A hot, cramped kitchen in a neighborhood Italian restaurant in suburban New Jersey. I’m 16 or 17 and working the dishwashing station. My buddies Brian and Doug are busing tables, as is Jeff, the best athlete in our high school and the star running back for the football team.
Midway through the shift, Jeff walks into the kitchen carrying a bus tub full to overflowing with dirty plates, bowls, cups, saucers, glasses and utensils. Balanced precariously atop the load is a large metal pizza pan. Balanced even more precariously atop the pizza pan is a single empty wine glass.
As Jeff approaches my station, the pizza pan begins to slip. The wine glass begins to totter. With the lightning quick reflexes of a star athlete, Jeff grabs the pan and saves the glass. In doing so, however, he drops the fully loaded bus tub. There’s an ear-splitting crash as a table’s worth of dirty dishes shatters and clatters all over the busy kitchen floor.
Scene 2: Same hot, cramped kitchen in the same Italian restaurant. I’m now at the big stainless steel sink washing the big pots and pans — a better-paying gig, for some reason, probably $2.50 an hour. The restaurant manager, let’s call him Tony, is helping out in the kitchen boxing the to-go pizzas. He’s a model of speed and efficiency, his ever-present Benson & Hedges hanging from the corner of his mouth. (This is the mid-1970s, folks. And anyway, Tony would smoke anywhere he wanted to and no one was about to tell him any different.)
He scoops a hot pie from the oven, slides it off the peel and into the box, grabs the cutter and, with four lightning-fast swipes, another pizza is ready to go. Next pizza. Out of the oven, into the box, he grabs the cutter and — plop! — an inch-long ash from the tip of Tony’s cigarette falls smack in the middle of the steaming hot pie.
The entire kitchen freezes, thrilled at the prospect of getting what we called “slivers” — tiny slices of a pizza that, for whatever reason, can’t be served to the public — and terrified at the prospect of what Tony, who ran a very tight ship, might do now that he’s ruined a paying customer’s pie.
He pauses, round cutter in raised hand, calculating. And then … solved. Bang! He runs the cutter a half-inch to the right of the ash. Bang! He runs the cutter a half-inch to the left of the ash. He yanks out that center strip, ash and all, and slides the two halves of the slightly smaller pie together. Bang! Bang! Bang! Three more cuts, he slams the box shut and another pizza is out the door.
This month’s cover story, by contributor Rebecca Perkins Hanissian, brought memories of these formative work experiences flooding back to me. So many lessons: Don’t lose sight of priorities (no wine glass is worth a mess like that); don’t underestimate the cunning of a frugal manager (no slivers for us!); don’t smoke when you’re making food (’nuff said).
In some ways, restaurant work sounds the same today as it was 40 years ago — hot, hectic, modestly remunerated — but in other ways the industry has changed. As Hanissian’s story shows, it’s harder than ever to build a staff. Demographics, changing lifestyles and priorities, the scourge of narcotics — there are a host of new challenges.
Which is a shame. A restaurant job can offer lessons for young people and opportunity to adults. Owners and managers sure have their plates full.