It’s been over a month since I’ve found my way back to this place. During that time I’ve been preoccupied with a promotion to maitre d’ (!) and completion of my “trail.” Restaurant speak for training, the trail was harder and longer than I expected.
When my manager approached me about the MD role (double entendre duly noted), he warned me that it is one of the most difficult jobs in a restaurant. On par with expediting, he said, it’s crucial for ensuring a great experience for guests and for the team. I laughed off his warning, mostly because of the uncomfortable audacity of accepting a role that was acknowledged by him as one of the most important in the place.
But I was also lulled into a false sense of confidence by the ease and grace with which the other MDs did their jobs – they remind me of dancers who seem to effortlessly float midair while leaping – and by my own hubris that the job would come naturally.
A few trails in, I realized that it didn’t come naturally. I had memorized “the book” – the rules for organizing the dining room and reservations as well as the exceptions to those rules – but I wasn’t sufficiently comfortable with my level of knowledge. And it showed.
One afternoon when a large crowd descended upon the restaurant at noon, hungry for lunch and intent on sitting down immediately, I froze. Afraid to make a mistake, I was afraid to do anything. In a moment of panic, I viewed our guests as the enemy and wanted to duck behind the podium to shield myself from their bullets of inquiries, requests, and expectations. But I put on my best forced smile and welcomed them through the doors with the sole intent of getting them into the dining room and away from me as quickly as possible. There I stood, in the bastion of hospitality, praying that everyone would just go away so that I could breathe. After the first rush, I escaped to the coatroom for a few moments of quiet. I muddled through the rest of the afternoon and somehow finished out the service, ego bruised but otherwise unscathed.
I was embarrassed then, and I’m embarrassed now as I write this. Luckily, there’s a happy ending.
To build back my confidence, I hunkered down and studied my job as if I were in school. Just as my father solidified my knowledge of math by pushing me to derive formulas from first principles rather than merely memorizing them, I dissected the book and figured out how and why it was set up the way it was, approaching it as if I were building it from scratch.
A visual person by nature, I drew out a timeline of each lunch and dinner service, each table and when it turned for the next, how many people could sit down in the restaurant at each fifteen-minute interval in a way that wouldn’t overload the servers and kitchen. I made a Gantt chart of each activity an MD needs to accomplish by what time and the activities of other team members that are dependent on those milestones. In other words, I geeked out.
Like a consultant, I spoke with servers to find out the best way to handle different situations, for example, when I might need to double-seat them – should I try to provide at least a five-minute buffer interval? Give them a heads up? Ask the host to provide a menu? – yes, yes, and maybe. I wrote long lists of useful phrases – how to explain to guests if we were running behind, if we couldn’t seat them at a seemingly available table, if there was a waitlist for the bar.
As you might have guessed, my approach worked and I started having fun in the restaurant again. I’m now officially an MD (our general manager calls me MD2 ), still building up my muscle memory, but approaching the job with confidence and a genuine smile.
While all of this has been going on, the greenmarkets have exploded and my earlier MD schedule (I finish at 3 pm when I work lunch) has allowed me to wander through an expanding and bustling Union Square each market day. The market now snakes around the north end of the square in two parallel rows that span about three blocks.
While I rejoiced in new produce – asparagus! fiddleheads! rhubarb! strawberries! – and filled my fridge with color, MD trailing left me with no mental energy to cook. The result? These quick pickled asparagus – a good snack after a stressful shift. Or at least a way to get in a few vegetables before sticking a spoon into a pint of ice cream.
I’m back in the kitchen these days, so next up: rhubarb muffins! See you back here soon.
Adapted from Food & Wine. The pickles take just moments to prepare and are ready after a night in the fridge. They’re sharp and spicy and their flavor intensifies the longer they sit in their vinegar bath.
– 3/4 – 1 lb asparagus
– 10 sprigs dill
– 1 C white vinegar
– 1 C water
– 1 T kosher salt
– 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
– 1 t black peppercorns
– 1/2 t red pepper flakes
Fill. Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and trim them so that they will fit into a wide-mouth 1-quart jar. Fill the jar with the asparagus and dill.
Heat. Heat the vinegar, water, salt, garlic, and peppers until the salt dissolves. Allow to cool.
Pour. Once the vinegar mix is lukewarm, pour it in the jar. Top off with a 1-to-1 mix of vinegar and water to cover.
Chill. Refrigerate overnight and eat within three days.