Industry Reflections: Poor, Poor, Lucky Bastard
I had a beer with former Aurora Bistro owner/chef Jeff Van Geest the other night. We discussed bigger things than food and wine in a cramped corner of a bustling bar filled with industry off-shifters getting their drink on. We talked about happiness, family, the big picture and new directions. We reminisced about our naiveté and blind idealism when we opened our first restaurants, and laughed at how we thought we’d change the world, or at least the little neighbourhoods surrounding our little dreams and money pits. We compared scars of battles won and lost, with city hall, drug addicted ex-employees, food writers and even the odd customer. We even looked ahead, and asked each other, “what’s next for you?”.
There we were, two men facing divorce from the life we love. Looking back we knew that restaurants had shaped us, made us who we are. They had also beat on us, challenged us, forced us to break the mould of who we thought we were, and drove us to dig down and find more strength, a more obstinate stubbornness, and a deeper passion for a craft that seemed to reward us only with stress and insecurity. The passion that had allowed us to overlook the flaws and rough times had faded, and we were both staring at starting all over again.
But despite it all, we both were smiling. Not wistful smiles of remembrance, but Cheshire cat grins. Shit eating grins like a teenager having sex grin, a prison break convict digging under the wall grin, the kind of grin that you can’t hide the true meaning of. The best years so far we’d seen, and we were running fast and hard from them, fast like we stole something.
I left that great conversation with more questions than answers. With so many of us looking for our passion, our calling, our life’s purpose, and so many of us finding it in this great craft, why does it chase so many great people away? Why are the Jeff Van Geest’s of the world happy to leave the life of the restaurateur, even when they know it’s their passion and that the world appreciates their talent? How many other great people do we lose, from aspiring cooks with Michelin star dreams to the hundreds of servers drinking their way to their sommelier’s designation, when the real kick in the junk reality kicks in on how hard the industry really is?
I remember asking one local restaurateur about his staffing and management headaches, and he said it best. “It’s like herding cats. Most of these people have no sense of professionalism, leave on a whim, have the highest ideals on what a work environment should be, and then promptly ask for a 2 week vacation, bang a hostess and miss a shift because they were so high on coke the night before”. Contrast that with an employee’s rant of another well known operation. “He pays minimum wage, no benefits, no stats, no overtime. He asks us to work doubles, Valentines day, New Years Eve, and I’m not allowed to date the staff. Besides all this I’m pretty sure he’s banging the hostess. What does he expect from me?”
It begs the question, what’s this monster we’ve created? Is it such a bad thing? I mean, it’s just like sex, drugs and rock n’ roll right? And they do fine, so why can’t we?
So can a professional like Jeff thrive in this environment? He has a beautiful wife and son, a sense of purpose, a set of ideals and a staunch refusal to compromise on his principles. I’d like to say yes, but I started to realize what his grin was about. All that he loved and cherished was being put to the test, facing compromise, for an industry which doesn’t. Finally, there was no question, only answers. He’d picked his team, and he’d picked the right one.
The beer tasted great that night. Served by a former cook, tending bar at his own establishment now, that same shit eating grin on his face. I imagined the road ahead for him, hoping it was slightly less rocky, slightly more profitable and only a tad less liquid, and I imagined the day he sat in my chair looking at some young punk with a shit eating grin and thought the same. Poor poor lucky bastard.
Sean Sherwood, an accomplished classical, jazz and blues pianist, worked in all aspects of the restaurant industry over two decades and spent 3 years as an operational consultant. He owned three dynamic restaurants in Vancouver: Fiction, Lucy Mae Brown, and Century. After 9 years, he sold his businesses to pursue other ventures.