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The REAL Life Lessons I Learned in a Restaurant

By Kelly Dobkin
January 6, 2014

Whether you work in the front of the house or back on the line, there's no shortage of valuable life lessons one picks up on the job. And we're not talking about the syrupy inspirational stuff - think real-deal insight on human nature and kitchen survival that one reaches after years of 80-hour work weeks (cue the Anthony Bourdain monologue). The dawn of 2014 has got us thinking about invaluable wisdom, so we asked some of the wittiest chefs and front-of-house folks we know to play Confucius and share their favorite sage knowledge below.

  • Kristina Goode, General Manager, David Burke Kitchen, Aspen, CO (opening next month)

    1. You never truly know how many dying relatives an employee has until it's the holidays, and they can't get a shift covered.
    2. If the cooks aren't eating a family meal, you probably shouldn't either.
    3. Never judge a book by its cover. You'll never believe how many billionaires love to wear Levis.
    4. When someone has to wait for a while for a table, always give them champagne; it goes straight to their head and inevitably makes them forget the time.

  • Executive Chef Luke Venner, BLT Fish, NYC

    1. Do not whistle while you work.
    2. It’s a bad idea to greet your chef with phrases like "Hey, buddy," or "What's up, bro?"
    3. Never bring your kitchen shoes home with you.
    4. Never leave your rain boots outside of your locker when it's raining. Someone else will probably wear them home and return them the next day. Now you are in a bad situation (see #3).
    5. Do not underestimate the multiuses of plastic wrap and painter's tape.
    6. Always bring an extra change of clothes with you if it is your last day, because someone will try to do something bad to you.

  • Executive Chef Kris Morningstar, Ray's & Stark Bar, Los Angeles

    Don’t assume anything… in a restaurant you need to check everything. Don’t ever assume you have backups. "I thought it was there, or I assumed he did that." We always look for follow-through. When people assume, people die.

  • Steven Hall, President of Hall Company (public relations agency that specializes in restaurants) and Former Longtime FOH

    1. When it's your first day on the job as a server, don't act like a know-it-all to try and impress the chef.
    2. Don't wear fake nails if you have to scoop ice cream. A female server I knew lost hers in the vanilla and a customer found them.
    3. Don't just memorize orders - you may wind up poisoning a celebrity as I did to Mike Nichols when I was a server at Arizona 2006. I gave him oysters instead of foie gras. Did you know that Mike Nichols is deathly allergic to shellfish?

  • Executive Chef Travis Swikard, Boulud Sud, NYC

    Never ask anyone in your kitchen to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, whether it’s washing dishes with the dishwasher, peeling pounds after pounds of potatoes, or roasting meat for 500.

  • Beverage Director Taylor Parsons, Republique, Los Angeles

    1. Never be without a wine key, even on your day(s) off.
    2. Everyone gets out of the weeds eventually. 
    3. Sharpies are at their best on day one. Then they become dull and useless, like many wines.
    4. Wine and food are vast universes. Get comfortable with the fact that there's always going to be a lot to learn.

  • Executive Chef/Partner Michael Ferraro, Delicatessen and Macbar, NYC

    Don’t hire your cooks’ relatives.

  • Pastry Chef Michele Weber, Good Enough to Eat, NYC

    1. It’s a big mistake to call your female boss a “puta” thinking she won't understand.
    2. I’ve learned that people give ME up as a New Year’s resolution and also for Lent.
    3. I’ve learned the delicate way of how to explain to employees to change clothes one at a time in the changing room because sexual favors should happen on their own time and not in the changing room.

  • Chef-Owner Steve Martorano, Café Martorano and Martorano’s, Locations in Florida and Las Vegas

    Customers are not always right!

  • Executive Chef/Managing Partner Merlin Verrier, Primary Food & Drink, Greenwich, CT

    Respect for all equipment in the kitchen. All of the equipment in the kitchen should be treated with the same respect as you would toward your own personal knives. No one should ever slam an oven door, plates shouldn’t make a sound when stacking them or putting in bus tubs, and small wares should be cleaned and put away with cords wrapped.

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