Far less a cage, and far more a home
On a Friday night after a busy service I sat around the lush banquette seating of a ritzy Toronto staple alongside my co-workers enjoying some post service libations as was the ritual of our work-week.
Only a modest service assistant at the time, I found myself, uncharacteristically, quiet amongst these giants of hospitality. A server I worked with, let’s call him Lawrence, a fifteen year Toronto veteran boasting tenure at the establishment and several others of note across the city, languished drearily after his fifth or sixth glass of house red, reminiscing on the week and all its tumultuous highs and lows – the inevitable ebb and flow we all know too well.
Another server sat next to him, he too positioned as a career industry professional with accolades far exceeding the qualifications I put on my resumé. As the two sipped their fermented grape juice and shared a lamenting narrative, I thought it was a good time to ask them about my time there.
At this point in my journey, I had close to six years of service experience in a multitude of restaurants, clubs, bars and eateries across the GTA. For a 21-year-old, I was considered a rather well-seasoned veteran amongst my friends. But at this restaurant, after four months of soul-crushing work, I was still only a tadpole in what seemed to be an ever-growing pond of mostly predatorial fish. I took the jump into fine dining on the advice of a mentor-esque figure in my earlier days.
I remember the rhetoric, and although I’m paraphrasing, I recall the sentiment quite clearly –
“Aaron, jump to the top. After you’ve spent time in a restaurant like this, transitioning to any other setting will be like child’s play. You’ll be an expert, and the arduous task of earning your keep will be exponentially easier.”
To be completely honest, from the moment I began this new journey and walked in the building, I knew I wouldn’t fit in unless I seriously adjusted both my demeanor and appearance. I was at that point leaving the hectic and salacious realm of downtown core nightclubs, and the façade would not serve as one I could maintain in this temple of opulence, gaudy excess, and polite snobbery.
My father always said, “Wann in Roem, tust die genaugh wie die Roeme,” a loose German translation of the age old “when in Rome” adage. So every day, I shaved clean, I tucked my shirt in, kept things ironed, and toned down my dialectical idioms to zero at the loudest. I came in early, stayed late, and regardless of my full time class load, still made it an obligation to be the best I could possibly be. Sadly, it almost felt as if my efforts were all in vain.
Fast forward to that evening high atop the city in the lounge of this restaurant. I timidly asked servers Lawrence & Garry: “So gents, how am I doing here?” Although I had been working side by side with these people for months, it was as if we were still strangers. However, not strangers in the layman sense, but more so, I felt like a commoner approaching royalty, Oliver Twist and the keeper at the orphanage.
Lawrence took a big sip of his Malbec and surveyed me head-to-toe, sizing me up as if I were a subject in one of his many studies of the human condition. He looked at me and smiled a contrived smile.
“Here’s the thing Aaron. You’re a hard worker, a bright guy and honestly a pleasure to work with. You know your stuff, and you’re keen to learn.”
With those words, it were as if all the pomp and circumstance I had felt gleaning at me for those four challenging months faded into nothingness. Maybe I was a part of the team. Maybe I was meant to be here. Maybe I did belong.
I was wrong.
In the next breath he said, “With all that in mind, I just can’t help but say it –- you’re a little too rough around the edges. I don’t know what it is, but its something about your look. You look too ‘street’.”
I felt my heart sink. What was I doing wrong? I got a haircut every week. I kept myself tidy, I watched how I spoke to both guests and colleagues. I really tried my behind off from start to finish. What on earth was I missing in this equation? And then it hit me – Nothing.
No matter how hard I tried to be a version of myself that would be welcomed in this coliseum of service, I never would. And I realized that fundamentally, the powers that dictated who did and did not belong, would always brush shoulders with who I was at my core – a fun, jovial and extroverted person who didn’t believe he had to change who he was in order to deliver memorable service.
When I look at myself in the mirror now, a young General Manager at a white tablecloth restaurant, I know I’ve come a long way. But one thing is for certain – that same fun –loving effervescent youngster is still the person that exists at my very core. And when I started this job, I vowed to myself one thing above all else – to welcome anyone into this establishment who truly wanted to be there. Whether donning a bespoke suit or ball gown, or contrarily flip-flops and a trucker hat, I would make all my guests feel welcome in the sanctuary where I work.
And even more importantly -- in conjunction -- I would do everything in my power to encourage and empower my staff to be themselves. Dining out in nice restaurants can often be a daunting thing for people who are under-exposed and inexperienced. However, working in those restaurants is a whole different cup of tea (or glass of wine). I believe strongly in the ideology that managers and owner-operators need to take it upon themselves not to invest in experience, but rather talent. Who are we as industry professionals if we do not demand of ourselves the same openness and appreciation for diversity in our staff as we do in our guests? When you invest in people as they are, you raise the potential to see their best accomplishments, and ultimately the most beneficial results for your business.
So to all of those young proffesionals out there trying their best to make something out of their time in the industry, I say to you, keep pushing, keep punching, keep pouring and be yourself. It may take some time, but someone out there will see you for who you are. It took me some time but I’d like to hope I reside in far less a cage, and far more a home.
Here are at GDL we empower and encourage our staff to share their passion for hospitality.
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