Debbie and I first met David Lebovitz in Paris on a trip he had planned in 2010. David took us on a fabulous six-day food and wine gourmet tour that was a once-in-a-lifetime tour de force. David is a former Chez Panisse pastry wizard and the author of a number of books, including The Sweet Life in Paris (David has written a number of books, all of which you should buy if food or Paris interest you). Now David has written a bit of a history of his career in the restaurant industry on his Substack. He writes:
The other day, a French neighbor asked me how I started working in restaurants. I don’t know if teenagers in Paris work after school or on weekends as a dishwasher, especially at places like Bonanza Sirloin Pit, as I did when I was sixteen. Buffalo Grill, a French chain, is the closest to the Western-themed Bonanza, but I doubt they have Texas toast: extra-thick white bread drenched in butter then griddled until crisp and toasted on both sides and served warm alongside ribeye steaks, as well as pricier T-Bones.
Back then, we didn’t have Anthony Bourdain, Food Network, Top Chef, or Master Chef to make professional cooking look like something to aspire to. True, Bourdain didn’t necessarily show the best sides of the work (and he was critical of Alice Waters), but he made working in restaurants (and bro kitchen culture) sound thrilling. I’d hear home cooks dropping the word mise, which is short for mise en place, where you put all your ingredients in place when you’re getting ready for service. I worked in restaurant kitchens for over thirty years, and I never heard anyone say “mise,” even at Bonanza, although they did have free parking.
Personally, I never found restaurant work glamorous. I worked my way through college at Muggsy’s, a college hangout that was famous for—you guessed it, mugs of beer. We had to wash the glass mugs so fast because the restaurant went through them so quickly. I remember the thick glass bottoms of the mugs cracking off and crashing to the floor when a server tried to fill one of the still-warm mugs with cold beer. I scooped ice cream for a few summers in college and also worked at a vegetarian restaurant, where one night I had a stare-down with a table of womyn from the womyn’s community who requested a female waiter. I told them I was as close as they were going to get.
Even when I had more restaurant chops under my belt in San Francisco, having worked as a line cook and then a pastry cook for many years, a very high-end restaurant was opening up in the city and the chef-owner wanted to hire me to be the pastry chef—for $7/hour, which was minimum wage at the time. During my interview, he also bragged about once throwing a hot soufflé at a waiter.
Having worked for a “screamer”—chefs come in two types: screamers and watchers, the latter ones don’t know how to cook, and they want the real cooks making the food—I declined the job. I worked for a screamer and that was the only job I went home and cried after.
I started working at Chez Panisse in the café upstairs as a line cook. At the time, getting a reservation in the restaurant downstairs was probably the hardest restaurant reservation to get in the world. The café was meant to be a more casual place, which was what Chez Panisse originally started out as, and was incredibly busy. We’d open the doors at 5pm to a line that streamed from the front door all the way down the sidewalk. In those days, the café didn’t take reservations, didn’t take credit cards, and had a smoking and non-smoking section. Even the waiters who smoked didn’t want to work in the smoking section because people there would chain-smoke. It’s funny in retrospect that people used to smoke in restaurants, and when I moved to France, people thought it was barbaric that you couldn’t smoke in restaurants in America. Personally, I thought it was pretty great.
A lot of Americans bemoaned France’s smoking ban in restaurants, saying things like, “Oh, how I’ll miss the romantic smell of Gauloises in the air when I visit!” In all honestly, if they even got a whiff of cigarette smoke in a restaurant back in the States, all hell would have broken loose.
Read more here.
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