(Ed note: This is the third post in our Ready to Serve series. You can find previous posts here. sdh)
In 2009, my Saturdays began like this— I’m bobbypinning my hair into a bun, tying my tie around my neck, positioning my Relais & Chateaux pin on my vest. My cuff links I borrowed from the woman next to me who is tucking a green collared shirt into her suit pants. In this locker room, there are other women around me doing the same. Some are buttoning chef coats and slipping their feet into Crocs. Others are sharing hairspray and shoe polish, pocketing wine keys, unwrapping freshly dry-cleaned suit jackets. It is 3:30pm. Most of us woke up only an hour ago.
Anyone who has worked in the hospitality industry knows the special energy reserve tapping that is preparing for a dinner shift. And anyone who has worked in a 4-star restaurant in New York City knows just how intricate this preparation is. The perfect pleats in one’s tailored pants represent sharp and accessible menu/wine/spirit/area history/etc. knowledge. The shiny finger-print-free Alessi crumber, the pocket-sized torchon, purse hooks, and several black Pilot G-2 .07 pens… stand for all the bits of the emotional, mental, and physical groundwork necessary for a successful night in the dining room. In culinary kitchen terms, we call this preparation mise en place – “putting everything in its right place.”
In the women’s locker room at Eleven Madison Park, we put our gear and uniforms in their right places. But the emotional groundwork was a bit more complicated to lay (as it inevitably is anywhere).
This level of fine dining comes with its own unique set of extremely high standards. Management, of course, expects a great deal from their dining room staff – dedication, knowledge, positivity, character. And guests do too. At EMP, we took pride in creating truly comfortable and comforting experiences for our guests. We wanted them to feel as though they were coming home for dinner. We always strived to – as the large poster in the EMP kitchen says – “MAKE IT NICE,” no matter what it took. (This is one reason for pristine uniforms and precise service points— If everything has a particular place, the guest doesn’t need to worry that anything might be out of place.)
And although it was our guests and our managers who motivated the service staff’s level of excellence, everyone who worked at EMP was there because they first held themselves accountable for greatness, because they were solid and honorable. It was important to us to always open-hand serve, to be able to explain the origin of a Pimm’s Cup, to be able to say “yes” to any request, to never skip a beat. We wanted to make it nice. All told, that’s a lot of pressure, especially when you’re trying not to disappoint yourself.
So how does one negotiate this emotional mise en place before a shift? How many inches from the edge of the table should the base of the bread plate rest? (i.e. “table”/”bread plate” = “heart”/”soul”?)
In 2009, for us, it was the Black Eyed Peas.
I got a feeling… One of us starts singing. …that tonight’s gonna be a good night. The rest of us chime in with the ooo-hoo’s. We’re all smiling because we mean it. We’re in this together. We’re there because we believe in what we’re doing, and because we happen to be surrounded by a bunch of people who have become our best friends. Our “anthem” is a sort of plea, an attempt at convincing ourselves that tonight truly will be great – even though this is really exhausting work we’re doing. It doesn’t take a lot of convincing though when we realize our emotional mise en place has already been prepared for us simply through the nature of the business. EMP attracts remarkable staff who put each other first before anything, who support each other like collar stays.
In his bestseller, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, Danny Meyer (founder of EMP) says, “Well before our staff members can extend any kind of meaningful hospitality to our guests, they need to first understand the primary importance of being on each other’s side. Mutual respect and trust are the most powerful tools for building an energetic, motivated, winning team in any field.” I’m not sure Danny had it in mind that his staff would translate “mutual respect and trust” into an all-out a cappella Black Eyed Peas locker room dance party. I think he’d be pleased though, because everything is, in fact, in its right place.
Lindsay Daigle is a PhD candidate in poetry at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where she also teaches undergraduate writing and literature. She holds an MFA from The New School. She’s interested in the poetics of place, space, and melancholy; the ekphrastic process; as well as the intersections between creative writing and composition pedagogies. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barn Owl Review, Quarterly West, The Laurel Review, and elsewhere.