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Back vs. Front:
A House Divided
gourmet articlesarchiveback vs. front

One of the realities of heading a kitchen is that you have decided to be the leader, the manager, the team well as produce a unique menu to present to the public. So, not only do you face the pressure that comes from public exposure, you have the added responsibility of keeping the team that produces and delivers your product working together in harmony. You are visible in both the front and the back of the house. Even if you never actually appear at the table, your food is there "speaking" to the guests. Because you can't be in two places at once, and most chefs I know choose the kitchen, you have to rely on the front of the house to represent you properly and in the style you prefer. Just like your line cooks have to represent your concepts on the plate properly and in the style you prefer.

Gosh, it doesn't sound as if the jobs in the front of the house and the back of the house are all that different? So how come ever since I started contributing to this site have the waiters that I work with been begging me to address the issue of the conflict that exists between the kitchen line and the servers. Conflict? Yes indeedy! Just as any team, there are a variety of personalities and abilities that will appear on your staff. But the largest rift will always be between the kitchen line and the servers.

Maybe it's the way that we are compelled to dress. Waiters can be required to wear anything from full tuxedo to logo'd t-shirts and jeans. The line cook has the heavy cotton jacket and the checked pants that never fit right. Plus a hat. Although these uniforms are necessary to each of our activities, you can bet that the waiter feels more attractive and looks more comfortable in theirs.

Maybe it's the equipment. The line cook has to provide a set of knives and other necessary tools that can cost hundreds of dollars for the most basic kit. The waiter needs only a pen, a wine key, a table crumber, a sturdy pair of appropriate shoes and, maybe, even a pad of paper. Total cost: (if the waiter didn't managed to get the wine key from one of the wine reps that visit the restaurant), around $150. Savvy waiters look for jobs where the uniform is provided or there might be some salary reimbursement for providing unusual outfits.

Perhaps the line would like to spend more time in the temperature controlled climate of the dining area instead of sweating it out over the stove. Well, even though the dining room tends to be under some sort of climate control, the waiter is often moving so quickly through the area that the sense of refreshment is lost on them. Not to mention that we do spend quite a bit of our time in the kitchen, as well. And when we get into the protected environment of the kitchen, we tend to let our hair down a bit and behave in a different way then when we are under the scrutiny of the customer and the front of the house management.

While all of these reasons offer some explanation why there might be resentment towards the waiters from the line staff, my sources assure me that it all comes down to one thing. Money. Almost every line cook that I have worked with has at some time or another let me know that they envy the money I must be making for the type of work that I do. Not that I ever discuss my income with my co-workers, but every once in a while I get a good tip and, like magic, the line hears about it. But that one good tip is often balanced off by several bad or mediocre tips. In the end, it all evens out to an income on which I can support myself comfortably. Your line makes a salary. It's the same amount each and every week. So if one part of the house has an income that they can count on weekly and the other part of the house has to rely on the whim of the patrons, who is better off?

I know that line cooks tend to make less income and that they are as transient as some waiters, looking for that next experience in a new cuisine with new styles to learn from a different chef. Waiters might move on every couple of years looking for the next "hot spot" and following the great tip machine. Maybe the line cooks look at their own transience as having some better quality as they pursue to hone their craft, while the waiter doesn't appear to be picky as to whose hash he/she's slinging, as long as there's a decent buck in it. Maybe that's the underlying friction. The line cook is the craftsman. The waiter is only the middle man. And yet the waiter is the one getting the most direct response to the line's hard work.

But the waiter's skills go way beyond getting the right food to the right people in a timely manner. The waiter has to be able to bring an enthusiasm and friendliness to the dining public no matter how rude or demanding the guest might be. If one of your line cooks shows up in a crappy mood all they have to do is keep it to themselves and do their job and go home. But a waiter has to go out to the front of the house and contain whatever personal problems might have occurred during the day and focus all their energies on making sure that someone else is having the best possible experience.

Although there are members of your service staff who will come and go, I hope that you are fortunate enough to have a solid core of waiters who will stay with your establishment for their entire service career. Some of the waiters I work with have been at the same job for 20 years. These people are remarkable for their staying power and their abilities to bring the same energy to the floor every shift. I started 3 years ago. There isn't a single person on the line who is still there from when I first began (except for the chef).

I feel I have a very good working relationship with the line wherever I work. I am grateful that they will work for a small salary and I always try to say "Please" and "Thank you". It's a small thing but you need to encourage the front and the back to have mutual respect for the jobs that each of them do for you and to show it. Everyone will enjoy their jobs more if the kitchen is an agreeable space with everyone appreciating how they contribute to your team. Can't we all just get along?

Amy Sunshine's first job in a restaurant was washing the glasses in her father's Kosher deli. Currently she is a waiter at The Dining Room of the Ritz-Carlton. Please direct any questions or comments to [email protected]

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