The Union Club of Cleveland’s Lawrence McFadden, CMC, GM/COO, shares a dozen examples of how alcohol plagues the industry.
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential exposed many a secret or two about the world of professional kitchens. For the first time ever, someone gave a raw view of every angle of this business. The timing of the book was perfect as the public was hungry from culinary content, chef stories and restaurant reviews.
In the years before Kitchen Confidential, there wasn’t as much interest in our world until television and celebrity chefs became America’s latest fascination. While Europe recognized chefs, much of the world still saw blue-collar labors. Even the White House used slaves before eventually replacing those positions with non-titled cooks.
Early kitchens were filled with people who were mostly with uneducated, physically deformed and/or introverted. In and out of the kitchen doors, alcohol has played a role in the partnership with cuisine, as a service barter system, and, for some, even a bonus. This quiet currency slowly addicted kitchen staffs without grabbing the spotlight of opioids.
In 1982, I joined the hotel business right out of high school as a dishwasher. It was a safe gap job before transitioning to the armed services in adulthood. This is where I met Flo and Joe, both career kitchen cooks and low paid hacks who drank out of Solo cups from morning to dusk.
I worked mornings with them as a dishwasher and in the nights, I manned the salad station. One night, I pridefully made a complimentary chef’s salads for Carl, one of the bouncers. Carl reciprocated with a cocktail in the same solo cup I had seen in Joe and Flo’s hands. Fearful of getting caught, I gifted the alcohol payment to Joe who gratefully offered a marijuana joint in return. This was my first lesson in kitchen economics and the unspoken barter system.
The military became a distant memory when I enrolled in culinary school at a local college. Upon graduation, my big break came with acceptance to a topflight apprenticeship program. I left behind a cluster of free-standing restaurants, hoping to find better standards, habits, and regulations in my culinary journey.
When my apprentice breakfast rotation started, I stood along with older cooks for a 7am shift. The steam-tables roared, soaking us all within minutes and that complimentary sauna lasted until the end of service. Below the steam table sat ice buckets of beer. This was a new hydration lesson for me. The era was still martini lunches serviced by European cooks, so society did not judge us…yet.
I moved locations for the winter season when an opportunity in Florida came about. A sister club hired the apprentices for the season, returning us back north just in time for Easter.
My first day there, I finished at 10pm. I was cleaning up and drenched in sweat when the sous chef handed me my first of two beers that we had “earned” for that night’s work. I guess it was supposed to be a culinary “bonus” in lieu of air conditioning and reasonable working conditions. This was my first bonus structure payment in the currency of alcohol.
Years later, I moved on to a European Intercontinental Hotel chain where my title and responsibility including financial oversight. During our first finance meeting a line item on the P&L statement read: kitchen beer.
When inquiring the meaning, our Executive Chef noted that while not recognized in the states, this benefit was quite normal in many of the company’s locations. Again, alcohol and kitchens seem to have a unique partnership, even on a global level.
I went from Chicago to the Big Apple and on to another famous hotel with a historical reputation. Our Executive Chef was the first American to hold the title and he was a media darling when NYC Chefs were starting to make the cover of lifestyle magazines.
At Christmas, he was basically the pope of culinary and vendors lined up to gift him endless bottles of spirits. Overflowing with generosity, Chef told us Sous Chefs to “help yourself to any spirits you desire.”
While in NYC on a rare day off, we dined at the best restaurants. By telling the server we were in the industry, we hoped that meant free food and spirits. This was an introduction into how waiters paddled their tips.
Later, as an Executive, I traveled to Egypt for an opening during the holy Ramadan. This was my first exposure to a Muslim country where alcohol was culturally absent (or at the very least hidden from prying eyes).
During hotel openings, we had a trainer lounge and for the first time it was absent of alcohol. This enlisted verbal mutiny from the hard-working trainers causing bootleg products to be stored in the kitchen coolers.
While in Vegas presenting to our casino board my title power point read, “Are drunks profitable?” It brought a round of laughs. The casino generated one hundred million dollars in spirits sales annually by gifting to gambling whales, offering fantasy while free pouring anything to anyone. The dynamic embodied the tag line, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” for customers and high-level casino executives alike.
I later transferred to Hong Kong and learned that baijiu is the tradition spirit to celebrate the Chinese New Year and that the moutai style of baijiu was a major company initiative. This culturally consumed spirit produced millions of yen to the organization in the form of services, promotions, and gifting.
Baijiu is to the Chinese what “wine” is to France or “beer” is to America and the spirit quenches millions of parched mouths thrusting profit to the coffers.
Professional culinary competitions are not void of alcohol as industry awards. Winning competitors are gifted magnum sized mementos along with medals from spirit sponsorships.
The point to all these stories is that there is a deep culture of alcohol acceptance within the culinary industry that can be dangerous in untrained hands.
And while the #MeToo movement brought light to some of the terrible industry actions, a quieter problem we must address is alcohol addiction. While debates rage about minimum wage, staff burnout and mental balance, the destructive habits of alcohol are often kept under wraps. Alcohol has such a strong hold in our culture that surfacing it might risk killing the golden goose.