Food by VICE

Why Line Cooks Should Work as Servers

There is no such thing as a back-of-the-house and a front-of-the-house at my restaurant. Everybody that works with me does everything from wash dishes, to bake bread, to make charcuterie, to clear out tables, to close out checks, to serve, to bartend...

by Phillip Frankland Lee
Jan 27 2016, 12:00am

When the time to came to open my own restaurant, I wanted it to be just that: a restaurant. To me, this meant having no such thing as a back-of-the-house and a front-of-the-house.

The guys and girls behind the stoves at my two restaurants, Scratch Bar and The Gadarene Swine, will turn around, come out of the kitchen to greet you as you sit, and talk to you to see what you want to eat. I have made my cooks become my servers too, and it has worked for me for the last two and a half years.

I feel like this is a much cooler and more intimate approach than having somebody who literally gets paid to smile at you come to your table and take your order. Cooks will always be passionate about the food that they cook, unlike some servers who you can tell are just working as a waiter because it's their day job.

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Carrots at The Gadarene Swine

Don't get me wrong, there are some amazing servers out there. But the industry standard motto for Los Angeles is unfortunately not "How do I make these people as happy as possible while they are dining with me?" It is more like, "How do I get these guests to leave me a bigger tip?"

I've been a cook since I was 18 years old. I never made more than $10 an hour as a cook, and I never made more than $35,000 a year as a sous chef. This doesn't make any sense. I remember the tipping point happened for me one night when a server at a restaurant where I used to work came into the kitchen and was complaining about a table who had only tipped $75. He had only worked four hours that night; I worked 13 hours and wasn't even going to clear $75 after taxes. So when I opened my first restaurant, I knew I couldn't have that.

Where do we go as cooks? We don't make enough money to keep doing it all of our lives; and if you do, you're going to really hurt yourself under all of the stress and strain.

All it really took was me telling my cooks to roll up their sleeves, put on a nice shirt instead of looking fucking dirty all the time, and work as cleanly as possible. In return, I told them, "I'm going to give you more money and you can go out the dining room to tell our customers all about your dishes." Our cooks were stoked on it. Now all of my cooks make more money and our guests are happy because they get to interact with chefs during their meal.

Escolar at Scratch Bar

In California, you can implement a pooled house for tips—a.k.a. a service charge—whether your staff likes it or not. As an owner, you can technically share it with anybody in the "chain of service" at a restaurant. This is where it becomes a gray area, because some would argue that somebody like a dishwasher is not part of that. I would argue that if you have a clean piece of silverware or glass in front of you, that is going to affect your tip, so it is.

At first, we didn't have a tip line on our receipts. We just said, "Everything is included. Thank you so much." But it was overwhelming because many people still wanted to tip on top of our established pool, so I put it back on the receipt because it was taking so much time to run everybody's card a second time after service. Now, we're averaging another 12 to 15 percent on top of our 18-percent pooled house service charge.

Squash at The Gadarene Swine

Again, it's not that I'm against servers. I'm against anybody who doesn't take pride in their position. I've been doing this tip-sharing model for the last two and a half years, before the anti-tipping argument was a hot topic in the US. Now, I have guys who are going home with $17 bucks an hour after our tips are included, and we are a small restaurant.

Another problem that I've been trying to improve is the turnover rate of employees in this industry. And I've been successful at that simply by teaching cooks about the restaurant industry as a whole. Everybody that works with me does everything from washing dishes, to baking bread, to making charcuterie, to clearing out tables, to closing out checks, to serving, to bartending—the whole deal. I want people to come and work with me so that they can eventually open up their own restaurant if they wanted to one day, as opposed to "come and work for us, learn a few techniques, then just go cook somewhere else." Hopefully this can help cooks become something in their career.

Last year, I declared February "back-of-the-house appreciation month" and provided a free six-course tasting menu to anybody who showed up with a pay stub as proof that they worked in the back-of-the-house in any restaurant. It was a great success and I'm looking into doing it again this year. Some cooks even came in and told me that if it wasn't for my offer, they wouldn't have been able to take their significant others out on Valentine's Day.

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Steak at Scratch Bar

At the end of the day, this is all part of a bigger conversation. It is about trying to figure out an answer to the existential problem of being a cook, which is: Where do we go as cooks? We don't make enough money to keep doing it all of our lives; and if you do, you're going to really hurt yourself under all of the stress and strain.

All it takes are restaurant owners being part of the solution, not the problem.

Like a lot of other people in this industry, I am a workaholic. However, I eventually learned that working 16-hour days for six days a week is not sustainable. I've had at least 20 people look me in the eye and tell me, "Work me seven days a week, Chef! No big deal!" Some do it because it is the most macho thing that you can do in an environment that is usually fueled by testosterone, and everyone is trying out out-macho each other. Others do it because they can't afford to take a day off. But after three months, you will eventually start to deteriorate, especially because you are struggling to keep the lights on at home—no matter how passionate or strong you may be.

There is a way to be passionate as a chef without damaging yourself. You can be a great chef and grow without having to wake up in pain every morning. You can have money in your bank account to take a date out on your night off. There is no reason why cooking should be one of the lowest-paid professions in the world.

We can change this. All it takes are restaurant owners being part of the solution, not the problem. And when I say part of the problem, I'm talking about anyone who is willing to continue to overlook the problems in the name of these established traditions within the restaurant industry. It's time for us to grow.

As told to Javier Cabral

Editor's note: Phillip Frankland Lee is currently a contestant on Top Chef.