Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.
The majority of your opening-day staff at any restaurant is mostly long gone a few months in. Eventually everyone learns to roll with the punches, but until your team becomes a family, which takes time, everyone is expendable. Dishwashers who really wanted to be line cooks, bar-backs who originally applied for bartender positions, and food runners—so many food runners—don't hesitate to just say, "Fuck it", and not show up to their shift for those first few months. It happens. You get used to it.
So I wasn't surprised when, a few weeks into business, one of my line cooks—we'll call him Phil—didn't show up to work the day after I gave him a cash advance on his paycheck. I had reluctantly given him that advance because my Executive Chef told me he needed the guy and that we couldn't do it without him.
Phil had been difficult from the start, to put it lightly. He casually called me a Nazi for not letting the staff smoke in view of customers. He was one of those guys that still used "gay" as a pejorative to express his dissatisfaction with everything from his schedule to the night's specials. If you've worked the line in any restaurant in America, you've worked alongside him. But what mattered is that for the short time he worked at my restaurant, Phil showed up on time and did a good job. Until he didn't.
About two weeks after I gave Phil the cash advance, a beloved ex-bartender who had already cycled through a brief employment with us wrote the whole staff an email in the middle of the night. Phil was dead.
He had used that cash advance I gave him to score some heroin and go on a bender. He was up for days, spotted at some of the classic industry after-hours spots in town—until he just wasn't anymore.
Sometimes in a room full of sparkling knives and fire and dishes flying through the air, it's difficult to notice people's flaws, or to give them the proper attention they deserve, because no matter what, the machine needs to keep on running.
I had no way of knowing that Phil had a problem, because truth be told, Phil didn't have a problem until there was a problem. He was just a guy who liked shift drinks and blowing off steam after work in a city where some bars don't ever close. One day he made a stupid decision that cost him his life.
For better or worse restaurants—particularly kitchens—attract a certain kind of person: unique, adventurous, creative outsiders who often turn to restaurant work because nowhere else would have them. These people become your family, and like your family, they each have their flaws. But in nightlife businesses there are often drugs, and definitely alcohol, around. The reality of the kitchen is that guys are underpaid and overworked. It requires superhuman endurance to stay on your feet for 10-15 hour shifts. So the unspoken rule of the kitchen is that no matter what you do outside of work, or even often despite what you do at work, you're welcome as a member of this clan of outsiders as long as you show up on time, you stick out your shift until the end, and you know how to run your station.
Sometimes in a room full of sparkling knives and fire and dishes flying through the air, it's difficult to notice people's flaws, or to give them the proper attention they deserve, because no matter what, the machine needs to keep on running. So we don't always looks as hard as we should. Phil's death taught me to look a little harder and check in with my employees.
The couple of weeks after Phil's death were a blur for me. All of the excitement and electricity of operating a buzzy new hotspot were replaced with thoughts of Phil. Had I done the right thing in lending him the money? Had he intended all along to use the cash for drugs? Was this ever going to happen again? And how could I prevent it?
I came to learn that in opening my restaurant, I had adopted 30 tattooed, chain-smoking, career drinkers who made godawful financial and romantic decisions every single night when they walked out the doors with a wad of tips.
At the next staff meeting, a few dozen of us sat in the dining room one morning before AM service and took turns promising to one another that if we saw something alarming happening in a colleague's life—like many members of the team came to realize they had noticed with Phil leading up to his overdose—that we would speak up about it sooner. As the team eventually coalesced into something more permanent, many of the familiar faces from that meeting would go on to remind future members of our boozy, candle-lit family about what had happened to Phil in those early days. Phil's death became part of the mise en place of our restaurant itself, a piece of the restaurant just as tangible as the hot line or the bar itself.
In the following years, our staff would deal with abusive boyfriends, sexual harassment, abortions, mass shootings, and yes, plenty more drug-related situations. Though thankfully, most of the subsequent incidents were more comical than tragic. Or maybe it just became easier to laugh at each fresh hell? Either way, we banded together and got through it time after time.
I came to learn that in opening my restaurant, I had adopted 30 tattooed, chain-smoking, career drinkers who made godawful financial and romantic decisions every single night when they walked out the doors with a wad of tips. And that someone didn't necessarily need to be an addict for them to have an eventual drug problem. Eventually I figured out that my employees were going to sleep with one another and show up to work hungover each day regardless of whether or not it was allowed in the company handbook. I learned that all I could do was be there for them when they needed me, but I couldn't be responsible for their decisions.
I spent years replaying the chain of events that led to Phil's death in my head. Usually, thoughts of Phil were prompted by getting envelopes addressed to him in the mail—bill collectors, student loans, that sort of thing. To this day I get them. And to this day, I have no idea if I fucked up by giving him that money. Phil's death was one of the darker moments in our collective story, but it wouldn't be the last of them. Drugs, alcohol, and checking account overdraws are omnipresent in commercial bars and restaurants. The early timing of the incident was a loud and clear message that shit would from then on constantly be hitting the fan. But this sort of thing, it turns out, happens. That sad truth is, you get used to it.
As told to Brad Cohen
This article was originally published in August 2016.