On Writing and Restaurant Labor

Patrick Abatiell

<i>The dining room at Eleven Madison Park</i>. Photograph by djjewelz / Flickr

December 1, 2015 — In the late summer of 2010, Eleven Madison Park, a four-star restaurant in New York City catering to the tastes of the super-rich, decided to temporarily shutter and rebrand.

Eleven Madison had been steadily scaling up its operation since opening in 1998 as a mid-range French bistro notoriously out of step with the grandeur of its setting. This brief closure was intended to signal yet another phase in that ascension. What emerged from the hiatus was a decidedly more streamlined EMP; the dining room was redesigned to hold fewer tables and the restaurant’s menu was artfully pruned.

In place of a more traditional bill of fare that spelled out dishes course by course, Eleven Madison Park provided guests with a small card containing a “grid” of 16 food-related words. The brevity was strategic, and was meant, according to the restaurant’s executive chef and current co-owner, Daniel Humm, to encourage “dialogue” between restaurant guests and their servers. The grid became, for critics and commentators, an almost totemic object, a mysterious document whose aesthetic beauty and semantic caginess colluded in such a way that it seemed to cry out for interpretation, for deeper reading, for analysis—in short, for more words. That was, of course, the point.

<i>The Grid</i>. Photograph by Laissez Fare / Flickr

Like most restaurants of its caliber, Eleven Madison Park has been just as interested in generating talk as in producing food. Beyond celery-root puree and artisanal malt and carrot tartar, its primary product is scuttlebutt, hullabaloo. Certainly, the grid got people talking, ushering in a new era of chatter for the restaurant and for restaurants like it. As Jeff Gordinier wrote two years later, in a New York Times elegy occasioned by yet another EMP revamp to which the grid ultimately fell victim, “the restaurant’s menu morphed into a 16-word wonder of design that wouldn’t be out of place on display at MoMA.” In a way, Gordinier was right. There is perhaps no institution where the already hazy line separating aesthetic appreciation from commodity fetishism becomes more troublingly blurred than MoMA. Except, of course, for the cultural institution of dining out. Culinary culture in the West is as much a discursive phenomenon as an alimentary one; it is as much a matter of what gets said as of what gets eaten. Disturbingly, however, the discursive economy that emerges from this segment of culture—and which links restaurateurs, diners, writers, and readers across any number of media platforms—provides a distorted picture of the world it describes. In the vast assemblage of texts and textual practices thrown together under the heading “food writing,” service labor is all but entirely unrepresented.

This problem is particularly apparent now, as the literary component of food culture has undergone a veritable explosion. In a recent study, Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food (2014), Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson has begun to map out the contours of this terrain, and its dimensions are considerable. Restaurant reviews attract major traffic on the Internet. Food blogs, both amateur and professional, proliferate. Chef memoirs routinely appear on best-seller lists. Commodity histories (of cod, for instance, or bananas, along with salt and pigs and shrimp and oysters and coal) have made a comeback after their heyday two and a half centuries ago. And contemporary cookbooks devote as much energy to their narrative or expository content as they do to providing recipes; they tell stories, that is, rather than merely instruct. Despite this impressive reach, however, you have to read hard, and most often in vain, to catch glimpses of waiters, dishwashers, or line cooks.

At a certain point, this elision starts to seem perverse. The National Restaurant Association estimates that there are currently around 14 million service employees in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 2.5 million of these employees work as waiters or waitresses, meaning that many more occupy far less visible (and therefore more vulnerable, less well compensated, and often more physically demanding) positions. In general, however, food writing has declined to consider, in any substantive or sustained way, the texture of these experiences, and consequently has not yet begun to seriously tangle with the political claims of this considerable segment of the US workforce.

The consequences of this invisibility are not merely aesthetic. As long as service work remains consigned to a space outside our immediate perceptions of “food culture,” there is no hope for redressing the systemic challenges facing people who make a living working in restaurants. This is a problem that requires immediate attention, and one place we might begin to look for strategies that address it is the field of literary fiction.

Early in Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, Willem, an aspiring actor obliged to support himself in his first postcollege years by working in a restaurant, experiences a moment of acute panic when he realizes that he is, in fact, a waiter.

He finds himself at Ortolan, a beautifully wrought cipher for upscale New York dining, whose name eerily hints at the depths of the as-yet-unrevealed brutality, morbidity, and pain in store for the novel’s characters. There, he indulges in a series of anxious reflections about how he might distinguish himself and his fellow “actor-waiters” from what he calls the “careerists,” those who work in the restaurant without any real claim on artistic ambition. Findlay, Ortolan’s manager, “himself […] a former actor,” inspires a particular terror in Willem, serving as “a walking career memento mori, a cautionary tale in a gray wool suit.”

Throughout the novel, Yanagihara assembles scenarios that throw into relief not so much the contents of a character’s thoughts as the assumptions and logics that motivate them. They are remarkable scenes of reading. Willem, here, proceeds according to the narcissistic belief that other people are only allegories for some feature of his own life. But his effort to distance himself from the “careerists” isn’t just a matter of the egotism of early adulthood. It is also a question of narrative—of how we decide which stories merit telling, of what makes a life seem valuable, legible, worthy of our attention.

One of the few things that realist fiction shares with real life is its insistence on positioning aspiration at the center of these considerations. Main characters, we learn from the history of the novel, progress. They develop. They want more. Service labor, however, consistently fails to register along these lines. As in Willem’s reflections, it comes freighted instead with a series of negative affects (failure, disappointment, resignation) and conventionally signifies a withdrawal altogether from the realm of appreciable life narrative. Even in a culture eagerly invested in promoting any number of discursive practices that celebrate food and dining, service employees aren’t seen as success stories. They don’t therefore lend themselves as good material for novels. They aren’t “protagonists,” in any conventional sense of the word.

Photograph by Patrick Abatiell

Yanagihara gives us this problem in miniature as Willem goes to work. We learn that “sometimes Willem would stand on the edge of the kitchen and watch as mismatched pairs of tiny dark-haired waitresses and long skinny men circled through the main dining room, skating past one another in a weirdly cast series of minuets.” The blocking here is key. As narrating subject, Willem brackets his own experience, cordoning it off (despite the literal proximity) from that of his coworkers, whom he considers from the position of a determined critical and aesthetic remove. By contrast, the waiters evoked in this scene demonstrate no capacity to speak for themselves. Instead, they persist in a condition of exception—a de-subjectified existence as bodies in motion, an animated mass.

Compared to the pathos of the 650 pages that follow, Willem’s moment of insecurity plays as blinkered, elitist, and naive. This is, however, precisely how most writers engaged in the textual side of “food culture” insist on thinking. And like Willem in his youth, they do so at the expense of those who make a living in service, casting these subjects into the background for their failure to comply with the most banal and time-bound expectations about what constitutes a valuable, narratable life.

Reviewing the novel in the New Yorker, Jon Michaud draws a comparison between A Little Life and another recent work, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, on the grounds that both books invest themselves in depicting characters whose lives are gouged out by an urge toward self-destruction. Michaud identifies this thematic overlap and leaves it at that, but he is perhaps more right than he knows. Both novels, it seems, seek to upend standard assumptions about the relationship between aspirational development and literary narrative. And both (although to varying degrees) use service labor as a foil in this project.

The difference in approach, however, could not be more pronounced. Yanagihara’s novel passes briefly through a dining room. Ortolan, the nightmare in disguise, marks a phase in her character’s life and thinking, and acts as the staging ground for the novel’s more general project of reevaluating the fundamental tenets of literary narrative. Once it raises theses issues, the novel moves on, and the waiters Willem evokes in his moment of frenzy remain illegible, exempted from the space of narration. Tierce’s novel, on the other hand, sits in this world and stays.

Photograph by Patrick Abatiell

Love Me Back is narrated by Marie, a career waitress and single mother with a tendency toward self-harm whose attempts at establishing a stable life are repeatedly thwarted by the particular dangers, temptations, and structural inequalities that organize not only her world, but also the world of restaurant labor more generally.

First things first: Tierce is a staggeringly good prose writer. Her novel is successful in large part due to the capacious, rambunctious intelligence she lends to her narrator, who is, as a character, a marvel of self-awareness and self-exposure. She muses, for instance, on a lover: “The strength in him was panther-dark and menacing and in spite of the ordinary green lines across the toes of his dress socks I was too scared of him to get wet.” It is possible, of course, to disappoint without surprising, and in this way critics have tended to refer to these evocations of female sexuality as “shocking,” or to use them as evidence of the novel’s “grittiness.” Love Me Back is not, however, a novel that invests much in shock value. It is impelled, instead, by a shrewd understanding of the world it inhabits. Its attention is unflinching, certainly, but it is also diagnostic, analytical, and wise.

Love Me Back uses this critical intelligence to mark out a complicated and at times lightless geography of service work, as Marie transitions from job to job—working alternately at a chain restaurant, a small café, an upscale steakhouse, and so forth. Here again, however, the question of development is thrown into relief. The details of Marie’s life discernably change from chapter to chapter, but they are not strung together by a tale of progress or improvement. What we get instead is a series of desperate compromises. Each passing phase in Marie’s professional life may signal a shift in income (and Tierce’s novel seems unprecedented in its willingness to talk about money in specific terms), but each also comes with an increased exposure to risk, and these forms of risk all derive from the particular conditions of Marie’s respective workplaces.

Both novels use service labor as a foil in efforts to upend standard assumptions about the relationship between aspirational development and literary narrative.   

This feels new. In general, novels don’t spend much time following their characters to work, but part of the brilliance of Tierce’s book is its insistence that the personal is, for many, inextricable from the professional, that concerns about health and stability, about bodily integrity and love and care, are inseparable from the turmoil of the workplace. Realist fiction has been disinclined to engage with the fact that what we do for work, and the ways in which that work is regarded culturally, determine how we live. Tierce’s novel, then, offers a much-needed corrective. It meticulously tracks the ways in which Marie’s opportunities for security are delimited by the circumstances in which she is obliged to make a living.

The portrait of the difficulties of restaurant work that results is astonishingly well wrought. In some fundamental way, Tierce just gets the feel of it. Facts and affects and situations emerge in Love Me Back that almost no mainstream “food writer” would care to touch. Restaurants are, with alarming frequency, organized according to a crassly racialized division of labor. They can be places of great anxiety and hostility, as the practice of tipping keeps service employees beholden to the whim of their customers. Sexual exploitation and harassment (from managers as much as from diners) are commonplace. And kitchens are often sites marked by violence and the threat of unnecessary injury. The writing that sustains “food culture” wants to ignore this, preferring to slog onward with a form of talk that can’t accommodate some of the most distressing realities of service work.

As a genre, food writing does, I think, have an ameliorative potential. We can see its beginnings, for instance, in the somewhat ambivalent success of the “farm-to-table” movement, in which writing (in the form of op-eds, critical studies, cookbooks, blog entries) played such a significant role. The questions that emerged here—about animal justice, sustainable agriculture, and so on—are important ones. But they have caught on in large part because they are also massively trendy and easily commodifiable. Savvy diners know what a “farm-to-table” restaurant is and will generally be able to give you a decent run-down of the movement’s principle tenets. But “farm-to-table” is a (literal) misnomer in the sense that it only really focuses on how food gets from the farm to the kitchen. We need to push further. We have yet to witness the emergence of a writing, or a politics, that looks at how food makes the rest of the trip, from the kitchen to the table.

As a gesture of compensation for the endemic failures of food writing, and of “food culture” more generally, Tierce’s novel couldn’t come at a better time. The primary textual practices constituting this cultural field are in dire need of reevaluation. Dominant modes of visual representation, for instance (think Instagram photos of pancakes), have limited themselves to a vocabulary that routinely neglects or intentionally excludes service work. Meanwhile, cultures of anonymous reviewing by self-styled “foodies” on platforms like Yelp disregard the determined imbalance in power that exists between the anonymous commentators and the highly contingent, vulnerable position of service laborers, whose job security is often on the line.

Yelp reviewers are easy to demonize, of course, partly because they tend to be so high-toned and thrilled in their rebukes of restaurant employees. They are quick to moralize, which makes them ridiculous, but they are also in good company. They may, as a rule, lack the writerly grace and sophistication of mainstream food critics, but they share with these more prominent voices an overarching disregard for the realities of service work.

Here’s an easy example. Since his appointment as restaurant critic at the New York Times in 2011, Pete Wells has worked not only to distinguish himself from his predecessors but also to overturn some of the most fundamental precepts and conventions of food writing as a genre. We find it early on, for instance, in his review of a Brooklyn Shake Shack: “Yes,” he announces, “I would give stars to a hamburger stand.” Clearly it is a point of pride for Wells, this insistence that he is not your father’s food critic.

Dispiritingly, however, he most certainly is. The subject of his reviews may well strike one as idiosyncratic and novel—that is, if one were to limit oneself merely to the archives of the Times—but the tenor of his approach, his quickness to scorn and offense, are nothing but the most typical vehicles for the expression of bourgeois entitlement.

Photograph by Patrick Abatiell

This is especially true in terms of Wells’s attitude toward service labor, which, precisely in keeping with the conventions of food criticism, appears only rarely in his reviews. When it does, it is most often met with scoffing, or churlishness, if not outright disdain.

Take, for instance, his recent review of Rebelle, an upscale, wine-driven, vaguely French restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side. The review is even-handed and jaunty. It takes into account the ambience of the place as much as the fare. But for all its attention to detail, it seems almost oblivious to the presence of a service staff. Wells isn’t alone in this problem; he is merely conforming to the conventions of his field. The problem, though, is this: his field is creepy, and classist, and outdated.

If one were to do the impossible, and take food criticism seriously, we would have to imagine a restaurant as a kind of lively phantasmagoria, where food and beverage enter the purview of the critic as if of their own volition. It is the staging ground for the most classic forms of commodity fetishism; Marx’s vampiric table would find itself right at home here. Food simply happens in this genre, entering the scene of writing with an uncanny suddenness. Once there, it seeps descriptive language, and presumably it is on the basis of this language that the value of the critic is assessed. Wells, in this sense, measures up. He is, at times, a very good prose stylist.

So little of this prose, however, is directed toward addressing service labor that it is worth pausing over the exceptions. At Rebelle, as elsewhere, service enters the scene as the object of reproach. In this case, Wells expresses displeasure over his server’s apparently “scripted” suggestion that he order as if the menu were designed for four courses. He objects strongly, breaking the paragraph and addressing his server directly. “No,” he chides. Full stop. “Your menu is à la carte.”

Wells’s “no” is the first word in the review that addresses service labor as anything other than a question of ambiance, and its function here is powerful. It is a moment of aggressive apostrophe.

Photograph by Patrick Abatiell

As a rhetorical figure, apostrophe invokes or speaks to something that isn’t there. Its function is not referential, but performative. It conjures something—calling it, if not altogether into being, at least into legibility. In this case, what it conjures is a waiter. Or not so much a waiter as a structural position, one of decided inferiority in relation to Wells, the writer and diner. We need to be clear: this isn’t criticism; it’s interpellation.

This misuse of rhetoric is all the more frustrating because I don’t disagree with Wells’s point here. No one likes to be upsold, not even in a domain of culture whose most fundamental buy-in asks us to take as normal the exchange of a significant quantity of money (e.g., $12) for, say, a leek with some broth on it. What I object to is Wells’s ready production of a scene of coerced subordination. This is the literary equivalent of the worst form of bad restaurant behavior. Wells summons his server to the table only in order to chide her. Afterward, she is dismissed.

This is too bad, especially because Wells is onto something. He acknowledges the fact that this flimsy upsell is probably the result of a script, given to his server by whomever it is that keeps her employed. In making this his server’s fault, however, the critic dramatically misplaces his ire.

His recourse to the metaphor of theater is telling. The fiction that Wells, Yelp reviewers, and other middlebrow critics perpetuate is that service is a type of performance and therefore subject to the terms of aesthetic critique. “No,” one might say, copping Wells’s own patronizing rhetorical crutch, it’s not a performance. It’s labor.

In Wells’s defense, he errs by convention. He is not altogether deranged. In this, he seems to differ from Eater’s Robert Sietsema. In a recent post, Sietsema asks for our attention in order to criticize a restaurant phenomenon he somewhat extravagantly names “compulsory approbation,” by which he means a style of dialogue common in contemporary restaurants where waiters enjoin you to admit that you like the food. They ask leading questions, Sietsema complains. This makes it awkward for diners to express their displeasure. “Woe betide any customer who refuses to play the game,” he writes. The stakes for him are obviously very high.

It is difficult not to pity a public figure with so little understanding of the world he occupies and somehow feels comfortable annotating. Sietsema has spun the power differential between restaurant diners and service employees fully on its head, but it is unclear whether this is the result of a kind of witless indifference, or if the false problem Sietsema diagnoses is simply the paranoid manifestation of a type of elitist dread.

If one were to do the impossible, and take food criticism seriously, we would have to imagine a restaurant as a kind of lively phantasmagoria, where food and beverage enter the purview of the critic as if of their own volition.

In reality, restaurant diners have traditionally had no problem at all articulating their complaints. The industry is in many ways based on enabling a type of unbounded discursive freedom for its customers. Diners are, in general, empowered to say whatever they want. Service employees, on the other hand, are strictly constrained in their speech. As Tierce shows us repeatedly in Love Me Back, a server’s job security is in many cases entirely dependent on her ability to withhold from comment, even in the face of insult, harassment, or abuse. A culture of tipping only exaggerates this problem, as restaurant customers are free to determine the size of a gratuity based on how quietly the staff has endured their bad behavior.

Bizarrely, however, this isn’t enough restriction for Sietsema, who seems to think that the regulation of speech is a worthy task for criticism. He expresses an almost maniacal nostalgia for a time when talk at the table was limited to what he calls “the classic waiter questions you really want to hear: ‘Is there anything else I can get you?’ or ‘Are you finished with your main course?’”—in other words, the most functional expressions of a ready supplication.

There is a long tradition of public cranks using the rhetoric of criticism as an alibi for the most basic forms of bourgeois complaining. There may be a place for this, but we shouldn’t go on confusing it with an act of the intellect, or dignifying it with our attention. These guys aren’t critics, they’re consumers. They confuse the airing of wounded elitist sensibilities with insight.

Ask anyone who’s worked in a restaurant for a while: it’s hard. And as a professional culture, it is in desperate need of reevaluation. Help might be on the way, as a few US states and municipalities have begun making minimum wage legislation for fast food and other service workers a priority. These measures are certainly welcome, but they are also slow in coming, and it remains uncertain whether these changes will ultimately spur the radical cultural overhaul that the service industry needs. This is precisely why now is the time for a more critical, intelligent, and politically aware food writing—one which is willing to leave behind its tired emphasis on customer satisfaction, and which at long last takes up the task of representing service labor for what it is. Imagine a writing that makes space for other “classic waiter questions,” like, “could you please look me in the eye when you speak to me?” or “could I please have health insurance?”

This is all the more important because, culturally, service work deserves far more dignity than it’s granted. Ask anyone who’s worked in a restaurant: it’s powerful. It can be a labor of incredible tenderness, of great joy.