An abridged version of this article was published in The Montague Reporter.
To My Fellow Cooks,
Every professional cook has his own brand of catch phrases. Some get world wide fame—“Bam!” (queue applause) or “Shut it down!” and some hack goes crying out of Hell’s Kitchen. “Take a picture!” or “They’re gonna love it!” and one of my personal favorites, only for its obnoxious repetitiveness and way of sticking in your head like Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, “Beautious, baby!”
I’ve adopted several such phrases over the course of my career; “I’m a cook, not a magician,” or “I invented it.” In the latter, I’m not referring to the steak, rather, the ground upon which the cattle graze. I coined the phrase, “Same old (stuff), different pile.” It caught on about six months after I first uttered it to a delivery driver, who, like the other 14 million American restaurant industry workers, trudged through another morning of monotony for no other gain than a paycheck just large enough to keep him coming back for more the next week.
The catch phrases are as predictable as the job itself. They are the same, day in and day out. That is, until some gluten-freak* walks in the front doors and ruins the day—the boring, frustrating, tiresome, monotonous and predictable day—of any dozen restaurant workers. The gluten-freak has forced me to coin yet another catch phrase, “I’m a cook, not a doctor.” I don’t need to see his medical records or hear a list of his physical symptoms if he happens to eat something that bothers him. I don’t care if he ate something at another restaurant with another cook who thought he was a faker. Just tell me what the hell he wants to eat. I will cook it for him, that’s what I do.
Here we go, right? Another attempt to pick on people who are not actual Celiacs. Another attempt to curtail the worlds most popular diet since man discovered fire. Absolutely not. There are plenty of those sorts of articles out there. Many are pretty darn funny. They all went viral, received the praise of the internet. And the scorn, no doubt, from the subjects of their frustration.
So what do I mean when I say, “I’m a cook, not a doctor?” I mean I’m not qualified to prescribe medication or diagnose your allergies. I mean I don’t know, for that matter, need to know how the human body metabolizes your food. I mean that I don’t know, or wouldn’t have known, how New Variant CJD affects prions in the brain leading to signs of dementia and that, if I hadn’t been paid by a fellow culinary student to write a term paper about Mad Cow Disease, I wouldn’t even have known that there were actual cannibals in New Guinea. I only learned about it so I could buy grass while I was in culinary school. That’s right—culinary school. College for cooks. Not med school. I dropped out.
One year of college, learning to cook, is hardly enough education to even have a conversation about an allergy with someone who has even just once clicked on WebMD.
Perhaps there’s more to that, though. Have you ever heard someone yell, “Is there a cook in the house?” when someone is choking? Or, have you ever been in such unbearable pain that you shamefully admit, “I need a cook?” I can comfortably say you have not. There is my role, once again, defined. A cook cooks, a doctor treats. Knowing your role is important. I know my role when I buy my wife jewelry. I buy jewelry afforded by a cook’s salary. I know my role when my kids are sick. I make soup, but they need medication. So why is it, then, with my industry booming, with fame and notoriety seemingly at my fingertips, from high up on the pedestal and looking down on all of the other blue collar workers making ends meet just the same as I, when the gluten-freak walks through the front door I suddenly forget my role?
The hospitality business has lost its way.
There are the two operative words, and it seems that we are fighting both. First, we must remember it is a business. We must remember that the customer is always right, no matter how wrong we think they are. We must make money. We can’t go around pissing people off and expect to continue to do so. We have thousands of customers who are dining out after previously being forced to stay home due to their allergies and “sensitivities.” They are coming in droves, and we have catered to them! We have changed menus and recipes to accommodate them. They spend 23 billion dollars a year on gluten-free products. There hasn’t been as much money in a fad since the invention of the kid’s menu. And yet, we fight. We don’t really want to serve them. We would rather they take their money elsewhere.
The operative word, “hospitality,” is what we do. It’s the reason we have business, the very root of our livelihood. To loosely define it, hospitality means giving people what they want. Would you like a drink? Can I offer you dessert? Let me get your chair for you. You are special, and my guest, and I will do anything in my power to please you. The only difference between going to your gramdma’s house and coming to my restaurant is you will pay me, and I won’t send you a card with a five dollar check on your birthday. (Although, I recently had several emails from chain restaurants wishing me a happy birthday!) Somehow we have forgotten this.
Somehow the gluten-freak has managed to drive a dry, flavorless gluten-free cracker between the two most important things in our lives—hospitality and business.
I understand they are frustrating. Frustrating to us like tackling Larry Fitzgerald in the open field is to the Packers. Frustrating to us like education reform is to the President. Frustrating to us like everyday in the life of Tom Brady’s saintly chef. Someone please give that man an award. Frustrating to us like defending an allergy to a snotty waitress is to them. But I say, for the sake of the 23 billion dollars they have to spend, stop. Stop posting the articles, stop making jokes in the back, stop teasing the waitress about her idiotic questions about the difference between wheat and whey.
Get back in your place. Know your role. Feed them, or starve yourself. I, for one, would like a cut of that 23 billion dollars. I, for one, don’t care if they are allergic, faking an allergy, or simply looking for attention. I will serve them, and I will smile. I will smile when I cash my paycheck and when I get a pat on the back for accommodating whatever bizarre request comes next. Just get over it. Or they will get rid of you.
You may be still trying to teach your waitress about gluten. You’d think that would be easy, right? Well, have you ever heard of FODMAPs? Try teaching a waitress about Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. I’ll take gluten any day. Give me dairy allergies. Just imagine how much worse your life would be if all of the gluten-freaks became soy-free. When diet fads run their course they’re replaced with something else. Brace for the next one—it will happen.
In the meantime, cook whatever it is they want. Make them feel special. Make them happy, and they will come back for more. And when you cash your paycheck, and spend what little you have left after rent, utilities and slip-resistant shoes, remember that you’re doing so because of them. Because they are entitled, and because they are obnoxious enough to make themselves known, here they sit, waiting for a good meal and wanting to give you their money. Take it.
Treat the gluten-freaks like everyone else, that is, treat them like people who pay you to feed them. The sooner you get that, and stop complaining, the sooner you will be content. If you truly can’t get over it, like this Reddit author, go work for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, where they not only encourage rude and condescending customer service, they require it. It says so right here.
*The term “gluten-freak” is derived from the restaurant vernacular, “Glutard,” which may offend some readers.—ED
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