Amateur Hour: Hey Look! I’m A Restaurant Manager!

When the owner of an established neighborhood Mediterranean bistro in East Los Angeles sent me an email about a possible management position opening up I was honored to have been thought of for the interview. Months prior I had met with the owner seeking advice on how best to steer my career back into a culinary direction after a 4 ½ year stint working in retail for an independent record store. Excited to meet the owner for an interview, I was met, rather, with a full on job offer.

At 28 years old, this meeting historically marked the first time I had ever been offered a higher position by someone I already aspired to work for. Up until that point, my method of acquiring employment consisted of pinpointing people that I held with high esteem, or at least people who ran their business in a way that I respected, and then bugging the shit out of them until they let me in. This process usually took either a few minutes or a few weeks and worked about 98% of the time.

If the title of this story didn’t give me away, I took the job offer. Today marks my fourth week as a manager in a restaurant. Everyday I am tip-toeing on a very thin line dividing my shining confidence and my terribly persistent and nagging self-doubt. Two occurrences a few weeks into the job allowed me to loosen my grip on that thin line.

The first Dear God, YES! moment happened when I was taking off from work one day. Chef, who is also owner, took a split second break from searing her duck breasts to tell me that I was, “Doing a great job.”

YES! MEEE!!

Coming from Chef, those four words had just become more sacred than every track on the White Album. The ultimate stamp of approval. For most people the phrase sounds like small peanuts. For me, just two weeks into the vast unknown of restaurant managing under someone I held in high regard, that phrase was comparable to the sense of assurance I felt when I mastered a two wheel bike as a kid. I was really going places now. Her approval confirmed that I had made the right decision to change careers and follow my dreams. I was always capable and I knew that, but in that moment, I knew that.

The second I-AM-SUCH-A-BALLER moment came when I was on my own to run the restaurant after barely a week of training and I Doogie Howzer’d my way around a ten year old Micros restaurant system like a true G. For anyone out there who has first hand experience with the figgity and technologically antique formatting of Micros, you understand my arrogance, I’m sure.

Admittedly, I have absolutely zero confidence in myself when it comes to anything that has a plug. Then there’s Micros, an ancient psychitzophrenic computer system whose buttons are so unagreeable it’s enough to drive you absolutely ape shit if you have to change the name of a dish in a reasonable amount of time. It’s a system that can be relied upon in busy restaurant environments to shut down at random, and often. During my first week of training, I saw the hefty black box next to the espresso machine and my soul filled with a dark sense of foreboding. Even before I fully understood the pains and tribulations that lie ahead in my relationship with Micros, I already decided on day one of employment to forgive myself for how long it would take me to grapple this ruthless Micros beast.

But there I stood, one week into training and left to steer the ship completely on my own. The task at hand was to log the daily lunch specials and their prices into the system with about two minutes to spare and no prior experience, and even less confidence, and practically no faith to booth. Somehow, call it a miracle, I figured it out. I am completely blaming that accomplishment on the fact that I had to do it, and that was that. Failure was not an option, the staff was relying on me, and we were open in two minutes. End of story. Go me.

Those were good moments. It’s only natural that another great wave must roll in to balance out my universe, and crash over my peaking ego with salty, self-realizing, ripples so that I may be humbled again. And so it was…

The third week into my new career as a restaurant manager I start my shift with my chin held a notch higher, my lipstick a shade brighter. I was, as Beyonce would say, “feelin myself.” Just as I start to own my swagger, a customer at lunch ushers me over to ask if we had a pilsner. I pause for a moment. My inner dialogue went something like this, “Uhhmmm…shit, I dunno. SHIT! I don’t fucking know! Which means I don’t know shit.” Without pause, my first instinct after years of customer service forced the following words out of my mouth, “Why, yes! Yes, of course!”

The gentlemen wasn’t at all upset when I had to come back to his table with a beer menu and explain that we didn’t have a pilsner. I wouldn’t be surprised if our exchange that day had absolutely no effect whatsoever on his lunch or his life at all. I tend to beat myself up a bit, in my opinion, for good reason. The thing is, I care, and I care hard. Caring that much allows me to stay aware of, and considerate of, every large or small defeat or accomplishment so that I might continue to be better. It also means that I get a little obsessive about being the best I can be which is kind of a losing game as perfection is unattainable.

Where as most people would read this story and think, “Christ, what’s the big deal? She didn’t memorize the beer list…big whoop. What a cry baby,” my reaction to this mishap sounds more like this, “How dare I get on my high horse. I’ve been hired to represent this restaurant and staff and I don’t even have a solid handle on what we sell! I might have managed to get a compliment from my boss, I might have managed to navigate the Micros system, but I am hardly managing this restaurant.” Yeah, I can get a little cray all up in my own head.

Thing about it is, food, people, palates, can all be relied upon to change consistently. Ingredients are still being discovered. Food handlers laws are debated upon on a near daily basis. New PR and marketing ventures are released and conceived by the hour. The rise and fall of chefs rivals that of movie stars. Our own taste buds and dietary sensitivities evolve year by year. And as long as all of these trends fluctuate and perpetuate, which they always will given our insatiable human diet, than a restaurant manager like myself will never have a chance to sit and wonder if I have mastered my job. The answer will always be no, quite simply. But the best kind of no there is! No, because there will always be more to learn and therefore more to be engaged in, curious about, and challenged by.

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