How To Blackball Yourself in the Culinary Industry

He was brand new. We had trained him for a week- he had a ways to go, but he took his tasks on, did the work asked, and didn’t make a fuss. He asked questions about the nuts and bolts of recipes, he asked about when we took breaks, and how he should clock in and out for them.

“Ten years in the business,” he said. “Started as a dishwasher at 16, worked up to prep, then line cook.” Covid took him out of the kitchen he’d called home and the bakery had work that needed doing. He wasn’t picky- he just needed to work.

Wednesday night, he went to party. Thursday morning, he never clocked in- a hangover made staying home more appealing than showing up for his shift.

A no call/no show. He can stay home as long as he likes now.

Close up of a burning match
Don’t go burning bridges kids…

Everyone. Talks. To EVERYONE.

Portland is the biggest small town in the country- or the smallest big city. You can crash out for a beer in Southeast and, one short chain of acquaintances later, find out where your ex’s high school math teacher gets his suits pressed and that the laundry owner runs a food truck on the side. It’s easy to get lost- and almost as easy to get found again.

That suits the culinary world down to the ground. We’re already tribal to the point of customs, universal lingo, and a common undercurrent of industry news that savvy food writers pick through as closely as press releases. Cooks know other cooks. We get each other ins, we wave red flags for our friends, and swap horror stories- hellish nights, bad prep, shifty owners, who just blew inspection, and- of course- how “this place is gonna be outta business soon. I’ve seen it before man- we’re burning money, ain’t gonna last two more months.” Cooks seem to think that no one else- much less a restaurant- has a survival instinct.

The boys on the floor aren’t the only ones who talk, of course. Owners, chefs, and managers are- in most cases- a self-selecting crowd. People don’t open up a restaurant and last terribly long without being shrewd, connection savvy, lucky as hell, or all three. The owners talk about new laws, taxes, finances, suppliers, who’s screwing who, where the industry is going, and keeping their heads above water.

Yes, political shit too. Want to know who DOESN’T think politics is boring crap that doesn’t matter? The guys that sign your paycheck.

Young woman staring at her laptop in profile with her head in her hands
You’re not doing yourself any favors keeping yourself dumb- and doing a shifty owner plenty.

Something that the Average Line Cook and their boss BOTH talk about, though, is who screwed them over and how. They’ll tell the other cooks and owners they know. Names will be remembered or written down, profiles and resumes shared. Burn enough people, and- to quote the over-dramatic Hollywood producers- “you’ll never work in this town again.”

Don’t Screw with the Locals

This should be a no-brainer. The cooks may be right- people that mess this one up really have no survival instinct.
It’s simple- don’t do wrong by your team.

Don’t no-call no show. Show up ready, willing, and able to carry at least as hard as the guy next to you. What does “ready, willing, and able” look like for you? It’s different for everyone. If you’re reasonably healthy, that means you’re not high as balls, you don’t have a hangover, and you slept enough that you can see straight. Some cooks claim they need to be a little weeded to focus, or they loosen up and perform better with a pre-service shot. I don’t believe it, but so long as they perform reliably, I don’t know of too many owners that really care- “I don’t know, and I don’t need to know. As long as they do their job and no one gets hurt.”

Animated Gif of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson saying “Hey it’s okay, I’m not judging!”

If your team is counting on you to perform, you better be performing, and tighter than a snare drum. Flake out on a shift? Get sloppy, distracted, or people have to pull you out of the weeds because you got 30 minutes of sleep in the last three days? You’ll get let go, and you’ll have to do some smooth talking to get anyone to let you in their kitchen again.

Don’t steal from your boss. Money, food, tools, or time. Don’t milk the clock. No amount of Robin Hood, “they can afford it” bullshit you tell yourself will count for much when you get caught. If your boss wouldn’t figure out an employee discount or family meal so you can eat if you need to, you shouldn’t be working for them in the first place. Working in someone’s kitchen- much less as an employee- comes with a certain amount of trust. Once you earn it, don’t lose it.

Don’t terrorize the front of house staff. Seriously. Their job is to be the face of the restaurant. Yes, you make great food- but their job is to SELL it. You know, make it into money? Yes, they’ll screw up. So will you. Be friendly, and they’ll reciprocate. “Hey chef, need water or something?”

Past that, it’s the Golden Rule- treat others the way you want to be treated. And don’t touch someone else’s knives.

Meme of Anthony Bourdain’ with his quote “Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t.”

How to Get Blackballed When You AREN’T In the Industry

Diners, food journalists, bloggers, foodwriters, reviewers- you aren’t in the kitchen, but you’re still part of the ecosystem. You have a reason and purpose- to enjoy food and tell others about it. How do you keep from messing THAT gig up?

Simple. Don’t be That Guy. Who’s “That Guy”?

That Guy stiffs his waiters on the tip or generally treats them as subhuman. Don’t yell at our servers. Don’t berate or threaten them. Don’t treat them like chattel. Whatever course the events took- how you treat the people serving you says more about YOU than it does THEM.

That Guy wants us to know who they work for, who their daddy is, or whatever, and demands special favors.
We don’t care who you know. We don’t care what car you drive (unless you used valet parking), who you work for, whose ears you have or who your daddy is. If we did care, or are in a position to, believe me- we already know. You dropping your credentials on us won’t excuse bad behavior- and it will identify you as a Certified Asshole.

And believe me- we’ll remember you.

Restaurants love having “regulars-” but That Guy becomes a regular annoyance.
That Guy comes in everyday, orders the same thing, and complains about it bitterly every time. They sometimes hassle the staff, sometimes just loiter in a corner and scowl. They’ve got a nickname that the front of house has shared with the back. In really bad cases, the front of house will ask not to be stuck with them or left alone with them. Don’t be That Guy. Be nice, be constructive, or don’t come back.

That Guy thinks leaving a bad Yelp or Google review will get the staff and owner kissing their feet. We really don’t care. Businesses can- and do- reply to those reviews. If you get drunk, harass the staff, and threaten a bad review while being thrown out on your puke-stained booty shorts, it’s best to sober up before venting what’s left of your spleen on Yelp. You might not be interested in the other side of the story getting out- with security footage to back it up.

In a vibrant and exciting food scene, you don’t want be passed around the post-shift bar circuit as anyone problematic. “You won’t believe it, Bro- That Guuy came in again this week, and he wanted his friggin Medium Rare Plus steak. How the fuck am I supposed to cook a steak “plus?!”

It’s Really Not Hard, People.

If you work with us, we’re happy to have you- just carry hard, earn your place among our ranks with your work ethic, and don’t screw us. We support the team that supports us.

If you patronize us, we’re happy to have you! Please enjoy our food and enjoy your night- just treat the staff right, tip them well, and don’t be That Guy. We keep an eye out for our favorites and much as our troublemakers.

In other words, everyone just needs to

Stay Classy,

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