Wednesday, September 5, 2012

BOH: Rule with an Iron Fist!

Sometimes plans just don't work. I won't be working in the school's restaurant kitchen this fall. I'm giving a conference that people actually pay to attend, and will be forced to miss two days of class.

This breaks The Rule: anyone missing two days of class will be dropped. Since it would happen after the drop deadline, I suppose this means the school keeps about $400 and I get an "F" adding insult to (financial) injury.

Only a fool would enroll in a class with terms like that.

To be fair, one of the chefs tried to find someone to swap shifts. It's a Good Chef / Bad Chef schtick. One wants to crush everyone, break them, make them run screaming for the doghouse, their tails between their legs, get them out of the hospitality business now before they sully the reputation of the school. The other, although strict, genuinely seems to want everyone to succeed. This chef is the one who smiles, and it's a real smile all the way to the eyes. The other person smiles like the cat when it's about to engage in some play at the expense of a small furry creature, generally vermin. 

Here's the funny thing: if I just flaked and didn't show up, it's considered no different than trying to work out a schedule a month in advance, make up time lost, turn in paperwork early, or any other advance mitigation.

The class guidelines say to be professional, communicate, plan ahead - but when you actually do these things the message is that none of this counts. Apparently these rules apply to things initiated by others.

So, imagine that this is a business. That's what the school keeps saying, that this class is just like working in a real restaurant, because you are working in a real restaurant. The only difference is that you pay them instead of the other way around. The other difference is that you only work part time, two days per week.

So, here's how the business is run: Anyone who knows in advance that they won't be able to work a shift will have to find someone to take their place. If they can't, they're fired. If anyone is late too many times, they're fired. If someone does not show up without notice, they're fired. There is no hiring after the beginning of September. If they wind up with a skeleton crew after mid-November, that's just the way it will be. There are no excused days, no matter what attempts are made in advance. No show: goodbye!

I think this place would be bankrupt rather soon, due to a lack of staffing. Their reputation as a hostile place to work would spread as those removed from employment spoke to their friends. Fewer and fewer people would apply, and those who did would likely not be the best qualified for the job.

The main message is that you can't negotiate with management. They are not your friends. They are not reasonable. It's futile to even try.

I would have missed two days in the semester, true. But I would have made up the hours, and even offered to replace others who could not attend on their work days. In a real business, things could probably be worked out. Someone would call in sick, I'd replace them, food would happen. They will probably eject other people for breaking The Rule. If I were there, I'd replace them where possible, keeping the kitchen staffed.

Maybe restaurants really are run this way. Since I need to have work experience to get work experience, I won't know. It seems like a great way to increase turnover and create animosity in a profession that's already demanding. It also conflicts with a "fair but firm" rule in management - how is it fair that trying to work things out in advance earns the same penalty as just not showing up? Where's the incentive to communicate, negotiate, work things out?

Chefs are fighting the idea of food as a commodity, where all chickens are identical (except for size), all factors other than price are irrelevant. They want each bit of food to be traceable to some source, where happy animals and plants live in happy ecosystems, happily converting sunlight, water and nutrients or whatever they eat into delicious things for us to eat.

Yet, when it comes to human resources, we are all commodities. At school, our value is measured in hours. We're interchangeable. Our pasts, desires, feelings are irrelevant. We are but cogs in the machine, mechanistic automatons executing preplanned instruction sets.

How can an industry that wants to strengthen complex interconnected food production and sourcing do an about face and reinforce the industrial groupthink concept of people as commodities?

I always viewed Zen as something that breaks rules, thinks outside the box. Right thought, right action does not seem to mean commoditizing people into cogs in a food processing machine.

If this is our best paradigm for kitchen management, it's time to choose again. The food, its origins, the people preparing it, the path of the matter and energy in the food, the building and its systems are linked. Saying one part of the system is organic and ecological while another is mechanical and linear just doesn't make sense.

If I ever get this Hospitality Management certificate, some day I could be management. I would make the inflexible rules, fix my victims with the angry reptilian stare, send them articles on Zen Buddhism while practicing something else. This is supposed to be a model of how to run a restaurant, right?

Perhaps I will, though hours of meditation, achieve some form of enlightenment and find a solution - although I fear it would be dynamic and changing. The truth is not the thing that can be contained in words, as they say.

I've dropped the class. Gone, forgotten. Although several fellow students gave their condolences, there was not even a note of regret that it didn't work out from anyone involved in managing the class. A new cog was found, the machine works. Nothing further need be said.

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