All the talk about "In the Weeds" inspired Brian Melton to send in this missive about the restaurant industry. It's our New Year's Eve gift for everyone in the business --and anyone out on the town tonight who benefits from exemplary workers in the service industry. "My Love Affair with the Restaurant Industry -- or -- Why I Want To Kick Kyle Garratt Square In His Balls," by Brian Melton:
I began working in the restaurant industry at the age of seventeen in the only upscale restaurant that my tiny hometown of Lubbock, Texas, had ever seen. Growing up in this dirty, Bible-belted, hick-land (it has since grownup, albeit only a fraction), my family's nights out on the town consisted of trips to Furr's Cafeteria, Olive Garden and the occasional visit to -- if we were celebrating something very special -- Red Lobster. When Johnny Carino's opened up sometime before I learned to drive, I envisioned myself taking dates there in whatever car my parents were going to be able to afford buying for me. Needless to say, when I was hired to work for Gabriel Rizzo, a 6'5'', 240-pound behemoth of a chef at his new Italian restaurant, I was extremely green to the fine dining scene.
I started out bussing tables -- for whatever minimum wage was at the time -- and from the moment I put on my black slacks, white button-down shirt and tied an apron around my waist, I became hooked on the restaurant industry. I loved the pace of the evenings, rushing from table to table with a pitcher of water in one hand and a pitcher of tea in the other; bouncing back into the amazingly petite kitchen to re-load another basket of bread from the warming pans; polishing silver in a blur of white linen and hot water. I worked harder and smarter than any of my bussing peers. Soon I was head busser, but I wanted more.
Three months after starting, I graduated to expediter and felt honored to be asked into Rizzo's kitchen. The sheer size of that man's energy was relentless. He worked from 5 a.m. until close -- which was often midnight or later -- and sometimes stayed much longer, drinking grappa with guests or letting me taste Scotch on the sly. He was fierce and passionate in often alarming ways, demanding perfection from everyone who worked for him. While in that kitchen, I watched Chef grab hot plates directly from the broiler with his hardened and callused bare hands, only to slam them on the nearest piece of equipment in a fit of sheer rage. I saw him launch a plate full of pasta across the kitchen at a server who had mis-ordered a dish. The server, Dominique, was covered with red marinara from head to toe. Gabe told the kid to go home and change -- or else he was fired.
But for every incensed and terrifying display I witnessed, I also saw kindness and love and a dedication for a craft that, at the time, was something completely foreign to me. I remember Gabe making escargot one evening, just because he had some. And instead of selling them as a special, he ran around the restaurant giving them out to people. "These are the best snails I've ever had," he said in his thick New York-meets-Italian accent. At sixteen, this sheltered boy had never dreamed of eating a snail, but Gabe thought these were the best, and by god I wasn't going to turn the man down. That one snail changed the way I looked at food and is still the best thing I've ever eaten.
When my parents came in for their anniversary dinner, he not only came out of the kitchen and sat with them for a portion of their meal, he bought the entire thing for them and left the table praising their abilities as parents saying, "Your son works harder for me than anyone else I have on staff. You should be proud." When Christmas came around he bought everyone, even us under-aged kids, two bottles of wine - one red and one white. When I turned seventeen, he brought me into his office. "I need a new bartender," he said to me. "You wanna give it a shot?"
Let me be the first to say that hiring a seventeen-year-old bartender isn't the best idea in the world, but I made it work for as long as I could before accepting a full-time position at a local radio station. When I found out that six months later Gabriel's was closing (the Lubbock market just wasn't ready for a really nice locally-owned restaurant), I rushed back to the last night of business to say goodbye to Gabe and to thank him for everything he had taught me. Unfortunately, he had already packed his bags and headed back to New York.
As I sit writing this at the age of 32, I wonder how that brilliantly abrasive hulk of a man has fared over the years. I hope he's still denting the hell out of broiler plates in the back of some fantastically demure kitchen. As a restaurant professional -- and I use the term professional in the most professional of manners -- I still get goose bumps when I think back on all the formative moments in my career that eventually delivered me to the front door of TAG and into the presence of another fearsomely passionate and demanding Chef/Owner, Troy Guard. I fondly remember working at a pizza joint in downtown Austin, Texas, sneaking slices of pizza and salads out to a homeless couple that would come visit every Tuesday. I remember waking up one morning next to a dumpster on 6th Street, where my friends had forgotten my drunken ass, and walking home at four in the morning to shower and change for my 6 a.m. brunch shift. I remember learning how to cook Chateaubriand at the Red Lion in Boulder...and failing miserably. I remember serving Lady Bird Johnson, wife of Lyndon. B, who could barely chew her food. I remember rolling gourds down the wide hallway that is Tahona Tequila Bistro in a game I called "Bowling for Gourds" (sorry, Pete).
But what I remember the most is what has become a blur of nameless faces of guests, both good and bad, who have made this journey worthwhile. Those men, women and children who show up for a dining experience -- to eat good food, imbibe good drinks and to be entertained by their friends, family and occasionally, me. Those men, women and children who, at the end of the day, allow me to live in a house in beautiful Denver, Colorado, and to not want for anything. I own my vehicle. I never go without food. I was able to buy nice gifts for my family this Christmas. I am paid well for doing something I love, and in turn, I feel as though I owe a great deal of gratitude to my guests.
I approach my job as a professional with more than thirteen years of experience in the industry. I am extremely lucky to work behind the bar at TAG, to make drinks for a clientele who understands the art of bartending and who enjoys watching me work. Over the past year of my career I have seen a surge in regulars -- men and women who I know by name and who I have developed great relationships with. Sometimes they come in and have three or four cocktails, other times they might have a glass of tap water. Sometimes they might only have an appetizer, at other times they might eat an entire meal. The point is not how high the check average is or if they leave me 20 percent. The only point worth noticing is that they're at my bar and not someone else's. The only real thing that matters is if each person who sits at my bar is smiling. My profession is to make people happy. My inspiration comes from infecting my guests with that same passion and love of the restaurant industry that Gabriel Rizzo instilled in me as an impressionable high school kid. If I can do that each and every night, I am succeeding at what I have chosen to do with my life.
I get it. The restaurant industry isn't for everyone. It might not be as high profile as being a professional radio DJ, or as cushy as working as an office manager for a three-employee internet business. It may not be as scholarly as teaching freshman English or as glamorous as being the associate editor and writer for a regional glossy magazine. But I've been every one of these things and, at the end of the day, none of them make me as happy as standing behind that bar at TAG. I love making a guest a drink that is original, thoughtful and that puts a smile on their face. I love to add ease to what might be a very hectic day. It's what I'm there for. It's that passion and dedication that keeps them thinking --long after they've paid, tipped and walked out the front door -- that damn...Brian Melton is fucking good at his job. --Brian Melton