The waged war between front-of-house and back-of-house staff is as old as restaurants themselves. Cooks are viewed as a bunch of foul-mouthed, dirty drunkards looking for the next shortcut to get off of the clock and get out to the bar.
Servers are seen as money-hungry, short-timers who bide their time before their “real career” starts, while simultaneously flirting with cute customers and pinching fries from guests’ plates, rubbernecking their way through the restaurant spectacle. The two together predate any historic conflict. Does this locked battle ever end?
Here’s what some experts had to say...and some tips on quelling this family feud!
Isaac vs. Ishmael
There really are two different industries happening in one place. The service aspect is one of jacket and tie, nice hair, and soft speaking. The hands-on, kitchen minions are still blue collar workers, swearing like pirates with a penchant for raising hell. And the cliques are polarized. The conflict arises by culture. Front-of-the housers are usually in the biz for a quick cash grab while cooks are long-term, going full-bleed for their calling. So, will there ever be peace? Will we ever know a harmonious existence in the desert of spilt blood and bad vibes? “It’s like fighting Hydra without Medusa's head,” says Jesse Salvant, a Ft. Pierce, Florida line cook.
Respect Is Everything
Jehangir Mehta, chef/owner of New York’s Graffiti and contestant on Food Network’s Iron Chef Season 2, advocates respect — and creating opportunities for respect. By insisting on a harmony that may be unique, Mehta says of his staff, “They are here forever or out in two months,” because of the creative approach to the restaurant culture. Inviting the servers into the kitchen to help with prep work gives the front-of-the house crew added vested interest in the storm of kitchen energy while the cooks appreciate the assistance.
“They can snip herbs, for instance. It creates mutual respect [...] each person has a skill set and you have to respect that.” Often, “Kitchen people are bitter about front-of-the house’s money. No one is stopping you from being a server,” Mehta contends. “No one is going to shirk work.”
Countering servers’ ownership of customers in the dining room and putting cooks into trying compromising positions, “Nothing belongs to you,” Mehta says sternly. “It belongs to the house, to the restaurant,” so there are no “my customers.” Mehta’s approach predicates “A different harmony. It’s a give and take. Respect is everything.”
Breaking Bread Together
Using the shared time of a staff meal as a little mediation session can soften the blow of potentially explosive situations, especially when your team members can chat over cioppino instead of yell at each other across a pick-up window.
“Family meal is actually the best time to discuss the specials [and] good wines that go with them. Most importantly, address any problems, issues, [or] concerns you have. A small wine tasting helps,” says Jeffrey Noble, chef at NC Reilly’s in Elmont, NY. And if that doesn’t work? “Poison front of the house during family meal,” jokes Noble.
Have You Seen the Bridge?
Cross training, too, can be a bridge to peace. Randy Carollo, chef/owner of Carollo’s Catering, says, “I make my wait staff do seven days in the kitchen, not only to see as many plates as they can to see how they should look, but also make them realize how hard we work everyday so they can make money. They seem to respect my kitchen staff much more after doing this!”
Doug Rhoades, a production cook at McMurdo Station in Antarctica adds, “I’m a big believer in cross training and letting both sides see what it’s like in each others’ shoes. If they don’t, it will always be one against the other, and neither will learn to appreciate the other. You want to build a strong team on both sides.”
Seattle-area Chef Siv Anchetta gets proactive. “Verbal and printed lists of what we are out of and short on starting into dinner service. [Also] ask them to come talk to you when they are about to ring in a confusing order.”
He also adds that it’s up to the back-of-house staff as “kitchen commanders” to let the front of house know when tickets are backing up and if they’re going to be a longer than usual wait time.
Do as I Say…and as I do
Leading by example is always a good management practice. While restaurant leadership typically emanates from the front, those managers need to dispense the righteous behavior to the kitchen subordinates in the same light that leaders expect of the service staff. Playing nice with the others on the playground makes for sunnier days. Is there a gentle remedy for this rift?
In the end, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father. Though separated by a mountain range of differences, they shared one mission. Restaurant crews share the same scope. The success of the restaurant is dependant on good food and good service. Service staff can sink a great meal and lousy food can all but dissolve a visit from the Twenty-Percent God. The synergy is real. Anchetta sums it, “[Front-of-the house] are supposed to be the ambassadors between kitchen and the guests. They need to be on top of things because if they aren't, the kitchen won't be either.”