The New "Normal"
Tsunami's Ben Smith on the restaurant industry
photograph by Justin Fox Burks
Most restaurants fail. The sad ones are stillborn. The mad ones flourish within the bustle and excitement of fame, notoriety, the thrill of the new. But they rarely sustain the glow. They are balloons kept aloft by a restless crowd. Only the strange, the freaks of restaurant perfection, can sustain life beyond a few years.”
— Sam Sifton, The New York Times
His quote hit a nerve with me the first time I read it. The italics are mine, and they are meant to emphasize the crux of the matter when it comes to my business: the restaurant business. The other Greatest Show on Earth. You are not long in this business before you begin to understand how strange it really is.
Once you set off down the path of working in a restaurant or a bar, your life starts to change pretty quickly. Your hours are different from the hours of “normal” jobs. Your peaks and valleys are completely opposite those of your friends and family in the “real world.” (And speaking of those friends and family, if they aren’t in the business, too, you might as well kiss them goodbye.)
Most people look forward to the weekend. Many people look forward to holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some people like Sunday brunch. Some people like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. These people don’t work in restaurants.
Restaurant people have a completely inverse perspective on the week from 9-to-5ers. Desk jockeys see the week as a slow countdown to the weekend, when they will have time to unwind from a grueling week and recharge for the next one. Restaurant people see the week as a gradual buildup to the weekend, when we will have our butts handed to us while cooking for and serving and cleaning up after the 9-to-5ers who are doing the exact opposite of what we are doing. “Normal” people look at holidays as a time to take a break from work and reconnect with family. Restaurant people see holidays as a time to work overtime and disconnect from their families.
These odd hours and this inverse experience from the “normal” is what helps us bond as a group. This is why restaurant people are thick as thieves in their social lives. We don’t go out on Friday and Saturday nights; we work. We go out on Saturday and Sunday mornings after work. When most weekenders are snugly tucked away in bed, some of us are just getting started. If you call a friend with a regular job at 10:00 on a Sunday night to go out for a beer, you will most likely get the old “it’s a Sunday night, are you mad?” response. If you call a restaurant person, you are more likely to get the “let me finish my coffee and I’ll be right there” response.
For the lifers in the business, there is a turning point you reach when you realize that you can never go back to the normal world. You are a restaurant person. You have arrived. You are among your people: “the strange, the freaks of restaurant perfection.”
Ben Smith is executive chef and owner of Tsunami Restaurant, which has earned the Best Seafood award in our Memphis’ “Readers Restaurant Poll” regularly since its opening in 1999. His comments originally appeared in the MBQ blog “Beyond the Bio.”