Small Businesshood

Newspaper and breakfast on a tableAt the start of the new year, a New York Times article appeared highly critical of the restaurant world and fine dining. (“Noma, Rated the World’s Best Restaurant, Is Closing Its Door,” NYT, 1/9/23) 

In the article, a cartoonish portrait was sketched of the restaurant world as dominated by Gordon Ramsay-esque dictator chefs and their abused, under- or unpaid, hapless, innocent workers. This portrait upset Chef Becky, who has long fought hard to keep her woman-owned business not just afloat but as fair as possible to its staff. She has helped her staff with personal challenges and has, as the employer, had to deal with some amusing-in-retrospect drama that always naturally occurs in the workplace. Chef Becky has also put in long hours, slept on a hard metal table at work, and endured the trials of small “businesshood” in a fickle economy…and a far-reaching pandemic. The danger in the article is that people might not think critically and assume the whole restaurant world is like the NYT describes, when Chef Becky’s business model is far different, and not exploitative. There is also great value in experiencing unfairness in the world or workplace, as it reminds us that unfairness persists despite our idealism and efforts at “equity” and a level playing field. Restaurant work is not easy, and more goes into the production of food for the table than people see or realize. For example, the cost of chicken has gone up 700%, egg purchasing is limited in some states, and supply chain issues and inflation have driven the cost of materials sky high. Add to this a younger workforce who have different approaches to work, but it is work – it’s not a safe space, it’s not supposed to necessarily be fun or fair all the time. Kitchens are hot, and not everyone can handle the heat. 

Below is a copy of what we sent to the Times in rebuttal: 

1/19/23

Re: 1/9/23 Noma article in the NYT

Dear Editor, 

I read the article on Noma and high-end eating (“Noma, Rated the World’s Best Restaurant, Is Closing Its Doors,” NYT, 1/9/23) with a bit of horror. As a former journalist, pursue-the-truth-at-all-costs philosopher, and also restaurant worker, I was aghast to read the beginning of the article (the only part many people read/skim in these accelerated, fragmented times) and its boilerplate Marxist approach to the big, bad, exploitative restaurateur/chef and the hapless, innocent victims: unpaid interns and the browbeaten proletariat kitchen worker. I was further amazed that the article was presented as straight journalism and not opinion/editorial. 

I work for Chef Becky, who runs Bex Restaurant in rural western New Jersey. After I burnt out in academia, crashed and burned even, she gave me a shot in the culinary world, even training me from scratch during an insanely busy time in her catering business. A women-owned business, Becky has hired many women and underdog workers – some of whom she has found passed-out from drinking on the job or in other sketchy situations. She has helped workers with deep personal problems. She has always tried to be fair to them. She has always tried to practice compassionate capitalism. Granted, a small, scrappy catering company like Bex isn’t Noma, but that’s the point. Please do not commit the composition fallacy, in which a part (Noma) is taken to represent the whole (the culinary world). Chef Becky doesn’t exploit workers or not pay interns who do the grunt work. I’ve seen her jump right into washing dishes when it needed to get done. The culinary world is gritty, physical, and takes a toll on the psyche – at all levels. Marx’s take on the exploitative nature of capitalism is useful in situations, but it’s also cartoonish and over-simplified. Even Marxist philosopher and communist Slavoj Zizek will admit the problems with Marxist thinking, and he is often just as in trouble with the Left as the Right. 

Your journalist used the term “luxaterian” for high-end eating, diamond rings, and the like. I once borrowed $800 from my father to buy an engagement ring for my fiancé, because it was traditional and I was working, but poor. (I paid him back in full – no loan forgiveness involved.) A reindeer heart on pine needles could be luxaterian, or it could be easily-made by a poor Scandinavian hunter. Becky is known to be intense and demanding of a high standard for her products coming out of the kitchen, but is compassionate toward the fact that workers are ultimately holistic human beings with feelings. One day my back was afire and I was physically depleted from working, and without words she sensed this and let me go home to recharge. 

I lived in Atlanta, Georgia for a spell, and was friends with a high-level chef who, like Chef Becky, started off humbly. He helped his staff – bailed them out of jail, helped them with personal problems. A disgruntled worker shot at him with a .22 rifle. He had a business to run and family to feed, but he realized he didn’t have to screw people over to be successful. 

I am simply asking for fairness, which your journalist attempted, but in this polarized, culture war time, it’s more important than ever. A new generation – Millennials and Gen Z – may be, collectively, highly invested in “equity” and a leveled playing field, but there is also much to gain from working one’s way up, experiencing discomfort, struggle, and good old-fashioned hard work. Grit lit author Harry Crews once said if you’re struggling with political issues, questions of fairness, or existential moral dilemmas, go out and break a rib — it’ll calibrate you in no time. The workplace is neither a safe space nor a romper room. If you can’t handle the heat, then get the hell out of the kitchen. Everyone starts somewhere: you don’t graduate cooking school and become a YouTube culinary celebrity overnight. Don’t work in a restaurant if you can’t handle blood, bone, and marrow. 

That is, for those interested in even working in the first place. 

Matthew Snope

Bex Kitchen, Califon, NJ 

Published On: January 19, 2023//Categories: Bex Blog//Tags: , , , , , , , //