Wednesday, May 23, 2007

service with a frown: a manifesto

This book is an attack on the prevalence of the service ethic, particularly in restaurants. This ethic is typified in the crass subservience of the slogan, “The customer is always right.” Translation: “money always wins, and we will be whores for your money, ready to pretend that the thumbprint on the glass is ours even when we saw you finger it; we’ll even throw in a free appetizer to appease you.” Or something to that effect.

In writing this book we would like to advocate those establishments where owners and employees have managed to fend off the power of money to buy anything more than food: namely, their spirits, their integrity, their self-respect. We raise our voices in praise of those islands of curt professionalism, brusque expertise, or downright rudeness within the dominant culture of ass-kissing. There is nothing more refreshing for the urban soul than to watch the smoked salmon men at the counter at Zabar’s, masters with the blade, absolutely at home and cowed by none.

Such workers leave no opening for customer bribery by putting out a tip jar; they rule the roost. They don’t own the roost, of course, this is America, after all, but within the confines of their job they are defined not by how quick they hop to it, not by how pliably they bend to others’ wills, but by their identification with a set of techniques. In short, they may be said to be the heirs of pre- or proto-industrial craftsmen who took audacious pride in technique, that is, in bodily dexterity in the manipulation of tools. Such pride in technique lasts little in our age, in which we fetishize technology on the one hand and elite artistic passion on the other. There is little left in the middle: that artistry of work which one can see in the hands of the salmon men at Zabar’s as they wield their knives. But the only reason they still stand there, barking out orders with an anachronistic air of independence, is because there is no machine yet able to replace them.

In many countries, makers and servers of food are among the last bastions of manual technique, in which the production of something is mediated only by simple tools which become molded to the hand and vice versa. In Egypt, I was fascinated to see that the men who served Kushari in Cairo displayed an almost artisanal attitude of collective pride, despite the manifest simplicity of their task. Kushari is a simple dish in which macaroni, lentils, tomato sauce and crisp-fried onions are tossed together in a bowl.

The metal basins containing each ingredient are arranged on the counter, behind which stand the kushari men. Not all teams displayed the same level of esprit de corps, but one place I used to eat at featured a rhythmic clatter of service. Each man stood, body slack but ready, dipper or scoop twirling or tapping restlessly in one hand. When a customer walked in and gave his order, say, “One super, please,” the macaroni man’s dipper flashed into the pasta and the bowl was flying down the counter before you could see it go in, and the lentil man jerked his arm and lentils landed atop the pasta and he twirled the bowl over to the sauce man, who dashed a blur a sauce through the air with one hand and a handful of crisp onions with the other. The bowl spun to a stop next to the cashier, who said in a leisurely way, “one super?” The bowl had swung through the whole series of motions in under 5 seconds. The men stood there.

But the movement was so sudden and so taut that often after the bowl was served the men would clang the sides of the metal basins with their tools, in sheer momentum, a rhythmic, clattering exclamation point to the burst of energy, like a drummer’s crescendo marking the end of a song. If people were lined up their hands and tools would be dipping and swooping like swallows, backs and shoulders taut and arms limber as crazy noodles. If the day was slack, they would stand still but restless, occasionally beating out a quick tatoo as if to announce their continued alertness for duty. Or maybe it was an impatience, a challenge to passersby, a need for action. That this kind of spirit existed among men whose job in the US is equivalent to burger flippers, is still incredible to me. What such a comparison says is that much labor in the US has been entirely degraded and devalued through assembly-line-style standardization: a process in which pre-made parts are simply stuck together by a dumb pair of hands. All the “skill” or technique is hoarded to industrial planners or the jurisdiction of machines which shape the parts for the process – though the skill is attributed, ironically, to the machine operator, who is a mere servicer of machines’ work.

In Cairo, the pressure of the pool of unemployed must be great enough to keep labor cheaper than machines. And so kushari men turn their “unskilled” labor into a performative act infused with flair. It is no accident that in America, burger flippers work alone, partly hidden from customers, their work stripped of “performance,” except as a category for management’s evaluation, or to be captured on security cameras, and motivated only by their god damn piss-ant wage. It is also no accident that in Cairo, kushari men who earn one fifth or less of burger flippers show a professional pride, even a flamboyance, when they stand there, uniformed and aproned, several feet taller than customers, arranged in the window like willing mascots, tools twirling in their hands.
*(Of course, it is careless to assume that this esprit de corps is necessarily a descendant of older guild or artisanal technical pride. Perhaps it is more related to the rise of a petty bourgeoisie consumer class desiring entertainment. Think of the flair shown by fair or boardwalk vendors, both places where earlier generations learned about mass consumption-as-entertainment.)

In China once I witnessed a brash physicality of performance. I was in Gansu, the town of Lingxia, and walked into a noodle house. There was no separation between the dark kitchen and the dim shop, and so I watched amazed as the young men attacked the dough as if it were a holiday game. One of them was shirtless; he wrestled with the mound of dough, wrenching it into smaller blobs. His co-worker kneaded it, folded it, slammed it down again and again on the table with an exuberant and joyous violence. The two men grinned seeing my expression, and threw themselves into it with the fervor of circus men training unruly bears, slamming and rolling and pulling with all their weight. Finally, a third man, a bit older, took my order of abused not-yet-noodles and began stretching it. His job seemed to fit his more sober temperament, or vice versa, a more contemplative form of brutality, a more aesthetic thoughtfulness. He would stretch the blob into a thick rope, swing it, slapping it down on the table, fold it over, stretch it again, longer this time, folding it again and again until he was swinging a multi-stranded jump rope up and down in dizzy loops smack – smack – smacking the scarred old table top. His disciples looked at me amused. Finally the whole mass of dangling strings was dropped into the cauldron of broth.

These men had little of the kushari men’s aspiration to or assumption of respectability, no uniforms, or caps, no shiny tiled walls or well-dressed office women walking in to eat. Their shop was dingy and their play unrestrained, save for the swinging of the noodle stretcher. Theirs was a more cut-loose pleasure, occasioned by the presence of customers, whose amusement seemed to egg them on to ever more outrageous feats.

In this country what artisanal techniques of cookery may have survived are barely visible, hidden either in expensive restaurant kitchens for the elite or in the occasional private home. There is a flourish here and there in public, like the way the hot dog man near the court house in Manhattan zipped mustard across my hot dog and swished two napkins underneath it with a theatrical flick of the hand. The performative aspect of cookery, intimately related to artisanal skill, is practically gone as part of mass culture; even on cooking shows, displays of virtuosity are rare, except maybe on the Iron Chef. Japan apparently maintains a vast culture of performative, artisanal cooking; even comic books portray the awesome feats of dueling sushi chefs. Thus, one could not argue that capitalism per se is hostile to such a culture.

American cooking shows are trying to convince people of the simplicity of cooking, reducing it to a number of steps that even a fool dead 3 days could follow, rather than to wow viewers with wondrous feats of the trained body or to explore the creative, trial and error pleasure of slowly learning. These shows aim to demystify cooking, to pull it off a pedestal and dice it up into a number of neat steps which are microwaved into instant success. In short, one could conclude that the “democratization” of cooking is carried out through the inherently elite forms of mass media, while the old popular skills and their creativities and idiosyncracies, disappear. Once recipes take over in the home, then the continuity of knowledge has already been severed. Once skills are taught in the elite mass media, then it is clear that remaining knowledge has been hoarded by the elites in expert chefs and formal institutions. In developing countries, working class people are still able to find quality food prepared every bit as well as elite food, simply because families and villages are like banks of culinary information not yet transformed into a commodity. Such a situation is quite distressing to the CEO’s of American agribusiness and food processing industries.

The cooking show’s focus on the end product demonstrates in my mind the impoverishment of experience, training, and learning process so rampant in American capitalist culture. Nothing matters but the precisely reproducible result, like concert-goers who, trained on recorded music, are disappointed if a song’s live version varies too much from what they are used to. Once recently in an Italian restaurant, I saw a man twirling a disk of dough in the air and catching it atop his fingertips, spinning and tossing. At age 34 it was the first time I had ever seen it done. The eradication of physical and technical prowess among the general population, outside of sports and dance, (and even there, largely professionalized for television audiences) in this country is very nearly complete. That man was no celebrity chef. His pride was in technical skill, a knowledge gained so very inefficiently over a period of time. I asked the counter man about him. It turned out he had come from Italy.

Barney Greengrass features no such performative prowess. It is a crowded store with tables jammed in between the deli cases full of smoked fish. This restaurant shows, nevertheless, that the brusque egalitarianism of service praised in these pages is not confined to tiny felafel joints or pancake stands. BG is an institution, almost 100 years old, and the clutter in the front windows - archaic-looking fish tins, gift-boxes, etc – seems to show it. Otherwise the decor is non-existent. BG as a space conjures up no fantasies. There is, inevitably, a hint of nostalgia, but it only forms small eddies of afterthought on the edges of the frenetic current rushing through the store. The nostalgia of a black and white photo or two and some laminated newspaper articles can do nothing to crust over or impede the business of serving fish. BG is no-nonsense.

The waitstaff were not to be messed with, proletarian heroes in white aprons and street clothes. On a Sunday morning they were mainly distinguishable from the crowd waiting for tables by their aggressiveness in shoving through. Some worked behind the deli counters as well, handling the crowd with a surly aplomb. When we were seated, one of these men came around with a notepad and took our orders. We four were squeezed around a tiny table, chair-backs from other parties hemming us in practically knee to knee.

As we chatted, suddenly another waiter burst into our conversation and slammed down four cups of coffee like a storm blowing open a barn door, bang! We all jumped. He carefully disengaged his fingers.

“Uh, we didn’t order this,” ventured Radu. The man’s brow darkened, displeased as a minor god trifled with, his lips compressed, and a wave of angry breath rolled from his nostrils. I laughed, I could not help it: after that heroic plunge, with 4 cups of hot coffee through the maze of hungry people waiting and close-set chair backs, to make the landing strip and be told to take off again – well, something in it was funny in a cruel way.

He glared at me. “Yeah, real funny!” he snorted and lifted the 4 cups, wheeled about, and whisked himself away. I was delighted. Backbone in service people is a rare treat. Better by far than those wage slaves who pretend to do your bidding all while doing their utmost to show how little they care. Those BG people borrow a certain authority, an authority derived from reputation and economic security. People come for the food and the anti-atmosphere no matter what, so these waiters are untouchable, as long as the food arrives. They are not asked to be smiling mannequins in exchange for a wage. They can be who they are.

The average restaurant has only been around a few years; even if it has been designed to mimic a French cafĂ© of the 1890’s, its waitstaff’s servility betrays its real insecurity and transience in the market. One way or another, waiters take on the attributes of the boss. The waitstaff’s attitude reveals much about the economic bind of the owner. Yet real tradition never required ass-kissing.
Such servility is a sure mark of weakness, even though economists like to read this desperation and anxiety as signs of “competitiveness,” or even “nimbleness.” This state of constant insecurity is one of the conditions continually lauded by economists when they look abroad at other economies where people, despite monetary poverty, are much too comfortable. Such economists like to moralize about the dangers of idleness. Insecurity, called by other words, is praised for the “flexibility” it engenders, and the rises in “productivity” it spurs. Only economies bred for constant change – and its people in a state of agitated subservience and self-flagellating “self-improvement” – deserve praise from these economist-priests. Such people live, I might add, very comfortably, and inflexibly, on fixed incomes.

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