Food & Drink

How I Learned More Working in a Restaurant Than I Did in College

THRILLIST/JASON HOFFMAN

From the ages of 16 to 20, I spent the majority of my summers under the Jersey sun, slinging overpriced burgers and undersized lobster rolls atop a barnacled deck between the Atlantic ocean and Navesink River. It was the warm-weather-only, open-air appendage of an upscale eatery in Sea Bright, NJ, where the air smelled like salt and our patrons were Bennies -- “paying for the view, not for the food,” as one of my managers confided. I lived and died on tips and discarded calamari.

My jobs consisted of cleaning up after, then eventually serving (I guess that's what it's called?) semi-affluent day tourists and fake-smiling at their Sopranos jokes. Halfway through my tenure, I started college.

The pricey little piece of paper I earned on graduation day hangs idly in my parent's house, but in hindsight, I learned more concrete life skills during summers spent wearing a Hawaiian shirt and smock, smelling like French fries and spilled mojitos, than at any level of school. The lingering impact higher education has had on my life amounts to little more than my crippling student loans. 

It's no secret that college often does not prepare you for the future. It's nothing like real life. Real life is scary, hot, full of strangers who will yell at you, and at the end of the day, you're usually left with nothing but greasy hair and a wad of cash in your hand.

Real life is exactly like working in a restaurant.

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Nepotism is very real, and can be spectacular

From the manager upstairs to the dish washer in the scullery, everyone at this place owed their job to sweet, sweet nepotism, and I was no exception. My bus boy role was secured before I even had a say in it, really -- my mom was friends with the owner’s wife. I learned my first valuable lesson before I bussed a table: simply knowing someone with relevant clout is the most important part of a job search. It’s not fair. But it’s how the world works. The job market is not as much of a meritocracy, as a fraternity. It’s true of every industry.
 

And becoming friends with the right people is a necessity

Connections and favors are the currency of choice for any occupation -- and our world of rickety table umbrellas and microwaved mahi was no exception. Once inside, I quickly learned that making friends with the right people -- and maybe more importantly, not pissing off the wrong ones -- was paramount to getting my own job done. It was about knowing which chef won’t be inclined to chop my nose off if I talked to him when the kitchen was slammed, befriending the hostesses because they controlled who sat in what section, and noticing my boss's weird neurosis about the front of the fridge being clean, and making sure he could see his own reflection -- stupid frosted tips and all -- in that sucker whenever he strutted past.

Most importantly, I realized that people tend to help their friends at times when they might ignore mere coworkers. These little acts of workplace politics are something that no one teaches you, but you absolutely have to know them to survive any professional environment. There are no classes on schmoozing, even at Vassar. Unless you plan on doing extended research in Antarctica and/or starting a one-man band (good luck!), you are going to have know how to deal with people en route to getting paid, and the practice I got at my restaurant job was invaluable. 

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Money management is necessary

When my dad would pick me up from a long, humid night of cleaning up frozen margarita slop and crustacean limbs, I’d be packing a wad of bills that would make a Scores dancer blush. For the first time in my life, my existence was actually bringing in money, and not just burning my parents'. Suddenly, with no bills and no expenses, I was hoarding cash in my bedroom like the Scrooge McDuck of the Jersey Shore. This meant I needed to learn how to create and maintain a bank account. How to do my taxes. How to save up for something that didn’t just provide instant gratification. How to make a meaningful purchase with money I earned, in this case, an ‘01 dark green Honda CRV. Do you know how hard it is for a 16-year-old not to restrain himself from buying every season of The Simpsons on DVD, or copious amounts of mariju... um, decorative ferns?? Having all this cash in hand taught me self-control. 

By calculating bills and thinking about tips, I learned to do basic math and percentages in my head with much more motivation than any classroom exercise. In Accounting 101, I learned how to memorize four matrices and two formulas for 20 minutes, and then immediately expelled that information from my brain seconds after the test ended. College teaches you absolute dick about how to manage, use, and be responsible with finances. When it comes to money, college only instructs you on the best ways to owe an exorbitant amount to a faceless loan conglomerate. Learning is fun! And worth suffocating debt!

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Pressure is inevitable, but you cannot fold like a deck chair

When you're trying to organize and streamline two dozen orders while literally hundreds of guests and a gaggle of anxious servers weave in and out of the kitchen, things can feel a little heated. On Friday and Saturday nights, my kitchen exploits were worthy of a thousand Apocalypse Now-style montages -- chunks of tilapia and spring salads flew like shrapnel in the jungles of Đà Nẵng. Cooks behind the line reverted to sneaking sips of their flask, eyes glazed over from flashbacks of the actual jungles of Đà Nẵng. They yelped and demanded to know where this specific sirloin was headed and if I knew this "jabroni" his ex was seeing (I never did). This is considerable pressure, especially for a kid who couldn’t legally buy a scratch-off ticket at the time.

This high-stakes responsibility will never be found in a college classroom -- where your biggest concern is running out of laptop juice, thus having to pay attention to your droning instructor instead of starting a poke war. Trial by fire is something no adjunct professor can teach in a lecture hall. Can’t bring fire to school, can you?! Well, I guess chemistry teachers can. But, you know what I mean.
 

You meet people you normally wouldn’t be exposed to

I wouldn't necessarily call 16-year-old me sheltered, per se, but working in and around a kitchen definitely gave me exposure to and lasting friendships with people I would have never encountered otherwise. Illegal immigrants, ex-cons, soon-to-be cons -- we're all just people.

"Diversity" is a word every college likes to tout on their web banners and recruitment pamphlets. In depressing reality, so many colleges are whiter than a John Hughes movie marathon hosted at Whole Foods. They're filled with middle-to-upper-middle class kids who are... mostly the same. Sociology classes attempted to define, categorize, and explain certain demographics and lifestyles that may be foreign for some students, but who needs to watch Oz when you work in a kitchen?

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It's not enough to just work hard -- people have to notice

In college, your grades are determined by (normally) static and universal metrics: test scores, term papers, attendance, maybe class participation. In the workplace, things aren’t so black and white. What’s the metric to grade a food runner? And if no one complains, how you can even really tell if a server is doing his/her job?

Knowing what your place of employment cares about, and excelling at it noticeably, will get you on the radar of the people who matter. If you can do it all with a positive attitude and a passion for what you are doing -- even if it does entail scraping empty oyster shells off the bottom of chair cushions -- you possess the attitude and aptitude a manager craves.

The workforce is filled with middling employees who work tediously, and have no idea how to showcase their efforts. Intangible skills and subjective opinions of superiors is just as important as producing results, maybe more so. I was promoted three times at that restaurant, mainly because I knew what mattered, and the right times to prove it. Sometimes that meant staying an hour after we closed to help clean up, or coming in an hour early to stain new tables. Combine this method with nepotism for best results.

You need to know when to shut the hell up...

I usually have a problem with saying things that I probably should keep to myself, and I’ve paid for it (read: punched in the face). There are 8 billion people in this world, and frankly, a lot of them are jerks. Being a server in an establishment that catered mainly to entitled, intoxicated beach-goers from New York and New Jersey is not a palatable task. Especially when the disconnect of the food quality and number of digits in the final bill was as wide as a tuna net. Poise under fire is underrated, and it's something every working boy/gal needs to avoid recurring unemployment. There’s a time and place to be a smart ass. It's usually not at work.

I’ve been cursed at, belittled, undermined, mocked, disrespected -- and some dude even called me "a Nancy” once. Believe me, I wanted to grab some of these guests by their gaudy gold chains and send them back to Bayonne with fat lips and shrimp cocktails placed in crevasses only medical specialists and spouses have access to, but you have to choose your battles. My nose was never broken, and my tips were mostly girthy (hehe). And if anyone ever gave me crap, I'd just sneeze on their burger. That was a joke. For the most part.
 

… but also, know when to stand up for yourself

There’s a time and place to eat shit, but there are occasions where you can justify throwing some shit right back. Being a spoiled jerk is one thing, overstepping the bounds of decency into hateful rhetoric is another. Standing your ground and keeping your pride in the face of a sweaty, swearing Benny is a life lesson found in no syllabus. Doing it while holding three trays of lobsters on a boney teenage shoulder only gives you bonus points. Doing it while holding three trays of lobster on a boney teenage shoulder still recovering from last night's 311 concert is poetry in motion. 

Courtesy of Will Fulton

At the end of the day, you need some perspective

As with any job, employees made a hobby of bitching about how much everything sucked whenever there was time to be killed. But even back then, I realized how lucky I was when I saw some of my friends slogging through summer gigs at car washes, shoe stores, and nursing homes -- jobs that came with constant moisture, gross feet, and both at the same time, respectively.

I knew how good I had it: I worked outdoors, 30ft from the beach, with dozens of other kids my age. At night, I’d usually leave with a wad of bills as thick as my science textbook. Sometimes, I ate free lobster. In college, I got a B.A., followed by a career that has literally nothing to do with anything I studied or was exposed to during my tenure at my rural Pennsylvania campus. I’m obviously thankful for the opportunity to gain a college education, but I’m even more thankful for the actual skills I learned breaking my back for Bennies every summer for four years.

The old deck was unfortunately decimated and destroyed in the fall of 2011 by the winds and waves of Hurricane Sandy. Sometimes when I’m back in Jersey, I head over to the old spot, and take a look at the rubble. And now, as I see a new structure going up in its place, I can only think about returning as a tourist myself one day. Tipping the bus boys an extra few bills, and maybe cracking a Sopranos joke. I think I’ve earned it.

Just need to pay off these student loans, first.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. Please send any belated tips or student loan donations to @wilfulton.