Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Manifest Three: Pastrami and Ale

Mark Solomon, wine aficionado, addresses the group

Chris May, Adam Sobsey, and I have been curating a monthly dinner titled Manifest, which could also be titled Manifest(o), where we perform dinner and then perform a short reading spurred as a reaction to the food and restaurant economy.  The 10 Commandments of Manifest printed below should give you more of a feel for it.  Mark Solomon (pictured above), Fine Wine and Whisky Director at Leland Little Auctions, brought some vintage deadstock, about 15 wines.  Some were remarkable, others went down the drain.  Thanks Mark!  Also a big thanks to Dave and the crew at Red's Quality Acre and George and Lily at Lil' Farm for supplying the veggies and flowers.  Thanks to Alex Ruch for providing fragrant loaves of caraway-perfumed rye bread.  And Chris May put together an absolutely superlative New England IPA.  I can't wait for more brews from this aspiring brewer!  Email me at info at ninthstbakery dot com if you would like an invite to our next dinner.  Our menu:

Manifest

Menu 22 October 2017

Beverages
Manifest New England Style IPA
Small Batch Strawberry Wine
Assorted Vintage Wines Curated by Mark Solomon

*****

Rye Bread with Soft Whipped Butter
Chicken Consomme with Fresh Ginger and Scallion
Dandelion and Mustards with Mojo de Ajo and Toasted Slivered Almonds
Farm Lettuces with Yogurt Dressing and Ninth Street Bakery Croutons
Baby Turnips Roasted with their Greens and Chimichurri
Smoked Meat, Broccoli Greens, Caesar Mustard, and Pepper-Ginger Slaw

Dessert

Warm Griddled Ginger & Apple Tea Cake
Seed and Nut Shortbread with Cinnamon Cream

*****
The 10 Commandments of Manifest

1.     Communal tables
2.     Prix Fixe: A Planned, Rather than Selected, Variety.
3.     Priced So All Can Afford to Eat
4.     Health, Freshness, and Real Foods
5.     Facilitate Culinary Creativity via (Ingredient) Deconstruction
6.     Less Waste
7.     No servers, No Tipping
8.     No Cult of the Chef
9.     Use the Venue for Performance
10. Good Hospitality is Not a Service to Rendered but a Gift to be Shared

Produce: Li’l Farm, Red’s Quality Acre

Bless this food. Bless us all.

*****
The patio


The main course.  A 10-day cured and 18-hr smoked brisket.  I daresay it was as good as Katz's

Mark's crazy wine.  Note the labels coming off.  There was a '61 in there!

Adam's essay in unabridged form:

I remember very clearly the angriest reaction I ever had to a guest of mine as a waiter and bartender. It was during a very busy evening at the fine dining restaurant where I work. The bar was nearly full. Moving very quickly, I approached a table that had just been sat and asked one of the two guests—I’ve always preferred that word to “customers”—what I could get him. “A smile,” he said, annoyed. Although I gave no outward sign of this, my entire body tensed in violent revolt. After a moment I apologized. I suppose I smiled.

For a long time, I didn’t understand why this demand for a smile so enraged me. In fact, although I’ve worked in food service for nearly twenty years, including the last eleven and a half in the same fine dining restaurant in Durham, it has seldom occurred to me to consider the larger implications or consequences of my line of work. It has always just been a means to an end for me, supplying a livable if limiting income that has kept my daytime hours free to write. The work isn’t especially difficult—although, a bit more on that later—and I can’t think of more than a handful of unpleasant experiences with guests. It has mostly been fine, and I’ve learned a good deal about food and drink.

In July, my wife and returned from two months in France. Since then, I’ve found myself more and more curious about my job—about the entire culture and economy of restaurants, really. The French dine somewhat differently than we do here. Not necessarily better. It’s easier to find good restaurant food in Durham than it was in most places we visited in France. The service isn’t as good, either, but I suspect that’s mainly because it doesn’t have to be. Service staff in France, and around Europe, don’t depend on tips for their livelihood, as we do here. It’s customary to add a few extra euros to a bill there, as a gesture of appreciation; but the salary is paid by the employer. That’s not the case here. In North Carolina, for example, and in seventeen other states with “right to work” employment laws—an elegant anti-labor euphemism—the minimum wage for waiters is $2.13 per hour: incidentally a rate which, comically small as it is, has even more comically not increased in at least fifteen years. Really the restaurant pays the waiter nothing. The guest pays instead, in the form of a tip. Nearly all of us abide by this honor system, and in fact there some cheering aspects to the system; but essentially waiters in America have to prove themselves with every table they take. The way waiters make their living is an accepted practice, but when we stop to consider it even a little, it seems very peculiar. And lately I’ve been stopping to consider it so often that I’ve found it harder and harder to get going again.

When I’m trying to understand something, I consult the relevant literature. Approximately one in ten Americans works in the food service industry, which by my quick estimation means that we probably employ around fifteen million “front of house” staff, as we collectively call waiters, bartenders, and bussers—everyone you see while you’re dining. Despite such a large population, there is only very scanty writing about our profession (especially when you compare how many books there are by and about chefs). Oh, there are plenty of ranting blogs that tend to boil down to how unpleasant the customer or the boss is, as the case may be; but as one of my favorite writers put it, when anyone has something important to say, they put it in a book. So there must not be very much of importance to say about being a waiter. Another writer, Melville, famously said that to write a mighty book you must pick a mighty theme, and food service doesn’t qualify; many people barely even consider it a “real job,” even though I make more money than schoolteachers, police officers, health care professionals and other people in far more societally necessary lines of work.

There is, surprisingly, a pretty interesting passage about waiters in, of all books, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. In a chapter called “Bad Faith,” he writes:
Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tightrope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafĂ© […] This obligation is not different from that which is imposed on all tradesmen. Their condition is wholly one of ceremony. The public demands of them that they realize it as a ceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer. […] There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition […]
[F]rom within, the waiter in the cafe cannot be immediately a cafe waiter in the sense that this […] glass is a glass. It is by no means that he cannot form reflective judgments or concepts concerning his condition. He knows well what it "means": the obligation of sweeping the floor before the restaurant opens, of starting the coffee pot going, etc. He knows the rights which it allows: the right to the tips, the right to belong to a union [well, not that right, not in America], etc. But […] it is a "representation" for others and for myself, which means that I can be he only in representation […], as the actor is Hamlet. […] I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not....

In other words, acting, and that indeed is most of what the job is. I put on my costume, I go about my performance, which is variations on the same blocking, the same scenelets, the same dialogue and props, night after night. Underneath these mechanisms, to use Sartre’s term, I’m engaged in the real work: time and task management at high speed; attentive table maintenance; proper cocktail proportions and technique; deceptively demanding levels (especially as I get older) of dexterity and strength—“the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things,” as Sartre puts it. Guests don’t see most of this, and aren’t meant to. They’re not really paying me to walk five feet for a bread basket and drop a slice on their plate, or to tell them what barigoule is; a chimpanzee could be trained to do the first task, and a smartphone can do the second. They’re paying for a performance, which is the easy part of the job, but which I can only do effectively by attending to other things while I’m performing. I once read that Laurence Olivier claimed that he sometimes made his grocery list in his head while performing Hamlet’s monologues. In the grocer who dreams is also the dreamer at the grocery.

The waiter is never entirely present in performance and never entirely immersed in task: the performance does not entirely conceal the tasks; and the tasks, even delivering the bread, are performed for show. Perhaps it is in this split engagement, this dual awareness, that Sartre perceives the waiter’s “bad faith.” I confess I’m not entirely clear on his argument here. Maybe we should consult Alex Ruch, who bakes here at Ninth Street and is a doctor of philosophy—and is also my tenant who loaned me Being and Nothingness. But Sartre’s overall point seems to be that bad faith germinates in any work we perform, because we are always in some way separated from the role, and from being, by the act of playing it and by the awareness of that act. A discomfiting recognition of my bad faith probably occurred in that moment between wanting to punch the guy who demanded a smile, and then giving him one. Perhaps Sartre would say that the lie I told myself about my relationship to what I did for a living was exposed; or that by showing up at the table out of character, I was caught out not as Hamlet but as an actor, stranded in some no man’s land between being and nothingness.

Wallace Shawn is probably best known to you as the Great Vizzini from The Princess Bride (“Inconthievable!”). He’s also a playwright, as I am; and in our different ways I suppose we can both be called actors. His wonderful and provocative play Aunt Dan Lemon includes a monologue in which Aunt Dan proclaims, with great urgency and emphasis: “No matter how annoyed or angry I may be, I never, ever shout at a waiter.” She explains to Lemon that if we alienate all the waiters they might quit en masse and society will completely break down. Shawn has given the deeper implications of this threat quite a lot of thought. In an essay for The Nation, Shawn writes:
Policemen, soldiers, janitors, and hotel maids get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, go to their locker rooms, remove their clothes, and get dressed again in their respective uniforms. The actor goes to the theater, goes to his dressing room, and puts on his costume. And as he does so, he remembers the character he’s going to play—how the character feels, how the character speaks. The actor, in costume, looks in the mirror, and it all comes back to him.

The essay, which is nominally about acting, very thought provoking, and highly recommended, gets very dark. It talks about American slavery and Nazi death camps and winds up here:
If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it’s not bearable. It’s not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed. These happen to be things that I just can’t think about. And most of the time, the factory workers and domestic workers and cashiers and truck drivers can’t think about them either. Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them—that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that’s what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it’s the peace of death.

I promise I’m not trying to depress you over dessert. I’m not depressed. I quit my job, as of November first. My general manager asked me why. I told her I have no substantive complaints about the restaurant, but that sometimes it’s necessary to be liberated from one’s source of comfort. That’s so beautiful, she said. Maybe; I do know that it will beautiful to take off my costume for the last time. I note with some satisfaction that my last day of work falls on Halloween. Just like when I started this job eleven and a half years ago—almost exactly a quarter of my life—I have no plan in place for doing anything else except writing. I don’t know how I’m going to make any money. So although I’ve thanked her privately, I’d like to take a moment to thank my wife publicly for supporting my decision to leave.

At a recent planning meeting for Manifest, I told Ari and Chris that I quit because I couldn’t pretend to care what people wanted to drink or eat anymore. But as soon as I said that, I knew it wasn’t true. While I was interacting with my guests, some of whom were some of you, I did care. I was not disingenuous in my work. I tried to do as well as I could at its technical procedures. I know something about food and wine and was glad to share this knowledge when my guests had questions. I was genuinely concerned that they felt comfortable, happy, attended to. It seems to me that simple but sincere welcome, manners, and graciousness are rapidly going out of this world. When strangers have chosen your place over all others that night, approaching them with hospitable gesture and voice is a way to preserve a basic, endangered human decency.

I’m very happy to be leaving my job, but I don’t want to abandon the spirit or the practice of what I did for so many years. I like food and flavor, and I like to make an audience happy. I started out, like Wallace Shawn, as a playwright, and there are few better feelings in the world than standing in the back of the house and watching theatergoers, who have chosen your play over all the other things they could have done with those two hours, engaged in the action: delighted or affronted, applauding or incited. Manifest’s Ninth Commandment is “Use the Venue for Performance.” A restaurant is a theater. There are so many ways an environment like this allows us to entertain people. It doesn’t have to be limited to food.

After “Use the Venue for Performance,” Manifest didn’t have a Tenth Commandment. This seemed to us unacceptable. Ari added one more: Good hospitality is not a service to be rendered but a gift to be shared. Part of the reason I didn’t want to wait tables anymore was that I didn’t want to charge people for being nice to them. Ari reminded me that a smile shouldn’t be what people are paying me to give them. “The money is important to cover the cost of the restaurant and the workers who pay their rent off that money,” he wrote, “but it is not a value judgement of the server.” And it’s not my value judgment of hospitality, either. Hospitality is sacred, priceless, inexhaustible. There should be no limit to how much of it we can afford to give away, whenever we want to. Ari often gives away Ninth Street Bakery cookies and bread, or sends out five-dollar gift vouchers via email. The bakery also gives to charity, more than twenty-thousand dollars a year in cash and in-kind donations. He’s the only food retailer I know of who does this, certainly to that extent, and he does it without a programmatic purpose. “There is no real reason or logic behind charitable giving,” Ari wrote on Ninth Street Bakery’s blog. “It’s not a sales ploy. It’s not an exercise in morality. It just feels good.” In another blog post, Ari wrote that he bought this bakery because he wanted to have the means to make a great slice of rye bread. Buying a whole bakery for more than a quarter million dollars, just for a slice of rye bread? As he himself put it, that’s not logical; it’s pathological. So perhaps is charity. So is writing. The pursuit of the rye bread is what’s important, Ari wrote, and the ability to share it with others. Perhaps that’s why Ari’s blog post was titled, “A Line of Flight,” a phrase, like Sartre’s “Bad Faith,” borrowed from another twentieth century French philosophical idea. Like Sartre’s bad faith, I don’t entirely understand it, but I find the phrase very beautiful, and I sense that the line of flight has a connection to Sartre’s apprehension of the “precautions that imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition.” Manifest’s Ten Commandments include some protest rhetoric, but what we are doing here is less about resistance than it is about release. This is not a fight. It’s a line of flight.


3 comments:

  1. Wow!! Amazing menu. Love your commandments!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm so proud of and impressed with the work you're doing Ar. Keep it up =)

    ReplyDelete