Friday, January 24, 2014

Thoughts on Behind The Kitchen Door

I finally had a chance to read the UU Common Read book, Behind the Kitchen Door.  It was surprisingly engaging and quick to finish.  Through personal stories and independent research, the author does a great job of capturing the social justice issues wrapped up in the restaurant industry.  It also gave me  a lot to think about.  To think that the federal minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13, to me is a crime.  I looked up my state, MO, and discovered we were a tiny bit better at $3.75.  How many of us, especially with families, could even imagine living on this?  While tips are expected to make up the difference (at least to $7.50) an hour, there is no guarantee that this will happen, that the house will over the difference, or you can even cover your monthly rent with this *guaranteed* minimum wage.  The author noted the consumers will often think more about where the food is produced, how it is cooked and whether or not the animals are treated ethically more then they will think of the working conditions of the waitstaff, cooks, bussers and dishwashers.  Sadly, I am guilty of this.

I wish the author would have gone into the history of how this type of payment system developed.  After reading the book, I came away with that this whole method needs to be changed.  I remember when I was in Europe (a very long time ago, so maybe this has changed?), but in certain countries, it was considered an insult to tip.  The waiter's salary was not artificial reduced to be supplemented by the generosity of diners.  At the time, it felt very awkward to not tip.  I felt like I was cheating them, even though I was assured that I was not.  I don't know enough about the European restaurant industry to gage how successful/fair this method is, but on the surface, it seems like a great idea.  Why aren't we doing this?  I would much rather pay a flat amount and know that everyone is being paid a fair rate then knowing that I may tip 20% but a friend only tips 10%.  Americans are so used to cheap food, that we all need to realize that it comes at significant human cost.

One other point I will touch on (and there are many more in the book), is the blatant racism.  The author notes that in fine dining establishments, the farther back you go in a restaurant, the darker the workers.  Basically, the servers tend to be white while the dishwasher are usually black.  Head/Sous Chefs may be white, but line cooks are African American or darker skinned immigrants.  Hostess are white American or white European.  Frankly, I can count on one hand the amount of times I have been in a white table-cloth restaurant (the phrase the author uses).  From what I remember, the wait staff was white.  But, I live in a very diverse city and if I go to a casual dining restaurant, my server is almost always African American.   I am not sure where I am going with this, except that I hadn't really thought about it because the restaurants I do go to, the staff is very diverse at all levels.  Also, I feel that the racism experienced at fancier establishments comes from a much greater level of institutional racism that goes beyond the restaurant industry.  It would be wonderful if the restaurant industry could take the lead in chipping away at those offensive, long-held systems of discrimination.  Restaurant Opportunity Centers United is certainly trying, now it is up to us to help them.

1 comment:

Sara said...

Good points. It's all really important stuff, but I had trouble getting into the book. I didn't find the writing engaging, so I got bogged down in just not liking the book, rather than focusing on the important larger issues here.