Thursday, December 16, 2010

About LP

I am a 31-year-old Chinese-American woman who caught the restaurant bug (for better or worse) seven years ago and decided to act on it. In 2004, I dropped out of an English PhD program at NYU to become a line cook at Bouley, the #2 NYC Zagat rated restaurant for food in 2004. I walked in with no professional kitchen experience, and I walked out six months later having obtained the Chef de Partie position on the fish line. It was luck that got me that position (the Chef liked my tattoos) and it was pluck that kept me there (believe me, I had to come up with some creative solutions to the problem of not knowing how to cook professionally). Despite my simplistic description, this was the hardest experience of my life - the physical demands of rushing and hustling the entirety of 72 hours a week plus the emotional stress of a precise, high-volume, and all-male professional kitchen in the culinary capital of the world would have broken any other sane female and forced her to go back to her office job. Instead, I experimented with a dozen other high-profile restaurants, looking for a food experience that would top my first AND a work environment that would not keep me on the verge of tears (get to know me, I'm not a crybaby). I settled for short periods of time in a couple of other kitchens, Picholine and Tabla, but ultimately decided that my two requirements might not exist in combination.

With a little luck in 2005, (the GM at the time was a foodie who admired my kitchen experience), I moved into the FOH with a serving and bartending gig at SushiSamba, a very popular Japanese fusion restaurant that had just been featured on Sex and the City. I made between $250 and $500 a night in tips, and in four months erased the $7k in debt I had accumulated by working for $400 a week in the kitchen. My luck ran out quickly because the GM left, only to be replaced by an arrogant hack who decided to weed me out. I walked out after being denied a break in an exceptionally busy 16-hour day.

Tired of the NYC restaurant scene, I returned home to LA to look for a job in management, where I might have a hand in making management more equitable. I applied for an entry-level position with Le Pain Quotidien in mid 2005 and again, found some luck when the hiring manager knew the SushiSamba GM who had hired me there (she left SushiSamba for Le Pain Quotidien). Though my experience at Le Pain Quotidien was not without frustration (I was forced to open a new location against my will, upper management was somewhat of a "boys' club"), I made the most out of my experience to become one of the strongest managers in the LA region. More important than launching my management career, Le Pain Quotidien provided the opportunity to put together my own teams; I learned to match diverse personalities that summed to teams that hum. It’s hard to describe, but good team dynamics are some of the sexiest elements of the restaurant industry to me.

In all of my restaurant experiences, I had never been enabled to make truly positive working environments for myself or my co-workers. I have heard the most derogatory language used towards restaurant workers, and I disagree that the industry is without intellectuals or talented workers. In an idealistic move intended to enable me to change circumstances in the industry (both for myself and others), I applied to, and eventually was accepted into, the 2008-2009 accelerated MBA program at Columbia Business School. The program was a lot easier than I would have expected given that it was filled with fancy finance guys from Wall St. In my opinion, it is harder to manage people successfully than to put together financial projections for multi-million dollar mergers. Though I never learned anything useful about people management, I did gain a lot of confidence around numbers, specifically Accounting and Finance. Because I graduated in a recession, I couldn’t realize either of the goals I had in going to business school: to gain the investor interest to launch a restaurant, or obtain a high-paying consultancy position so that I could accumulate the cash or fund-raising experience necessary to eventually launch a restaurant.

In mid 2009, I returned to Border Grill, my employer prior to business school. In starting up their mobile catering operation, I experienced the same mismanagement I struggled against in my entire career in the industry (i.e. poor wages, long working hours, micromanagement). But I also met Teresa, a talented and stubborn young sous chef with so much potential and passion for the industry. Her enthusiasm and positivity was infectious, and I wanted to be near her all the time. Though she had a lot to learn herself, she was the first person in a long line of managers I felt had something to teach me. She was bold enough to tell me what she thought of my management style, and what she told me resonated with how I wanted to grow professionally but never allowed myself to do. I fell in love with her tenacity, her fierce loyalty, her generosity, her understanding of how food speaks to the soul, and the energy we created when we worked together. I trusted her work completely and loved that she brought something unique and fresh to the management of our teams. When I received an exit opportunity, we seized the chance to move and experience NYC together.

The opportunity was to work for a non-profit organization dedicated to improving conditions for restaurant workers. My job was to turn around a struggling worker-owned cooperative restaurant. If successful, I would receive 10% of profits, and the knowledge that I was finally running a restaurant that valued hard-working employees. I shouldn’t have been so na├»ve to think that things are as they seem. The restaurant was over $1mm in bank debt (which I knew about going in) AND $70k in vendor debt (which I didn’t know about going in). When 3 years of $50k/month grant funding dropped by half only 2 months after we launched dinner service, I needed the entirety of the $60k in start up capital I was granted to keep us afloat through the summer season, which is notoriously deathly for the NYC restaurant industry. What was worse was that I never had complete control over my team composition. When I realized that my hard work went to employ – and would, if the restaurant became profitable, make rich – a manager I completely opposed, I knew that the only situation in which I could compel my employees to grow, work hard, and experience a healthy and supportive working environment would be one that I would create with Teresa.

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