A Labor Day tribute to restaurant workers, cooking and serving food they can't afford to eat

I made 12 bucks an hour in a place where the tasting menu cost $400. Capitalism at its worst, but I don't regret it

Published September 3, 2018 8:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/David Zalubowski)
(AP/David Zalubowski)

It’s 2005. I’m a freshman in college in New York and I find my first of many restaurant jobs on Craigslist. I make $12 and change per hour as a hostess. We also get a tiny share of the tip pool, which bumps the hourly wage up to around $13.

The restaurant is the now-defunct Picholine, a stuffy yet incredible temple to fine dining. I fall in love with the clunky, magnificent cheese cart. There’s a safe in the office where the chef locks up his white truffles from Alba, which arrive via the back door in an unmarked box. When it’s slow in the dining room, I thumb through his cookbook collection or hang out near the cheese cart. Sometimes the cheese guy will cut me a sliver of something studded with crystals or scoop me a spoonful of an oozing stinker.

The chef’s tasting menu is $185. The wine pairings are $125. Math is not my strong suit, but I calculate that I will have to work about 24 hours to afford the whole shebang. (More like 30 hours with tax and tip.) I decide to major in anthropology. It hits me over the head: We are all cooking and serving food we cannot even almost afford to eat.  

Because I’m an incredibly lucky college student and my parents are paying my tuition, room and board, my paychecks go toward buying middle-of-the-night ziti pizza at Pinnacle (which is also no longer) or making dubious fashion choices at Beacon’s Closet. But this is not the case for my co-workers — a wannabe model from South Carolina who has four roommates way out in Brooklyn, and an Albanian opera singer who lives with her in-laws in Queens. For many of us, staff meal means a meal that might not otherwise happen. We eat it at the bar, next to where we stuff the menus with the night’s dishes: smoked sturgeon panna cotta, foie gras rillette with mulberry gélée.

When I finally save up for dinner at Picholine, with another hostess, the chef sends us out so many dishes we both feel sick. We drink champagne and Sancerre. They only charge us $74 each, but we tip 100 percent, because these are our people.  

Eighteen months and a few hostess gigs later, I get my first server job at Casellula, a cheese and wine bar in Hell’s Kitchen (it’s still going strong, more than a decade later). I’ve never worked so hard as on our opening night. I’m new at this, and the multitasking of keeping track of all my tables requires my whole brain. It’s also physically demanding — Casellula is a tiny place, but I must accumulate miles back and forth from bar to tables to cheese station. During that first service, I work until 2 a.m. My feet hurt; my brain hurts. When the last table leaves, we toast with Cremant. I’m so tired my vision starts to go wobbly.

We don’t have a POS system yet, so we add up our checks by hand with a big calculator. When the last chairs have been stacked on the tables, we count out a pile of cash from the night. The credit card machine whistles out a report. I want to say the cut is $350 for each of the three of us. The wad of cash feels heavy in my pocket. I’ve never gone home with so much money. I feel rich. I feel unstoppable.

On Sunday, I work the brunch shift. I’ve stayed up late with my Marx-Engels reader, but I’m happy to be here. The place smells faintly of cheese and lavender. The sky is candy blue out the window. I’m ready to work my ass off and make some money.

But unlike the other night, where a mass of bodies formed outside the door and the windows fogged up, brunch is slow. Nearly empty. I help the cook pit cherries for clafoutis. Finally, a table comes in. They order coffee, paninis, and mimosas. They tip $4. After four hours, the owner says I should go home. The $4 will cover my subway ride there and back exactly.

*  *  *

Our economy is very much a service economy. Restaurant jobs are growing fast, faster than health care, construction or manufacturing. According to the Atlantic, restaurant growth has outpaced the overall economy every month for the past seven years, yet pays only an average of $12.50 an hour, while the typical private-sector job pays about $22 an hour. Food service work is often grueling and rarely lucrative.

There were more $350 nights at Casellula, but more often there were $90 nights and $200 nights. It didn’t take the restaurant long to cancel brunch, so there were no more $4 days.

There’s a debate over the  minimum wage for tipped workers. Right now, it’s set to rise from $8.70 to $10 this year in New York, which is still significantly less than the $15 per hour minimum wage for non-tipped workers. In much of the country, employers can pay tipped workers as little as $2.13 per hour.

And then there are the arguments for ending tipping altogether, including its effect on restaurant economics and the potentially heinous power dynamic it creates. Some restaurateurs like Danny Meyer have eliminated tipping altogether, but in the vast majority of restaurants, the practice remains. Casellula got rid of tipping for a time, then brought it back. The experiment failed.  

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In the back of the house, it’s usually worse. When line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers make minimum wage, that doesn’t get padded with tips.

After graduation, I make my first salary as a restaurant manager for a corporate restaurant group in Los Angeles: $55,000 a year, with benefits. I work 70 hours a week, but it’s 2009, the middle of the recession, and I feel lucky to have a job. When I quit, I move to Philadelphia to manage a family-owned restaurant. I make $10,000 less, but I work way less grueling hours and my rent is two thirds of what it was in L.A. I walk to work, and I eat at the restaurant. I get out of bed at 3 a.m. when the walk-in refrigerator stops working to rescue the pricy proteins. I stay after the last table pays each night and run the numbers.

I haven’t worked in restaurant operations since 2011, when I left to move back to New York and work for Fairway. I’ve run restaurant social media, edited restaurant menus and planned press events, but that’s entirely different than night after night on my feet, cheese smell permanently infused in my clothing, sneaking into the walk-in for a deep breath and a moment of cold quiet. There is plenty about it I don’t miss at all -- and a few things I do, like a certain sore satisfaction and a pocketful of hard-earned cash at the end of a long night.

By Hannah Howard

Hannah is the author of Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen. She lives in New York City and loves stinky cheese. Follow her on Instagram at hannahhoward or @hannahhoward on Twitter.

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