24 April 2018
a divorce with la vieille
Well, that was quick. As of earlier this month, I've left the manager and wine director position I held for the past eight months at the 1èr arrondissement restaurant Chez La Vieille.
In writing about the restaurant, before and after beginning to work there, I used to emphasise the involvement of American chef Daniel Rose, to differentiate this iteration of Chez La Vieille from the mediocre ones that preceded it at the historic Les Halles bistrot site. Alas, not even the involvement of Rose, who I've been tempted to consider a friend at times, was enough to save my job from his Parisian business partners. Many restaurants have investors who display zero familiarity with restaurant culture or the quotidian rhythms of a food service establishment, people whose actual involvement extends no further than dining as VIP clients from time to time and volunteering hilariously uninformed commentary on the cuisine and wine. Investors of this sort are no more than a benign nuisance when a more informed stakeholder is working on-site. At Chez La Vieille, I realised soon enough, the only informed stakeholder lives in New York.
As it happened, the task Rose had hired me to perform at Chez La Vieille - to turn the restaurant into a fun, raucous natural wine destination - ran counter to the wishes of his Parisian partners, who, like many of their generation and socioeconomic bracket, remain mystified by natural wine and find informal service slightly unsettling. The end result is, I'm back on the job market. Chez La Vieille will chug along, just with less natural wine, and bereft of the talents of the ace chef de cuisine Oleg Olexin, who left shortly after I did (for different reasons). I am poorer than when I began, having made less money working maniac 90-hour weeks than I used to make from stray gigs and writing assignments. Am I richer for the experience of having managed a restaurant on this side of the Atlantic? It has certainly left me cagier about the prospect of ever opening one of my own. Perhaps that is a form of wisdom.
Twelve years ago, when I used to wait tables in Los Angeles, I came to learn that the best technique for ensuring a good evening's service was to treat the restaurant manager - my boss - like another table. I'd intermittently check-in to see if anything more could be done to make his or her evening more pleasant. It meant a bit of side-work here and there, more napkin-folding, the occasional random cleaning chore. But as long as the boss was happy, my fellow servers were happy, and so were the clients.
In France, this dynamic is reversed. The manager - who, remember, is also waiting tables, there being no actual distinction in terms of service responsibilities in a small restaurant between management and server in France - must treat his or her own servers as if they were another tableful of guests. One must constantly check-in and see if there are ways to make the servers lives easier. Otherwise, they begin feeling aggrieved for the mere fact of having to work for a living. They begin feigning illnesses, or simply not showing up, or complaining to the ownership about how insensitive you are. Savvy employees in France have almost complete freedom in this regard, because they can't be fired without incurring great cost to the restaurant. (Moreover, while continuing nominally to work at a restaurant, French employees can also cause cataclysmic aggravation and service disruption merely by going on sick leave, or by doggedly attempting to prove that the hours are too long.)
It took months for this cultural insight to sink in for me. In France, a manager's primary responsibility is to ensure that the staff stays happy, and only secondarily to ensure that clients are happy. In practice, this meant I spent a galling amount of time at Chez La Vieille covering for the servers' increasingly frequent cigarette breaks.* I pretty much couldn't say no. It was my job.
Anyway. Now I get to look for a new one. In the meantime, I hope to get a bit more writing done.
* To be fair, Rose had a more disciplined team in place before he closed the much larger Restaurant Spring last July. That caused a staff exodus from which the restaurant group has yet to entirely recover, despite my best efforts. I twice found myself in the unenviable position of trying to train two new servers at once - on a team of just three, including me.