Sunday, December 15, 2013

Foodie book review: The Back of the House, by Scott Haas

Did you ever ask how a restaurant is run on a daily basis? Not by reading a sophisticated management book, but through a daily memoir investigating every corner and moment of its daily life?
Psychologist by profession and restaurant customer Scott Haas spent 18 months knowing Craigie on Main, in Boston, coordinated by famous chef Tony Maws. His book, The Back of the House is the account of his interviews, observations and food tasting together with Maws or with his employees. Besides the idea to write such a book, I found interesting the ways in which after each new day on the ground he covered a new unknown side of the restaurant, including talking over a meal with Maws' parents. In addition, he also worked for a while in the restaurant, in order to take the real pulse of the real life.
For Haas, 'the best restaurants are, in addition to the food being cooked and served, the ones in which the chef tells you his or her story. The emotions that inspire theirs cooking are felt in the dining room and on the plate (...)'. Tony Maws has the following aim: 'Getting things accomplished. Feeding people, making them happy', there is no wonder that and why the two minds met. The relation between the writer and its main character is going through different stages, and Haas may play also from time to time the role of a consultant or even psychologist for some of employees. Maws' philosophy goes further on, as he considers those eating by him 'guests', not customers. Another definition brought by the author later in the book is the following: 'The best restaurants establish trust with their customers on the phone, at the door and throughout the meal'. 
Till reading the book, I was not aware of the terrible emotional burden involved by the work in a prestigious restaurant, besides the cooking part which is always a sensitive part. The author noticed: 'For the job to get done, the staff had to tamp down emotions from their work and absorb the emotional blows - in some ways, it was in part what made the job deeply frustrating and stressfull'. As a main cook and a restaurant owner, the responsibilities are even bigger, the prestige, financial stability and even survival being always at stage. In case that the cook has a family too, as usually in the case of successful careers, the loved ones should wait a lot and get used to enjoy their moments together, regardless of the limitations. Some families survive, some not. 
In the case of Craigie on Main, one of the main problems is the delegation of responsibilities. Being a good chef does not always involved being a good human resources manager and during the 18 months of the investigation, some will leave, many will fill the positions and leave even faster. I was tempted to compare a big restaurant with a big factory, but Haas goes a bit further: 'As with men and women in the military, the cook's individual personalities are flattened by their identical outfits, the virtual impossibility of being able to show spontaneity, emotion, or behavior in reaction to the environment they are in'. On the other hand, Tony will compare the job of being a chef, with the musician's work. Doing covers from other people's songs is different from interpreting its own melodies. A different musical settings was observed by Haas while looking at the cooks in a busy afternoon: 'They worked as an ensemble, and it reminded me enormously of watching jazz musicians play'. Being talented does not guarantee good leadership and managerial skills and very often, problems are arising in the restaurant. 'Running a restaurant starts with knowing how to cook, but the essence of the job, the skill that separates the best chefs from everyone else is managing the people: purveyors, cooks, floor staff, city health inspectors, immigration officers, electricians, plumbers, investors, the media and guests'. Hence, the author's conclusion and advice: 'I felt that by building teams, establishing layers of trust in people, and delegating authority, a chief could be a facet of a restaurant's success rather than its only reason for being in business'. 
As someone not born with natural cooking skills - not at all - when I read foodie-related books, I am curious about recipes for successful dishes. The recipe of success defined by a James Beard award winner is: 'Cooking well comes from doing'. The psychologist Haas says something more, and he is write too: 'Chefs also cook with someone in mind, and it is my opinion that Tony cooked and came up with new desires to please his mother'. 
The book is easy to read, entertaining and good to read while waiting for your meal or on the way to your restaurant. It has a lot of elements that may interest not only the guest of a restaurant or the foodie writer, but also anyone interested to have his or her own restaurant one day. 

I was offered a free copy of the book, but the opinions shared are, as always, my own.

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