I am not sure when exactly I started saying “sorry” so often.
Somewhere along the line I got used to apologizing casually for things that are not my fault, accepting blame and ownership over situations that are out of my control. Like a broken record, I hear myself each day—Sorry, we’re all sold out. Sorry, we’re only doing takeout. Sorry, can I just grab that spoon?
It has become a nervous tick, the word “sorry” thoughtlessly attached to every sentence. Every movement is acknowledged and apologized for, even if causing no inconvenience or harm. It is as if I am sorry for my mere presence.
I am not rich or male or straight, and so throughout my restaurant career taking up space has always been harder. This space—both physical and cultural—has been something that I have needed to fight for. I have worked with (and for) angry, powerful people who yell and swear a lot. I have learned to watch my step, and to keep my head down and my mouth shut. As a queer woman in a straight man’s industry (and world) I walk a very fine line between taking up too much space, and not taking up enough.
In the simplest terms, restaurants revolve around the occupation of space. With so many bodies and sharp objects moving at such rapid speed, there is very little room for error. Things like “corner” and “behind” are not merely casual expressions in the kitchen vocabulary but rather extremely necessary precautions. One misstep and you’ve got a shattered wine bottle or a hot pan to the arm. One word out of turn has the potential to invite an avalanche of frustration from a power-hungry chef.
Through a combination of graceful body language and communication, a good restaurant is supposed to function like a perfectly conducted orchestra, its many frantic movements blending together beautifully in a way that seems natural and effortless. Many of “the best” and most traditional restaurants rely heavily on this guise of gracefulness, using performance and appearances to conceal the natural chaos of a busy kitchen, in addition to camouflaging the many social hierarchies and power imbalances that have thrived just below the surface for centuries.
Historically, the cultural and physical space of a restaurant has been accessible to and occupied by a certain type of person. They are usually white, often male, and, generally speaking, very straight. They are rich or powerful or both, and they are freely handed as much space as they desire. They belong to an old-school clique, one that is characterized both by the men’s only dining rooms of the 1900s and the more modern bad boys club that is celebrity chef-dom. They are top-tier members of a social hierarchy based around exclusivity, ego, and power.
In the kitchen, these people have names such as Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. They are friends with other people like Mario Batali, Eric Ripert, and David Chang. They have built empires that occupy many cities, states, and even countries. Like any good conquerors, they are always fighting to accumulate more and more space. And more often than not, they achieve that goal.
These spaces are not confined to traditional dine-in restaurants, but also branch into places like hotels, network television, and even the cookware sections of Amazon or Walmart. The late 1990s and early 2000s introduced the commodification of chefs and their food, raising them to levels of influence previously unheard of. The simultaneous popularity of haute cuisine trends and home cooking shows on The Food Network created a seemingly endless amount of occupiable space, reserved for those who were palatable and appealing to this growing market of culinary consumers.
The conqueror mentality moves throughout a restaurant’s walls as fluidly as a skilled food runner moves about a dining room. There are antiquated and often unspoken rules that govern who is allowed to set foot in the door, let alone have a seat at the table. To this day, at the finest of fine dining restaurants, a person may gain entrance only if they fit—and can afford—the bill. The sheer ability to get a reservation at places like Per Se or Le Bernadin is considered an accomplishment worth bragging (and Instagramming) about. To occupy this space means that one has somehow been deemed worthy—able to afford and appreciate such performative luxuries.
Not only does this elitist structure tend to have racist, classist, and gendered consequences but it perpetuates the more cultural virtue that we as a society have grown to associate with dining out. Despite being centered around a meal, a restaurant dining room is about much more. Food has always been a status symbol, since the days of medieval feasts or corporate power lunches. In modern society, this prestige comes in the form of photogenic interiors, VIP dining rooms, and flashy signature dishes. Selecting a place to dine (and to be seen dining) is an expression of one’s identity, with a highly ranked restaurant holding the same kind of power as a mink coat worn in the 1940s.
The cultural status of restaurants can be traced in large part to traditional models of service and hospitality, in which patrons are given free rein of the dining room and allowed to behave abhorrently and offensively in the name of services paid for. They are given permission to occupy an uncontested amount of physical and emotional space, encouraged to leave their manners at the door, and are invited to succumb to the supreme level of escapism that a restaurant dining room is designed to provide. The occupation of such cultural space—in this case, the status and power of being the person served versus serving—further enforces the very hierarchical imbalances and spatial divisions that exist to benefit only the upper echelons of restaurant society.
Thanks in large part to people like Danny Meyer and popular mentalities such as “the customer is always right,” restaurants have become a breeding ground for this extremely elitist toxicity. This is a point which Alicia Kennedy very eloquently addressed a few weeks ago in her newsletter on service, noting the historic (and current) one-sidedness of hospitality. “I wondered if we could think about hospitality as something that goes two ways—if we could think about those serving us as human beings, basically—we could transform our interactions with each other,” she writes. What follows is a series of direct interviews with members of the service industry, many of whom have been cast aside by rich restaurateurs and looked down upon by society at large. They tell stories of being treated poorly by managers and customers alike, and call for a total restructuring of customer service and the restaurant industry as we know it.
This is something I’ve called for myself in one form or another. We could eliminate tipping, or dispose of the concept of hospitality altogether; we could focus instead on good food and shared meals in comfortable spaces. Much like the rest of our society, we could (and we should) dare to turn this industry on its head, or knock it all down and start over again.
What this requires is a fundamental restructuring of space, something which has already been spurred into action by the physical limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As traditional restaurant models struggle to survive the winter, perhaps more empowering and inclusive models may thrive. Perhaps we can create more space for us all.
Over the last month or so, I have made a conscious effort to change my internalized habits of saying that I’m sorry. I credit this progress almost entirely to one of the newer hires to our staff. As I moved around the kitchen one day, I mindlessly attached my standard apologies to my every movement. In turn, every “sorry” was met with an equally reflexive “no need to apologize.” We did this dance back and forth for a few weeks until I internalized his lesson.
I was merely taking up space, and for that, there’s no need to apologize.