ONE FOR THE BOOKS: Those who serve us

By Mary Louise Ruehr Published:

If we were rich and dealt with these workers every day in our homes, we'd call them our servants. Those who cook and serve our food, make our beds and clean up after us are America's hotel and restaurant workers, people whose faces we often don't even notice. What's their life like, and what do they think of the people they serve?

Jacob Tomsky has worked in the hotel business for more than a decade, from parking cars to housekeeping to working on the front desk. In "Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality," he reveals what the workers at two hotels in New Orleans and New York City have to go through on a day-to-day basis and how they're treated -- both by management and by guests.

The hotel business makes its money by putting "heads in beds," he writes, and they are operated by a phalanx of workers who keep everything humming smoothly, often by multi-tasking. "That is what we are, an army of servants, included with the price of the room," says Tomsky. "I was infinite. All things to all people. Uniform impeccable. Providing exceptional service."

He lets us know what valets do with the cars they have to park. (It isn't pretty.) And how absolutely awful it can be to clean up after people. "There is nothing easy about housekeeping. There is nothing easy about dealing with other people's filth and having to get on your knees to do it." Some of what people leave behind is disgusting, and some is just outrageous. In New Orleans during Mardi Gras, for example, "a couple of guests rented the suite with a claw-footed tub, built a fire below it, and tried to turn the porcelain tub into a deep fryer."

He had to deal with celebrities, arrogant complainers ("threatening a front desk agent gets you nowhere. Well, that's not true. It gets you into a worse room"), and guests with idiosyncracies, such as one who "refused to stay in any room where the digits didn't add up to nine."

He shares insider secrets, such as how you never have to pay for treats from the minibar, things a guest must know, things a guest should never say or do, and standard lies that front desk agents tell.

There's a host of profanity throughout the book. He's often funny but -- let's just say -- a little irreverent.

SDLqBehind the Kitchen Door" by Saru Jayaraman is an important sociological study of American restaurant workers and includes some of their stories, their backgrounds, their hopes and their realities. Many of these workers are immigrants, and often they are here illegally.

"Our food system now treats millions of workers like disposable commodities, paying them poverty wages, denying them medical benefits and sick pay, and tolerating racism and sexism on the job," writes Jayaraman. They are "servers, bussers, runners, dishwashers, cooks, and others -- who are struggling to support themselves and their families under the shockingly exploitative conditions that exist behind most restaurant kitchen doors."

"Only 20 percent of restaurant jobs pay a livable wage, and women, people of color, and immigrants face significant barriers in obtaining those livable-wage jobs," she writes. "For the last two decades the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been frozen at $2.13 an hour," and "Millions of workers regularly experience wage theft (not being paid the wages and tips they are owed)." Some employers clock out employees before they finish their shifts or while they are still cleaning up the kitchen. Some servers are forced to pay the bill if the customer runs out without paying.

She explains, "It took me years to understand how tipping really works. First, I learned that my $5 is shared by many different people: the waiter who takes my order, the runner who brings out my food, and the bussers who clean my table and refill my bread basket and water. In some restaurants, the waiter has to ask a bartender to prepare the drinks, and a barback may assist. In the finest fine-dining restaurants, a captain greets customers and oversees the service they receive. All those workers get a piece of my $5."

Besides enduring racial discrimination and sexual harrassment, many times restaurant workers receive no sick days, so to keep money coming in they are forced to work while ill. Since they're handling our food, this isn't an ideal situation.

But, says the author, there are some restaurant owners who "demonstrate how restaurants can pay workers a livable wage and still be profitable. Their food is better, too." She discusses the Slow Food movement, as opposed to fast-food restaurants. "Slow food is good, clean, and fair food -- good for the planet, and good for everyone in between."

She talks about "sustainable food" and fair and equitable labor practices and offers suggestions on how consumers can help.

In a happier vein, Lauren Shockey's a woman who wholeheartedly enjoys cooking, so her memoir, "Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris," is an upbeat account of her "year-long world tour of kitchens."

Determined to become a great chef, Shockey went to culinary school, then decided she "wanted to discover what it meant to be a female chef in different countries around the world." She spent three months as an apprentice in each of the four cities mentioned in the title.

She started out in a New York City restaurant specializing in "molecular gastronomy" -- no Hamburger Helper in that place. She tells us, "I was absorbing kitchen wisdom by osmosis and simply by being in an environment driven by innovation and creativity. And I was learning through practice, practice, practice" during 12- to 13-hour days.

She wanted to go to Vietnam to learn from a French chef in Hanoi, to Israel because she's Jewish and "wanted to explore my ancestral home," and to Paris because -- well, because it's "the culinary Holy Grail." It's not so much a travel memoir as a culinary guidebook filled with kitchen anecdotes about how different cultures work with food.

The book includes about a dozen recipes from each of the four cities. For example: New York: "Lamb Meatballs with Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce"; Hanoi: "Tuna with Passion Fruit Sauce"; Tel Aviv: "Red Wine-Braised Brisket"; and Paris: "Lobster 'Ravioli' with Vanilla Champagne Sauce."

Copyright © 2013 Mary Louise Ruehr.

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