Keep the pot full, and your mind open

Credit: Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Contributor via Getty Images

The first thing you learn when you don your blue apron is how to make coffee. Anyone who orders a cup gets a full pot of the house roast—the “Never Empty Coffee Pot.” I always thought of it as the first of many implied promises we made to your guests: keeping their pot periodically filled, getting their eggs and toast exactly how they asked, and making sure they come hungry and leave happy, no matter who they are. Over two summers working at IHOP in high school, I’d have a lot to learn and a lot of worldview to reassess in order to survive as a server.

It was my first job ever, working as a server at a busy location in southwest Houston in 2008 and 2009. My parents, Vietnamese refugees who’d worked similar restaurant and service gigs when they first arrived in America, wanted me to get a taste of the industry. Being a suburban kid, I had too much free time on my hands anyway. It was, like many teens in the early Obama era, an unremarkably carefree adolescence, before I had the vocabulary to speak about such foreign-to-me concepts as “privilege.” I only had a general understanding that I would be working with people who likely needed the job more than me, and that I had a lot to learn.

High-volume chain restaurants are like boot camps on the basics of good service. Like anyone who’s ever worked in hospitality might tell you, there is choreography to master on the job. At IHOP, for example, there was the dish-stacking maneuver where you’d line as many plates as you could along your arm to avoid using a tray—the most I saw was eight or nine. The trick is to start with the bigger plates that weren’t piping hot from sitting directly on the flat-top grill, to avoid a nasty burn, then add the small side dishes of pancakes on top in a pyramid formation. And as one kind manager once demonstrated in a valuable exercise on mindfulness I still use in my bartending job today: anytime you take a lap through the room, touch all of your tables to refill water and coffee, drop off condiments and pick up plates, and ask if everything is going well. Even when there’s a line out the door and you feel like you can’t take a second to stop, you can always keep doing little things to make the space better. It’s amazing how much this philosophy could improve office environments I’ve since worked in.

But beyond very useful lifelong service lessons, I learned a lot about my place in the world as I observed and interacted with my coworkers and our clients. “There was another Asian guy who used to work here,” another server told me during my first week on the job. So I’m the Asian guy now, I thought to myself, although it was weirdly reassuring. (I hadn’t yet been conditioned to realize that even well-intentioned comments could, in their delivery, be problematic.) “Chino,” or “chinito” became my nickname that day and for the remainder of my time among my mostly Spanish-speaking coworkers. IHOP may have been my first job, but it was the last in which the majority of my coworkers were people of color. I’m not ashamed to say I’d never really thought about race before then. Yes, there was the kid who shoved me in a high school locker room “because of Pearl Harbor,” and there was the odd way people would slow down when they spoke to my Texas-educated parents, assuming they didn’t understand. I’d seen glimpses of casual, passive racism throughout my entire life, but I’d never accepted my own race as a constant the way others saw me. It dawned on me what a luxury that had been.

In Houston, now the most racially diverse city in America, our clientele was as varied as our staff. You were as likely to hear que le gustaría tomar as you were “what would you like to drink?” and I took orders in Vietnamese not infrequently. But that didn’t mean that racism wasn’t painfully obvious at times. After clocking in, we’d all stand with menus in hand waiting to take guests in to our tables. Often, a diner’s apparent ethnicity determined who’d bully their way into taking the table.

“I’m not taking that fucking table,” a coworker, let’s call him John, told me once when a black couple walked in, suggesting they wouldn’t tip well. John only liked to deal with fellow Spanish speakers who he could butter up. Large Asian families were viewed as cheap, Indian families as picky and demanding. Naive, 15-year-old me made a mental note to observe for evidence these stereotypes, a study that of course proved inconclusive. Incidentally, the table I took from John ended up being the best tip I received all summer. We all need a tangible dose of life affirmation or instant karma from time to time.

Looking back on my time at IHOP, I realized how much more I got out of my time there than some extra spending cash, and how relevant my experience there would become to my daily life writing about food and the hospitality industry. These days, more transparent conversations about sexual harassment and highly-publicized scandals with big-name chefs prove that sexual misconduct in our industry is rampant. But they instantly remind me of one particularly boorish coworker who’d corner people in the breakroom, or dry storage walk-in, to make advances, sometimes exposing himself to you if he caught you alone. Teenage me didn’t think much of it, but now I’m angry that the issue only comes to light because more high profile names—like John Besh, Mario Batali, and Ken Friedman—have been exposed. What about the folks working at their suburban chain restaurant whose stories will go untold? It would be years later before I found the words to articulate this disparity.

A slew of hospitality gigs—server, barista, bartender—and a journalism degree later, I now have both the experience and the words to address this imbalance and acknowledge less-entitled forms of hospitality. We all roll our eyes at the “what servers hate” listicles that show up on our news feeds, but at least those articles deign to speak more broadly to the everyday service folks who are ignored when it comes to the privileged spaces of food writing. As consumers of food (and food media) in this political climate, it's ever more important to demand representation even for the narratives that make us uncomfortable.

Why don’t we talk more about the realities of class when we talk about the food industry? Why don’t we know that for some of our comrades in hospitality, knowing how to respond to a robbery at gunpoint is just part of the job? (Yes, this happened.) And can we really have a conversation about women’s rights in this industry without acknowledging the continuing lack of maternity leave options for so many women, like a 16-year-old coworker of mine who was attending high school while taking evening shifts at the restaurant? I don’t recount any of these anecdotes to inspire pity or shock, but merely to point out the realities for those whose stories rarely grace the pages of our glossy food magazines.

Recently returning to the same old IHOP after eight years was a strange and bittersweet experience. The restaurant had been given a serious facelift—part of a franchise-wise upgrade plan—and I only saw a handful of familiar faces working. I’ve also changed: I’ve graduated, moved to New York, graduated again, and worked in a share of restaurants, cafes, and bars since then. But anytime I start a new job, I always find myself going back to lessons I learned here. On my way out, my old manager jokingly reminds me to “not forget about Houston” but truly, I never have.