Here’s a Tip….

Okay, I know this is going to be read and interpreted as a type of bashing or complaining about my business. I assure you it is absolutely not what you think. Please open your mind and accept this little dissertation in the vein in which it is intended. That is to say, my intentions are simply to broaden the scope of understanding regarding the way in which we in the restaurant industry perceive you as our guest. Please take notice of the fact that I did indeed refer to the restaurant business and NOT the hospitality industry. Why? Because the latter is a bullshit industry term that was manufactured to lure the general public into our carefully constructed and overly manipulated dens of “wallet rape”. (your stellar author’s restaurant excluded of course) I will also challenge you to, for a moment, be quite unreasonable. Unreasonable in the sense that you put aside your instant and primal defensive response to perceived criticism. Allow what you are about to read to wash over you as a sort of campy, humorous yet completely factual depiction of everyday life in the dining room of a restaurant on the North Shore of Chicago.

Quite a scene this restaurant is. A scene in which the perception is as different as night and day depending on who it is that is sizing you up. First off myself, the proud Chef/Proprietor of the establishment who welcomes you and your dining dollars. I am always on alert and see everything before you do. This sounds like a line of shit but I promise you, it is not. I see everything. This is not boasting on my part, in fact, if someone reading this knows of a way for me to be relieved of this affliction, please, for the love of God, Share it with me!

I see things I shouldn’t see, I see things nobody wants to see. I see things you would not notice even if I didn’t catch them before you arrived. I assure you, this is both a blessing and a curse. My head at times, is on a swivel and poised to spin-off of my fucking neck at any moment. I am the master of your experience at Restaurant Michael, a responsibility I do not take lightly. Next is the Maitre d’, my first and most polished line of defense against the terrors and possible disaster that lurks around every corner of the restaurant in regards to dealing with a guest. Dan, my Maitre’d is one of the last of the old guard. He has a lovely way of making you feel both welcomed and intrusive  and both in the same breath. This is a very important and sought after quality in a Maitre d’. It may sound odd to read that thought out of context but truth be told, if the guest is made to feel in complete control of the restaurant and their experience in said restaurant, it would be akin to handing the keys for the asylum to the fucking patients.

We all need to be led, to a certain extent, through the experience in a restaurant so that the perception meets the expectations, myself included. Any restaurant owner that tells you that they are not scalping ideas and concepts when they dine out is full of shit! Dismiss this asshole out of hand and move on before they rob your house and steal your daughter’s heart. Make no mistake, we are ALL poaching ideas and concepts from each other at all times. It’s a constant, unspoken exchange of thoughts and ideas that makes the industry turn and somehow not spin-off its axis.

Dan is, in fact, a master at what I just described, and also quite gifted in the art of playing to his audience. He sizes you up upon hearing the first word you utter on the phone when taking your reservation and he has carefully laid out and precise descriptions of you, your family, your upbringing and your likes/dislikes in writing for the staff to read and digest days before you arrive.  This is no free fall my friends. We know what you want before you do and rest assured we will plant that seed the moment you walk in the door. We must do this in order to establish dominance. If we don’t, nine out of ten guests will roam freely around the dining room in an attempt to choose which table they would prefer. After careful selection of that prime and envied table, they will then demand to be relocated no less than three times to an even “better” table before deciding their original choice of tables best suited them and they simply must have the current occupants of THEIR table removed. Of course the table must be reset and spun 20 degrees to the left so as to avoid unfavorable lighting…….Listen closely……..SIT…YOUR…HAPPY…ASS… DOWN!

We have chosen the seating arrangements for you for one reason and one reason only. Ready? TO MAKE MONEY!!!  We need to maximize the space we have and allow the restaurant to seat the maximum number of guests comfortably and with as little interference as possible with the smooth running of the evening’s service. This is not a negotiation, we are not in the middle of a fucking open air market in Morocco. Each table in the restaurant is adorned with the same linen, china, flatware and stemware. What does this guest I just described hope to accomplish? There is no table next to the bathroom that we are saving for the difficult people who were here last week and must be punished. That is television sitcom crap and it simply does not exist anymore. So, sit where we ask and trust that we want you to enjoy yourself. How else do you think we could expect to get you to spend a little coin?

Now the waiters. The captains of the room and the liaison between you the guest and the kitchen/Chef/Me. These gentlemen are the ambassadors of the menu. It is their business to know its contents and origin and most importantly, its limitations. At this point you are likely scratching your head and asking, limitations? Why whatever do you mean? Come on folks, you don’t walk into a sushi bar and ask for a cheeseburger. Why in the hell would you think it even remotely appropriate to come into a restaurant known for French cooking and ask for a vegan menu. Did you bump your head upon arrival? Did you bang your head on a low hanging beam of which I am unaware which caused some sort of temporary departure from reality as you enter the restaurant?  What the hell makes someone think this is a valid and feasible request? Please understand, I am capable and very much willing to take on the challenge of creating a vegan tasting menu for any guest that asks. and, I will make it sing with flavor and harmony… But I need a couple of hours man! I am not Merlin the fucking magician! I am unable to, by some miracle of modern cooking, turn beef tenderloin into a locally grown, sustainably farmed, antibiotic free, hydroponic, organic fungus that vaguely resembles a meat-like product with a moments notice.

Here’s an example to better illustrate the dilemma you create with such a ridiculous and diabolical request. You take the better part of the spring season to ready the soil in your yard to receive the most gorgeous and exotic plants that can sustain life in your growing region. You spend countless hours and dollars to ensure they are well fed, maintained and tended to in every way. You then send out an invitation to “Modern Garden Magazine” to do a photo shoot of this rare and exotic foliage that only you have had the good fortune to obtain and allow to flourish. You wait with anticipation for months until the day of the photo shoot is upon you. The editor and the photographer arrive, you lead them proudly to your great accomplishment expecting tears of joy and praise over your prized ability to present such perfect specimens and…….with hardly a breath being wasted or a shread of respect for your home and labor…..the editor exclaims “ya know what? I think we will change the format of the story and just shoot silk and plastic this month….. got any?”   What the fuck!??! How could this be? Well boys and girls, multiply this little fictional scenario by 10 or 12 times a night, six days a week, every week of the year and you have the very reason why a waiter not only expects but damn well deserves not only your tip but more importantly, your attention and your respect.

This all leads me to the crux of the waiter dilemma. Tipping. Perhaps the biggest taboo in the dynamic between restaurant and guest. If you don’t respect brutal truth and don’t appreciate unfiltered honesty then I implore you, read no more. If these are qualities you revere and crave in a blog entry then come along with me……

Waiters work for $4.95 per hour. I know the common thought is as follows, “This server had better dazzle me with their brilliance or their tip will surely suffer.” Tell me I’m wrong. Go ahead, tell me, that’s what I thought. Every customer that walks in the door has the same chip on their shoulder. That’s not to say they are not wonderful giving and caring people. Most are exactly that. Some not so much but that’s not the point. This is not about personalities nor is it about unreasonable expectations. This is about doing the right thing. Waiters are saddled with the responsibility of nearly 100% of your experience yet in a cruel and ironic twist they actually have control over about 10% of said experience. It is one of the cosmic goofs of all time. A waiter puts themselves out there as the face of the restaurant experience and while doing so, they put themselves in a position where they are literally poised for failure at every turn.

Menus are presented slowly, the Maitre d’ likely over seated them and they are just as likely overwhelmed. Drink is weak, the bartender poured it. Service is slow, guess what, the kitchen cooks and sends the food not the waiter. Check takes forever to arrive, well, there are three waiters stacked up at one terminal trying to accomplish the same goal, getting you your check quickly. There are so many scenarios in which the waiter has zero control I would hesitate to go into much more detail as it will only serve to appear as repetitive. Suffice it to say, it’s simply not always the waiter’s fault. Yet they are the lone wolf, left to be devoured by angry guests that simply cannot wait to get the bill and tally up the total number of fuck-ups that will have the ultimate result of diminishing their tip to a fraction of what it actually should be.

Now on the flip side, sometimes it is totally the waiter’s fault. Especially if arrogance or bravado comes into play. If a waiter struts through the dining room and up to your table as if they were doing you a favor than yes, begin to tally the tip reduction as a matter of sport. If this is the opening attitude then batten down the hatches, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. These balloon-headed freaks usually have the audacity to fall back on the recently written bullshit reviews the new “wunderkind” Chef dickhead just received in the newly launched, publication, “life in the fast lane magazine”. In reality, these silly reviews carry little weight nowadays with anyone other than “Chef dickhead” and his or her faithful flock of zombie-like yes men. The dining public are a much smarter and well-informed machine today VS 10 or 15 years ago. They are also armed with instant messaging devices that will photograph the dish and upload it to a foodie chatroom before the first bite is consummed….YIKES! So all that being said, how smart does the arrogant ass-kisser waiter with the cocky smirk and Supercuts hair cut appear now? These are the ding-a-lings that deserve your disdain not the vast majority of hard-working folks that strive to make your experience memorable in the best way possible. As for the other goofballs I just described, go get em!!!

Now being an industry person, I always tip way over 25%, it’s kind of inside professional courtesy type of deal. It is also unspoken and implied amongst our families and friends as a means of extending that very same courtesy. Clearly that courtesy is lost on my fucking Father. Shocking, yes, unexpected, no. He has known much of my dining room team for a long time as many of them have been with me for years. This does not excuse his behavior on a recent visit to the restaurant. Let me first say that my family in general does not make a habit of coming to the restaurant to eat for free. In fact, quite the contrary. Most often I have to beg them to come because they are smart and caring enough to realize that they don’t want to take up valuable space that could be sold to paying guests.

That concept goes out the window evidently, when the faux check arrives at my Fathers table. For some strange reason, he feels it’s acceptable to leave a standard $20 per couple regardless of consumption. Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy to feed my family and many close friends on the cuff. I mean they have always supported me and I absolutely love having my nieces and nephews in–they are my favorite people to cook for now. It warms my heart to see their faces light up when they taste something for the very first time. The look of awe when they realize they like something they never tasted before elicits a powerful and wonderful feeling as their Uncle Michael “The Chef” beams with pride. All that being said, Pop’s, you’re going to have to step up on future visits regarding the gratuity. If not the balance due will have to be taken out in the form of a swift kick in the ass on the way out the door for your seventh cigarette break in two courses…….. Ya fuckin’ SAVAGE!!!  LOL! That’s okay Dad, the boys all understand. They acknowledge the fact that long before they had to deal with my manic, borderline psychotic behavior, there was you and Mom on the front lines of the battle to build a restaurateur. Well you did your job well. I’m here, I’m successful and I’m bitching at you for leaving a shitty tip in the blog entry regarding the act of proper tipping!!!!   Kind of cool huh?

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24 thoughts on “Here’s a Tip….

  1. A question: My husband always leaves at least a 20% tip, but he bases it on the total food and drink bill BEFORE the tax. This seems reasonable. I only wonder if, after payment, the waiter looks at the total bill, then the tip, sees that it is a little under 20%, and feels cheated, or thinks we didn’t appreciate his service.

  2. Hmmmm… we always leave a 20% tip AFTER tax. Is that too much? I have worked as a server, and know how hard the work is; I also know that the tips get divided up among not only the waitstaff, but also the bussing and kitchen staff. That said, 20% AFTER tax doesn’t seem to be too much. Is it true that the tips are divided among support staff? And what about the Maitre d’ ? Also, is it considered gauche or wonderful to charge just the amount of the check, and leave the tip in cash? Just wondering…

    • You are quite generous. I assure you, no waiter with a brain in thier head will expect someone to tip on the tax. In fact, it’s common to tip on only food and a percentage of the wine if the bottle purchased is one of great cost. ($500.00 and up for the most part) Distribution of gratuity differs depending on the restaurant and management. We do in fact pool the tips at Restaurant Michael and all of the charged tips go directly on the front staffs pay check. Cash is always welcome as it saves the restaurant the credit card fees applied for processing. This method only works well if the restaurant has a strong and cohesive team that all work equally hard to deliver a great experience. I am very fortunate to have just such a team. Yes, the Maitre d’ does indeed participate in the tip pool as he deserves every penny for the amount of support and direction he lends. This allows the wait team to better focus on the service rather then managing the floor and communication with the kitchen. As for the the restaurant that you worked for that tipped the kitchen fron the pool of collected money for the waitstaff. Yikes! I would contact the labor board because that is about as big a no-no as they come. That money does not belong to the restaurant nor the owner. When you see a restaurant close and not pay the staff their final check it is because the cash flow was so upside down the owner likely spent it and has no way to recover…….That kind of stuff really keeps me humble, that much I know.

  3. Dear Michael,
    Let me start by saying that I absolutely love your blogs. Not only that I enjoy the topics but I am very impressed with your writing style. Unfortunately I am not one of those “once a week patrons” since eating out at fine restaurants is still under strict budgetary constraints, however, whenever we have a special occasion, we love to come and eat your wonderful food. I agree that you have wonderful staff all around and we had a chance to see that in action when we came to your place. The only difference is that we haven’t yet experienced those conversations with the Maitre’ D at reservation time or in your dining room as you reference in your blog. So far we came twice for two special occasions (my daughter’s 8th grade graduation and a birthday celebration) and we never had a chance to tell anyone what we were celebrating. Not a big deal to us but since I read your blog, I was wondering how does it feel to receive “customized” treatment for your special mood or occasion? I did see it with other patrons in your restaurant so maybe once we come more often we will have a chance to experience that special touch too. We LOVE your food and we wish all our meals would taste like that. I never understood why people go to restaurants where the food is mediocre at best and the staff believes is entitled to a 20% gratuity even though they forgot to put your order in, or they didn’t notice your water glass being empty or they could not find their way back to you with the silverware or the napkins that were missing from the table even after the food arrived. It is so easy and enjoyable to tip 20-25% at places where you are treated right, but what do you do when you eat at an establishment that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you spending your money there?

    • Hi! First off, thank you so much for your compliment on my writing style. Also, thanks for taking the time to pen such a thoughtful response. To answer your question, on your next visit please be sure to let us know the occasion. Also, please let me know when you will be joining us so I can make a stop by your table to say hello. I want to be sure to meet you. To be honest, if you come to dine once a week or once a year, you are equally important and I want you to feel as such. At the end of the day, you spending what you refer to as limited dining dollars at my restaurant is a huge compliment to me and I am honored to have you!

  4. I’ve worked as a fry cook, busboy, pizza maker, chef and caterer since I was 13 and I am now 46. I leave 20% on the total bill, but I am often out with people who leave 20% on bill before the tax, or worse, 20% on the food not liquor. In a nice restaurant, at least all the ones I’ve worked for or at, the server usually has to tip out the bus boy, the back waiter, and the bartender if there is one. You thinking waiting on nine different tables a night with twenty different needs/wants/personalities is easy? How about at the end of the night when you get dirty looks from your bartender, your bus service, and your food runner when you only give up 20% of ALL your tips? And how about this for new age wisdom; I know several restaurants that actually charge the server 1.5% of their tip if a credit card is used!
    Sure, in many restaurants a server can clear big bucks each and every night, but maybe not so at lunch or on a Monday when they are working just as hard, but not getting a high check average.
    Then, at the end of the night there is always side work which can range from re-watering the tables flowers, getting wax out of tea light candles, cleaning gum off of under the tables, wiping down menus, refilling trivia card holders, or marrying ketchup and mustard bottles. Go ahead, tip less than twenty percent, but think about this the next time you are out, if you are having bad service, tell the person, then the manager, but leave twenty percent because after all is said and done, it isn’t that much, and quite possibly the table next to yours isn’t tipping at all. In the restaurant industry, those people are called Canadians.

    • My wife Sally started this thread by asking Chef Michael what he thought of taxing on the tip, and both my wife and I strongly agree with him that tipping on the tax makes no sense. I want to explain why.

      Joe Dugan argues that we should tip on the tax as well as the meal because of various reasons which have to do with how much work waiters do and so forth, and I have no quarrel with his premise; however, if that is his point, then he should increase the percentage of the tip on the meal itself, since tipping on the tax makes no more sense than tipping on the amount someone pays his wife in a divorce settlement: the amount of tax has nothing to do with the service rendered.

      Think of it this way. There are two identical restaurants located on different sides of a line separating two taxing bodies. One restaurant has to pay a 10% tax while the other one has no tax to pay. You get identical meals and identical service, but one if you give a 20% tip on a $100 meal, then you will be leaving a $22 tip at one restaurant and a $20 tip at the other one. How does that make any sense?

      Of course you can argue that the waiter should get the $22 tip, but if that is the case, then why are you punishing the waiter who has the misfortune of working in the restaurant that doesn’t have to pay a tax on its meal? Wouldn’t it make more sense to up your tip to 22% on the meal before tax?

      Q.E.D.

    • So I guess now I got to come in to your restaurant. I have a saying that goes something like this; I will go back to a restaurant where the food was good, not great, but the service was awesome, but I will never go back to a restaurant where the food was great but the service sucked. I can make a fabulous meal at home. I go out to have some one wait on me. But hey, that’s just me.

      BTW: First time reading your blog, I am not sure how I got on your e-mail. My wife and I have always wanted to try your restaurant. I remember when it was the Winnetka Grill. Your menu looks incredible, so I hope to taste some of your food soon.

      • You won’t be disappointed, Joe, either with the food or the service. But if you are, in one way or another, disappointed, tell the Big Guy in the kitchen. He’ll do his best to make it right with you. I’ve been a patron of Michael’s for many years now, and I know firsthand the effort he puts in to making every guest feel not only welcome, but special. This effort is reflected in the work of his staff. He sets a very high standard for himself, and expects no less from those around him.

        In the immortal words of Julia – Bon Appetite,

        Jim

  5. I found the topic worthy and the treatment of it informative (never knew waiters were paid so little!) but I have to say that I found the language to be a bit over-the-top. Sure, I’ll drop an F-bomb when I whack my thumb with the hammer (and even worse than that, I assure you) so I’m no stranger to profanity and vulgar language. I have met you but don’t really know you that well – so I don’t know if the profanity is deeply ingrained in your personality or just a garnish for your writing. I DO think it detracts from the blog, from the seriousness of the topic, and from my image of chefs – which I hold in very high esteem. I’m sure you greet your guests with more class (and less profanity) but “hearing” you speak like that online does color one’s opinion of you and your restaurant.

    Nuff of the constructive criticism of your blog – hey – it’s yours – if you want a Lenny Bruce style blog – congratulations – you’ve accomplished it.

    On to the tipping – *even though* I didn’t know waiters (and waitresses) were paid BELOW minimum wage – I ALWAYS make a point of tipping 20% on the bill before tax – UNLESS – the service was abominable -AND- the server didn’t at least try to make it right. Even then, my own pride prevents me from leaving less than 15%, which at times, is more than the server deserves. A waiter who disappears for long periods of time leaving you high and dry (smoke breaks perhaps?) is just plain annoying and has no-one to blame but himself for any bad tips he gets.

    Sure, the waiter take the heat for slow chefs and *sometimes* cold soup, but if a waiter is on the ball, he’ll be the guy making SURE the soup isn’t cold and that you get served what you ordered. When service is slow, he’ll stop by the table and apologize for the delay and keep you and your guests informed. If things REALLY go down the tubes he’ll either have the authority to “comp” you a dessert or drink OR the gumption to have the dining room manager/chef/owner authorize that. Though the waiter can’t fully make up for a bad chef, he can help (“I suggest the prawns Sir, I’d pass on the scallops.” wink-wink) The waiter needs to be a diner’s advocate. THAT’s what he gets tipped for – bringing the food to your table is almost secondary.

    I freely admit to being a low-maintenance diner: If you treat me like I’m a person and don’t act like a jerk. Heck, I’ll even eat the *wrong* food if it’s not something I’m allergic to. I never send food back, I never send wine back. I’m embarrassed when the people I dine with tip poorly. I’ll often leave extra to make up for their stinginess.

    • I welcome the feedback on the topic and acknowledge the feedback on the language. Clearly you got the point. I make no apologies for either. They are what they are. We are all grown ups. I think we can weather a bit of off color language. I don’t filter myself in this blog. That is what I do when I babysit for my nieces and nephews. Is it ingrained? Perhaps, but who cares? I guess I just don’t need to hit myself with a hammer to say the word FUCK. That is the word by the way, it is not “the f word” or “f bomb” those phrases plant the same message. What, may I ask, is the difference? Loosen up and let it fly. You’ll feel better! Fuck, fuck, fuck! See I feel better all ready. Lol!

  6. Michael,

    I have no moral objections to your language. And, certainly, it’s refreshing that you really say what you think. But, as a writing style, you overdo it. When there are 5 fucks and/or assholes in every paragraph, it gets tiresome, and it detracts from your message.

  7. I’m not asking permission here folks. I write the way I write. If you don’t care for it, don’t read it. I am not curing cancer here. This will be the last time I comment or reply on language. Not because it upsets me just because I…don’t… give…a…shit… That is why I am happily DIVORCED! Get it?

  8. The one and only – No Shit Chef….There is a show here man, just not exactly food network stuff. I’m thinking more like your own late night cooking / talk show.

  9. Michael,

    We just wanted to let you know how much we enjoyed the Winemaker Dinner that you presented last night. Not only was your cooking fantastic, but the winemaker that you selected for this dinner was a cut above the rest. We felt that your pairings for the wines were well thought out and completely superb. Christian Dalbavie is extremely knowledgeable and quite the gentleman. One of our favorite courses was the Duo of Roast Saddle of Venison & Stuffed Saddle of Rabbit, with Confit Fig, Dijon Mustard Game Jus, and Truffle Potato Croquette. Linda was a bit apprehensive as many times rabbit can be rubbery. This, however, was succulent, tender and the marriage with the venison was the pièce de résistance. PLEASE incorporate this dish into your menu and enlighten the folks that rabbit doesn’t have to be rubbery! Thank you for having this dinner, we can’t believe you can do something together like this at this price point. In was unbelieveable, every course!!! And the wines were phenomenal. As Linda says, she puts you in the category of Raymond Blanc (Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons) and Anton Mosimann (remember, he is the caterer to Queen Elizabeth II and did the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William). You’re right up there with the best!!!!

    Linda and Jim Estes

  10. When you mentioned vegan cooking I was happily reminded of the wonderful party we held at your restaurant. We requested a vegan menu for our niece (who adored her dish so much she has told every one of her vegan friends about it), but we also requested a grilled cheese sandwich for a relative whose taste buds are stuck on age 4 (she may be 56, but she will only eat hot dogs or grilled cheese. Really.)

    That grilled cheese sandwich was un-fucking-believable. I have no idea what you did with it, or how you did it, but she – two years on now – has never stopped talking about it. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Alas, RR, there’s no accounting for taste. Have you introduced the cheese/dog girl to Super Dawg? It’s in a class of its own. On the other hand, you’ve heard of the practice of tossing unwanted kittens down a well in a sack? Might help resolve the dietary issues in the household and get things back on a sensible track.

      Regards,

      Jim

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