Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sommeliers & Tips

My background in the restaurant and wine industry has been long and chaotic. When I think of the gratuity in restaurants I have many opinions and they are based on a wide array of experiences. Those experiences include feelings of envy, joy, guilt, confusion, compassion and many others.

Envy was one of the first emotions I had when it came to the concept of gratuity. I was a Sous Chef for The Gingerman start-up restaurant in Albany, NY when I was about twenty or twenty-one. The responsibilities were overwhelming, I worked an average of 65 hours a week (which after my the restaurant career I've had since seems light) and would sit and drink at the bar with fellow employees. The sense of envy and jealousy I had as they collected their bounty of tips was overwhelming. Here I slaved away in a hot kitchen for at least twice as long to make less money! As a young person fairly new to the restaurant industry that was tough to take. Today I realize that tips are not a consistent income and that it takes other sacrifices to achieve those dollars. But I still believe there is a severe imbalance between many kitchen employees and the tipped employees.

Joy 1
After toiling in kitchens in Summit County, Colorado; Manhattan, New York; Albany, New York; Poughkeepsie, New York; Badgastein, Austria and St. Moritz, Switzerland I moved to the other side of the restaurant. Actually to the Bar. My first foray was as a bar-back, but eventually I ended up behind the bar while going to Restaurant & Hotel School in New Haven, CT. It was an interesting sorta mobbish restaurant where I actually met my wife. The money was decent but nothing like the couple of nights I remember a decade or more later. 
The first great tip night I can remember happened at Richters in New Haven. I don't remember the specifics, just the 'count'. The final tally was either just below $1,000 per bartender or just above, I can't remember exactly and I think it was with my bartending partner at the time who also ran the kitchen but worked the bar on occasions. Dieter eventually went on to own the place, not sure if he does today or not.

Joy 2 (a bit of Guilt too)
There might have been other days that approached that massive day bartending at Richter's but they didn't make a substantial mark on my sub-subconscious. The biggest day of my tipped career happened in the late '90s at The '21' Club where I was the Sommelier for the Private Dining Rooms. Those were some insane days, the economy was humming and the rich were not only very rich, but very willing to flaunt it. And where better to flaunt ones wealth than at 21. The list was large, but not massive or sick like the one I worked with at The American Hotel in Sag Harbor (had 2 pages of DRC when I was there). I don't remember the night that I broke the $5000 barrier, but that is by far the most money I have ever made in a day. I shouldn't say night, because I do remember my calculation of the gratuity included lunch and dinner. The day was a difficult one in which I carted and opened wines of all levels in price and quality and I ran up and down stairs like a madman. When a dining room four floors from the wine cellar needs more Vintage Krug or the like, you run. I think my knuckles have permanent ring dents from dashing around that place carrying seven bottle of Champagne by hand. Three bottles in each hand and one cradled in an elbow. One elevator for both staff and customers so that was useless. (Except for the time I rode up with the high-price strippers that were the entertainment for one of my clients!)

Confusion & Guilt (What should I tip)
As a former sommelier and restaurant consultant, I have been put in the situation many times of having a dining experience become very extravagant due to the kindness of friends, former colleagues, clients, etc. Situations where I've gone to dinner at a restaurant and been gifted, food and wine by the owners. How do I tip when I am gifted extravagant items that I might not be able to afford? I feel I should tip on the total of what the bill would have been had I not been given so much? That is the play, but sometimes that creates a spend higher than I might have been prepared to.

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