Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Restaurants In Crisis

The last couple weeks have been difficult for me, as I now find myself out of a job. I wasn’t fired and didn’t quit. I work as a cook in restaurants and the place I worked at was sold, putting the entire staff out of work. So now I need a new job. What is interesting is that I did expect something like this to happen sooner or later. In fact I thought the restaurant might actually fail rather than get sold. So I suppose it is a good thing for the owner, but that doesn’t make a difference for the rest of us.

How did I know that this would happen? When you work in a restaurant, certain things become obvious. Lack of customers during much of the week and too many slow weekends are glaring problems but there are other signs that are more subtle. Before I mention them I would like to acknowledge that the book Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain has greatly influenced my perspective on this issue (very well written and I very highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys cooking or eating out). He has worked in many doomed restaurants and went into great detail in describing the signs of a failing restaurant. There are some things only an employee will notice but there are signs that will be evident to the diner as well. Obviously, if the restaurant is not full, particularly between 7 and 9, the prime dining hours, that is a bad sign. Staff going home long before closing time is often a sign of trouble - the extra employees were there in the hopes of there being more customers but now they are being cut to save money. On a related note, if you see more staff than customers, BAD SIGN. While the next indication did not apply to my restaurant, if you see a menu that has way too many items and seems to cater to all tastes and culinary styles, this is a sign of desperation. Another clue would be sudden changes in price structure, usually in the downward direction. The employees will notice more, such as economising on ingredients, equipment going unrepaired (BIG red flag and very noticeable at my workplace), staffing cuts, and other things.

Usually it is poor quality of food that drags down a restaurant, but that did not apply to my workplace; I was fairly proud of the food we served. I think the biggest problem in this particular case was location. This was an upscale bistro, located in a somewhat trendy neighbourhood, but one populated mainly by students and young families. This means the rent is rather high and the locals aren’t likely to frequent the restaurant on a very regular basis. The restaurant had no space to set up a patio in the summertime, a greatly desired feature of restaurants in Montreal, where I am living. This meant the usual busy time for restaurants, summer, was not as busy as it should be and the rest of the time business was quite unpredictable. These, together with other factors, contributed to the demise of the restaurant.

Still, this closure is symptomatic of the plight of other Montreal area restaurants in the past few years. Especially since the recession took hold, a lot of restaurants have closed, including a number of restaurants that had been viable for years. The problem is that, although Montreal is a dining-out city, the recession hit Montreal with less severity than the US, but still pretty bad. In addition the city has been slower to recover than many other places in Canada, some of which are now well on the way to recovery. With more people still out of work and budgets of the employed still squeezed, pricy restaurants are seen as a dispensable luxury and people are instead opting to eat at cheap, casual eateries (like chains, cafes, pizzerias, etc.). Last year’s temporary loss of the Formula 1 Grand Prix auto race was an additional blow to many downtown restaurants, when coupled with the lousy economy and a rainy summer. While things look better this summer, I’m not sure the fine dining culture in Montreal will fully recover. This may seem somewhat depressing, but there is still plenty of work out there and I expect to have another job before too long.

In closing, I would like to point out that there have been additional benefits to losing this job. I was trying to find a better job for a while now but was limited in what I could apply for and what jobs I could accept because of my work schedule, roadblocks that are now removed. I have more time to be more proactive in my job search and seek out opportunities that might have been overlooked. Separately, the extra free time generated from not having a job has given me the time to get this blog started and built up to the point where I will be able to maintain it when I have work again.

Extra Note: Anthony Bourdain’s books, beginning with Kitchen Confidential, have also been an influence in the creation of this blog. In his books, Bourdain displays a very vivid yet sophisticated writing style which I greatly admire. His book at first scared me away from cooking as a profession, then drew me towards it. Now I have more of his books, including travelogues, articles and even a novel, which have inspired me to combine food and writing. Expect to see more food-related writing here in the future.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Different Kind of Coming Out Story, Pt. 2

In my last post I talked about coming out as a blogger and not being so interested in coming out as gay. In this post I would like to go back to that topic but view it in a somewhat different light. My recent experience with this process raises the question: Why is there so much mental stress associated with coming out and what makes other people’s coming out stories so popular?

The answer to the first question might seem obvious. There is still a social stigma associated with homosexuality and there is the fear that one’s parents will be disappointed with the news, or even reject their child. I do not dispute the impact of social stigma but the fear of parental reactions intrigues me. I would hazard to guess however, that most modern parents would not reject or shun their gay child, whatever their opinions may be about homosexuality. One would hope they love their children, and this kind of love comes entirely without conditions. Disappointment is perhaps a more plausible fear. Most parents eagerly await grandchildren once their children are grown, and knowing their child is gay may put an end to this dream. Also, some people, particularly in previous generations, still have homophobic attitudes and make disparaging remarks towards gays. Still, when reading a variety of posted stories, it strikes me that most stories have as a common element that the parents are generally accepting, even if some might need a little time. So, where is all this fear coming from? To illustrate this I will briefly mention something from my experience. I know my parents very well and was about 99% sure that they would have no problem with me being gay, but I was still very nervous about it and second-guessed everything my parents have said about the subject. Of course as it turned out there were no problems whatsoever - they were very understanding. They even pointed out that they had wondered and questioned me about my orientation years earlier but I had told them I was straight (I was not even able to admit it to myself at that time). So I knew there would be no problem and there was no problem, so why was I so afraid?

A clue may be that I was more concerned about my father’s reaction than my mother’s (the forthcoming comments primarily apply more to gay boys and men rather than to lesbians - I just don’t know enough about the experiences of gay girls and women to discuss the issues). Other stories I have read reveal more negative reactions and more fear about telling fathers than mothers. So perhaps the difficulty lies in the nature of the father-son relationship. In general, a father serves as a role model for their sons and fathers see in their sons an image of themselves. Sexual identity is certainly a part of one’s self image. Furthermore, many men further associate sexual orientation with masculinity or even self-worth. Therefore, if a son tells a father that he is gay, this chain of associations can be upset. It is quite likely that now it will be a little harder to see your son as being in your image (assuming the father is straight) and if you hold the aforementioned associations of sexual orientation and masculinity or self-worth, you might see your son as less of a “man” or even as less valued to you. Please note that I am not in any way supporting or validating this view - I think it is unconscionable and distressing - I am merely explaining how supposedly loving parents can react negatively to a child telling his parents something very personal and important to them. If you have other interpretations or believe that I am in error you are welcome to leave RESPECTFUL comments to explain your views. I welcome debate on this or any other topics I may raise on this blog. I simply request that you do not make any abusive or overtly insulting comments.

I think there is also another source of fear involved. Some may be afraid of admitting to themselves that they are gay. While they may look at other guys, view gay porn and even have gay relationships, there is a certain barrier to be crossed when making an open declaration that they are gay that can be surprisingly difficult to cross. This is harder for me to explain. One possible reason may be related to the social stigma of being gay. Another possibility, less likely, may be that by stating they are gay they may be closing themselves off to future experiences (ie. If things change and they happen to find someone of the opposite sex they are attracted to).

Moving on to the second question, why coming out stories are popular. One reason is simply that many youth that are questioning their sexuality want to know how other people in their situation dealt with the problem of coming out and accepting themselves. Another possibility relates to modern trends in media. In recent years media has become intensely voyeuristic. When reality TV shows first became popular about a decade ago it seemed to be another fad that would pass in time. Ten years later, there is even more of this stuff not only on TV but on the internet in the form of blogs, chatrooms and social networks (ie. Facebook). People seem to be enthralled with mundane details about the lives of strangers and if the story happens to be not quite so mundane, it becomes even more desired. In some ways I am fed up and annoyed with this trend but, at the same time, I am getting more involved in this practice (I mean I am writing a blog after all). My guess is that the reason this fad has not gone away is that we have permanently become more voyeuristic as a society. Why has this happened? Frankly, I have no clue. If anyone has a theory about this please leave a comment and give me your ideas. And yes I did appreciate and enjoy the irony involved in writing this last paragraph.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Different Kind of Coming Out Story

This is my first post on this, my first blog. So, in a way, I am coming out as a blogger. Also, I am gay and recently told my parents. That is considered coming out too. There are many blogs that tell the stories of gay boys/men coming out (I assume that there are stories of females who come out as well but I have not read many of these). In general, they tell the story of what was said, how everyone reacted, the feelings felt afterward, and the ensuing consequences. I suppose I could do this, since I now have my own experience to share, but I won’t, at least not in detail. Suffice it to say that my parents were understanding, loving and accepting, only concerned about my happiness.

So if I’m not giving my story, why am I writing about coming out? For one thing, I had to first come out to myself before coming out to anyone else. Once the first was finally done, the next stage - telling those closest to me - came fairly quickly. Also, coinciding with my decision to come out as gay, was the decision to “come out” and begin writing a blog. This “coming out” is actually far more interesting to me and I’m sure will end up revealing more about myself than a mere classification of sexual orientation. And thus begins a different kind of coming out story.

Why blog? Well, for me the primary reason would be that I enjoy writing. I have always been somewhat of an intellectual so I think about many things. Unfortunately I also have Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD, and as a result, my thoughts tend to range off in random directions. Unchecked, this would render my writing scattered and impossible to follow (if this description applies to this post so far, here’s my pathetic excuse neatly laid in). Recently I came upon a very well written blog from a brilliant young man named Amar. His blog, Amar’s World, is one my inspirations and is well worth a visit. One of the tricks he revealed to his writing is editing and re-editing. To me, this appeared to be an excellent way to keep my thoughts in order so that I could actually tell people what was in my head so they could understand. Eventually I may aspire to be a published author and this exercise will put me back into the practice of writing in a disciplined manner.

So why have I not started a blog already? The main reason would be that until I found Amar’s World, my impression was that most, if not all blogs were carelessly written and discussed matters of little interest to me. Amar showed me that there is a place in the blogoshpere for a writerly publication, which would be the only thing I would want to write. I realize that a sophisticated piece that considers intellectual topics may not have broad appeal but I am not seeking to be the web’s next big hit. I am doing this for myself and, if a few others find me and appreciate what I offer, all the better.

Another reason I have not started a blog until now is that I tend to be a very private person and do not like to share much personal information, yet I do have a need to share my thoughts with others in some manner. In the manner I have set up this blog, I think I may have struck a workable balance. You will notice on the sidebar that Evan is not my real name. It is the name of someone I know whose personal circumstances have had an emotional impact on me. By using a pseudonym, I can still tell people personal things but it is less likely that anyone I know in real life will connect me with this blog. Eventually, I may tell some people I know about this part of me, but for now I would prefer to keep these two aspects of myself separate.

So welcome to my blog. This blog will be about the things that interest me. Cooking is my profession, so food & cooking will definitely be a topic I will come back to repeatedly. I will also cover academic topics when they relate to something I am thinking about, particularly psychology and philosophy - topics with which I have some level of expertise. I may also offer my thoughts and opinions on news of the day. I will also allow you into my life and tell you (a little) about how my days have gone. I may discuss “gay issues” from time to time but don’t think that this is a “gay” blog, since this aspect of myself is not especially important to me. I would ask however, that you not hold me to this description as this blog is very much a work in progress and may change substantially over time. The only things that are for certain are that I will put effort into the writing and the style will be unmistakeably my own. Beyond that, all bets are off.

I don’t think I’ll be posting every day but I will try to post something on a regular basis. I like my posts to be interesting, thoughtful and well-written, which takes some time. This post, in particular, has been written over a period of many days. This means that even those posts that recount current events in my life will not appear until several days after the mentioned events. Do not consider this some kind of pre-apology, because I am NOT sorry and do not compromise when it comes to writing in the manner I want. I encourage my readers to leave comments on my posts. Share an opinion, give advice, ask questions or just comment on what you see. Since this is my first blog I’m not sure what the most appropriate filter settings would be. As I want to encourage dialogue, I will leave things fully open for now and see how it works, then change things if necessary. If anyone has insights to share on this issue, let me know as well. Hope everyone enjoyed this post (and also hope I’m not just talking to myself).