On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, Christophe Hille, co-owner of Northern Spy Food Co. in the East Village, deals with the some very unglamorous restaurant world realities.
This past holiday season, I wanted to dish out some gifts to show a little appreciation to our employees. We were not flush with cash for bonuses, so I came up with a gift certificate swap, and, for all of the kitchen and dishwashing staff, these folding pocket knives. When Nate Appleman and I worked together at A16 in San Francisco, we carried knives like these all the time and used them constantly. When you’re no longer the guy chopping onions, and find yourself spending more time opening boxes and fixing equipment, you use that knife as much as your prized high-carbon Japanese gyuto. It’s practical and durable, a fetish object of its own sort.
Some of you may remember that shortly after opening Pulino’s, Nate got cuffed and stuffed right on the corner of Houston and Bowery for carrying a pocket knife. I don’t know what kind he was carrying then, but the NYPD may have claimed that it was a "gravity knife," which is illegal to carry in the city. The pocket knives I bought as gifts for my staff are for sale—still, as of this writing—at the Eastern Mountain Sports store on Broadway, and you don’t need any kind of license, proof of age, or special password to buy them.
On a recent Monday morning, I received a phone call at the restaurant. It was the wife of one of our dishwashers, telling me that her husband had been arrested two
days earlier for possession of a deadly weapon—the knife I’d given him—while sitting and reading on the subway platform at the First Avenue L station on his way home from work. A few things about this guy: first, he’s probably the most good-natured employee we have; second, he has a few prior offenses on his record so perhaps should have kept the knife at work instead of on his person; and third, he’sa young black male in a city with a much-discussed police tactic known as "stop and frisks."
I, naturally, felt like an ass-hat for my ill-conceived holiday initiative. Never mind that the pocket knife in question is sold openly and legally by a major national retailer in the heart of New York’s downtown shopping district: I had given it to our dishwasher, he was now under arrest, and he could face significant jail time (two to four years was mentioned at one point). So I bailed him out, talked to his court-appointed lawyer (a solid and effective former Manhattan Assistant DA), and wrote a letter on his behalf, explaining why he was in possession of the knife. He got off with three days’ community service and a $200 fine.
On the first day that we had our dishwasher out of jail and back at work, I was in our office when our only other young black male employee called in. He would be late to work. Why? Stopped and frisked at the Union Square subway station. (He was released after the police found nothing incriminating.) The recently freed dishwasher—for whom, I now understand, this treatment is par for the course— laughed when he heard about the incident. I, however, felt a slight stomach-curdling, as if their travails were my fault.
Now I’m not trying to make any bleeding-heart political points here. This topic has been analyzed and debated by people with much more expertise than I have. But I know that across the roughly 8,200 shifts worked since we opened our doors, the only people to get delayed or arrested while commuting are our two young black male employees. I can’t prove a pattern based only on their experiences, but this video, which popped up on YouTube recently, makes me a bit uneasy about the NYPD’s capacity to differentiate between harmless citizens and actual civic threats.
All this gets me thinking about how demographically homogeneous, conceptually repetitive, and obsessed with minutia the public side of the food business can be. The unkillable bacon trend and meta-conversation? Oh our poor infantilized palates. Another breathless exposé about alleged price gouging, from $17 fried chicken to $32 DIY shabu shabu? Oh how onerous the burden of consumerism is. Even the giddiness around farm-to-table dining and sustainability dips a toe into self-absorption—restaurants and diners show off elevated ethics and feel good about their choices, but prep cooks aren’t getting paid any more for it.
I’m as much a party to these crimes of self-absorption as anyone mentioned above, for what it’s worth. Meanwhile, it’s possible that there’s a young nonwhite male on his way to or from a restaurant job getting stopped and frisked by a cop. People in and around the food world—chefs, restaurant owners, writers, diners—could be talking more about social justice issues, as Anthony Bourdain’s recent James Beard Award missive suggested. But we rarely do. It’s complicated. It’s a drag. Maybe we
should just stick to Burger Week.
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