Deep Dish: Life Behind the Scenes

Prepare for the truth behind the scenes!

Nope, I’m not talking about the famous Chicago pizza — although that would be real nice to have right about now. 😊

We’re a week into 2014, and I do hope things are going well for everyone so far. On my end, I’m relatively fresh off a four-day beach holiday with family — which clearly requires a “recovery” holiday for many reasons — and I’m still dealing with extreme wanderlust; sunburn; peeling skin; and really huge, itchy and nasty bites on my arms, shoulders and hands from sea mites and bugs. (Yuck.)

Remember, kids. Don’t be like me and leave the shore without slathering on sunblock! You will pay for it dearly, and quickly.

Before 2013 ended and before I left for Pico de Loro in Nasugbu, I crossed two awesome books off my lengthy reading list. We all love tell-alls, and the two titles certainly held up their end of the deal. They dished about what really goes on behind the scenes of the wide-ranging US service industry — and the complete craziness that transpires even at the “front of the house” whenever guests and customers aren’t looking or paying attention. They also made me look back (and cringe) at everything I’ve done while on holiday or out to eat, and certain things stayed with me even during this very recent vacation. Yeah, many of those confessions will get stuck in your brain, even if you don’t want them to.

Giving us the lowdown on hotel and kitchen life: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Insider’s Edition) by Anthony Bourdain, and Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky

More importantly, these two memoirs helped me have a much bigger appreciation for everyone who has ever worked in the hotel and culinary industries, from the bigwigs to those doing the thankless grunt work. To all the unsung heroes inside hotels and kitchens: I salute you. Thanks for putting up with us mean and demanding heads and mouths. 😜️ Or… thank you, ma’amsir!

Click the links below or keep scrolling down:

“My pleasure”

If Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project made me feel like I was sitting in a cozy coffee shop, hanging out with a girl friend I haven’t seen in years, then going through Jacob Tomsky‘s Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality was like ditching my happy and enlightened BFF in the middle of her Zen-ny spiel and heading straight to a rowdy bar to down shots with the guys, with Tomsky holding court in a corner table and shouting his stories over the damn stug-stug-stug blaring from basag speakers all the way to sunrise.

Wanna live the hotel life? Read this beforehand.

Not that it was a pain to “listen” to him. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Truth be told, I haven’t turned pages and been that excited to move on to the next chapters in… well, a long time. Tomsky’s casual/conversational writing style, outrageous stories and anecdotes about his life from Valet (“Valet 4 Life, motherfuckers!”) to Front Desk to Housekeeping and back to the Desk (and from New Orleans to New York), and excellent and frequent use of sarcasm and profanity had me staying up until 5AM, reading and literally laughing out loud.

Here’s a small sample. Valet parkers using your car for driving lessons or racing sessions, and beating each other up for stealing the other’s lined-up car keys. Rated-X surprises blown up in storage closets strictly for staff use during breaks. Elevator fistfights. Drunken hot messes bouncing off the walls. Night managers peeing in stairwells. Endless sexing between hotel staff. Guests who exhibit untoward behavior getting key-bombed or having bellman piss mixed into their perfume. The possibility of guests using Pledge-cleaned glassware right after Housekeeping leaves. The LOLs (and potential lawsuits) are aplenty here.

Another perk of being at the Front Desk (aside from the tips): you get to meet celebrities, and know their aliases and back stories. It doesn’t fully make up for all the nasty encounters with cheap and mean customers, but it helps. I liked the sections where Tomsky talks about his encounters with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys…

I’m so sorry you had to die for our sins, Brian, and thank you so much.

Jacob Tomsky, Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, p. 179

…and the starving, thin Nickelodeon actress who complained they don’t get fed anything on set. It also makes me want to give Brian a really big hug if ever I’m lucky enough to see/meet him.

Beyond the funny stories, jokes and anecdotes, Heads in Beds tells readers how to get ahead and snag a few extras while making hotel staff happy as well, and treating them with decency and respect. We may be on holiday, but we’re still guests in their “house”. Tomsky looks at both sides and tells readers how to work with the other so that everyone’s all fine and dandy during your stay and in future visits. If working in hotels is like being a voyeur, as the author puts it, then we readers get to be in the same position as he doles out tips, tricks and lessons learned from long and repetitive years of hotel work. I really appreciate the handy details on:

  • Room bookings, pre-registration, advance/rush check-ins (read p. 97 now!), getting a new room, and room upgrades
  • Why and how customers get bumped to other hotels
  • How hotel staff really look at and treat budget-site bookers
  • Tipping, and why it should be treated like any other hotel transaction
  • Housekeeping tricks — oh yes, there’s more
  • How to beat “erroneous” minibar and in-room entertainment costs
  • The front-desk script that effectively induce tips and guest guilt (p. 105)
  • Staff unions
  • Overall staff conduct behind guests’ backs
  • The lies that staff say to guests.

There are more tips at the end of the book. I’m not sure if all tips and tricks are applicable here in the Philippines (particularly tipping and quality of service), but if they are… umayos kayo. Hotel staff gossip about guests. All. The. Time. And word gets around real fast. Don’t worry. Many things have changed since Tomsky wrote this book — at least in the hotel he worked in.

Which brings us to the people who go through the front doors and work within them. As we marvel at the hotel itself and enjoy its amenities, we also become fodder for the hotel staff. I loved Tomsky’s observations on living in New Orleans and NYC, and the people who go in and out of hotels — businessfolk, tourists, families, loners/solo travelers, the hard-to-please visitors, tryst-ers, creatives, and prostitutes. The staff see us on the other side, and as Tomsky said, sometimes they’d like to be on that side, too — probably the biggest pitfall of working long-term in the service industry.

The only thing I didn’t like about Heads in Beds is that it kinda left me hanging in the end. And then? What happens next? Bitin.

Well, then. I’ll have to wait for Heads in Beds 2. 😉️

Remember, readers. Always tip; always accept offers of service; there’s no need to tell wild stories just to get your way; never lose your cool when dealing with staff; and know that you’ll have a permanent record on the hotel system for future reference, so behave accordingly. Also, “there is always, always a better room,” and “don’t sign anything but your paycheck”!

P.S.: Who is Ginger Smith?

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, Jacob Tomsky
E-book, Knopf Doubleday
Buy: National Book Store/Kobo Books | Fully Booked | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

On and off the burner

Back in the mid-2000s, there was a new TV show named Kitchen Confidential, shown on ETC (I think) and starring Bradley Cooper, Nicholas Brendon and John Cho. I was familiar with Cooper due to his time on Alias, a show I loved immensely. (Sydney Bristow! FUCK YEAH! That’s all.) Also knew Brendon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Cho as one of the MILF dudes from American Pie and Harold from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, so it was quite easy to decide to watch the new series.

Anyway. Cooper played the main character, a comebacking chef named Jack Bourdain. The promotional material for the series emphasized that Kitchen Confidential was based on a memoir by Anthony Bourdain, with leading man Jack based loosely on him. After a few episodes, it got canned, and we all moved on to other series.

I didn’t think much of the character, TV show, or the original material again until years later, when the real Bourdain started popping up on my TV screen via No Reservations and A Cook’s Tour.

My first thought: Well, that ain’t Bradley Cooper.

Next: But he sure is smart, witty, and insanely good at making me hungry and want to get on the first flight out to wherever the hell he is so I can gorge on whatever he’s having, ASAP.

And so began my moderate fanhood of the chain-smoking culinary traveler with a strong dislike for vegans (among many other things).

AKA Anthony’s Amazing Apron-Clad Adventures.

Amazingly, I never got around to reading the book that made him jump from kitchen to small screen. Until last month, anyway. In a way, it’s alright that I read it only now, since the Insider’s Edition of Kitchen Confidential came not just with additional content and comments by Bourdain in 2006, but also actual handwritten notes in the margins done by him in 2012. This latest copy thus gives readers three versions of Bourdain in one go:

  • The head chef at Les Halles who wanted to write and publish a book for the culinary “lifers”,
  • The famous traveling chef-at-large who has garnered non-kitchen lifer fans as well, corrects previous mistakes in the book, and apologizes for a few things (like his grilling of Emeril Lagasse and others — BAM!), and
  • The married culinary celebrity who has quit smoking, become a father, written a few more books and done travel shows with the Travel Channel and CNN, and has un-chef-like silky-smooth hands.

It can get a bit confusing as you read, with the handwritten comments interjecting and correcting what was already printed, but it’s fascinating to see Bourdain’s (and the US culinary industry’s) evolution.

Some real names have also been revealed after publication:

  • Bigfoot is Pino Luongo,
  • Jimmy Sears is John Tesar, and
  • The adorable-but-self-sabotaging Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown is Adam diCarlo.

Philippe LaJaunie, I’ve already seen in the Vietnam episode of A Cook’s Tour — Bourdain was whining that whenever he travels with him, Philippe wants to taste/try everything to the point of spending an entire day just eating anything and everything. Philippe even invited himself to a Vietnamese family’s house in a fishing village so he can taste their lunch.

What hasn’t changed though is how he tells his stories. If you’ve seen his TV shows, then you’ll know what the book’s tone is. The text, whatever year it was done, reads exactly the way Bourdain speaks: funny and quick, but also sensible. If you haven’t seen his shows or even know anything about him, Kitchen Confidential is the best introduction you can get, both to the man and cooking in general. If you want more current material, get Bourdain’s newer books.

I admit I wasn’t as engrossed in this book as I was in Heads in Beds. I think it’s because I really don’t cook and have no interest in stepping into a personal or professional kitchen and whipping edible goods up from scratch. But I do love this memoir, especially the following chapters:

  • “How to Cook Like the Pros”, which enumerates and describes the tools to have in a home kitchen. Thanks for the basic “Kitchenese”!
  • “From Our Kitchen to Your Table”, which has all the consumer tips we need
  • “The Wilderness Years”, mainly for his time working at Mafia-run Billy’s
  • “I Make My Bones”, for his recollections of being in the Rainbow Room
  • “Who Cooks?”, for the bad-ass female cooks he’s worked with: Patti Jackson, Beth the Self-Proclaimed Grill Bitch, and pregnant Sharon
  • “A Day in the Life”, which describes his typical workday, and made me feel really tired (like him, and pretty much every other chef in the world?) at the end of it
  • “The Level of Discourse”, because cuss words and insults in several languages, and overall kitchen terms and crassness make for a fun (and untranslatable) read
  • “Other Bodies”, which honors runners, night porters and bartenders
  • “So You Want to Be a Chef? A Commencement Address”, which is full of advice for aspiring cooks.

Bourdain also dishes out valuable insight for restaurant customers, and those who already don chef’s whites or own a restaurant. For consumers, the most memorable tips are not to eat seafood on Mondays, never go for brunch if you’re not into leftovers, and eat out at certain days of the week to ensure a happy chef and fresh food stocks. On the business side, he gives input on kitchen lingo, how to get what you want and need from purveyors, which “species” of restaurant owners exist, how to manage staff, and the things chefs don’t and don’t like in and out of the kitchen.

As what happens in almost every book I read, I’ve picked up a few valuable life lessons, too:

  • “Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance” (p. 116)
    • Did Pino Luongo/Bigfoot ever foresee his downfall/bankruptcy?
  • Reliability wins over talent. Every single time.
  • The kitchen really is the worst place to get into a fight.
  • Some more memorable quotes:

Good food and good eating are about risk.

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Insider’s Edition), p. 71

Skills can be taught. Character you have or you don’t have.

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Insider’s Edition), p. 109

It’s good, sometimes, to have enemies—even if you don’t know who they are. It means you are important. You must be important… important enough to have an enemy.

Bigfoot/Pino Luongo, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Insider’s Edition), p. 197

Like in Heads in Beds, some tips, situations and instances may not apply to the Philippine culinary industry — I don’t think people regularly fuck in kitchen storage/supply rooms or garbage areas, or do drugs during breaks and work while tweaked. But hey, what do I know.

Also, a word of caution: reading this book made me hungry at odd hours. That’s basically the only bad side I can think of.

Kitchen Confidential (Insider’s Edition), Anthony Bourdain
Paperback, Ecco Books
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble