Christina and I recently celebrated an anniversary.
January 19, 2024 marked the very day, 26 years ago, I walked into Professor Karras’s history class at the College of New Jersey and laid eyes on Christina for the first time in my life.
I remember it like it was yesterday. She was stunning and I was struck by everything about her – her gorgeous big eyes, her genuine smile, even the way her golden hair rested on her shoulders. I even remember being smitten by the way she laughed as she joked with a student seated next to her when I walked into the classroom. I wanted so badly to sit near her, but she was seated at the back of the class.
I was a non-traditional student who had already failed out AND dropped out of Ohio State and at 25 years old I knew this was my last chance to actually complete college so I wasn’t playing around no matter how beautiful she was. So, instead I sat front row center, right next to the professor’s podium.
Despite my proximity to Professor Karras, I couldn’t focus on anything he was saying. The only thing on my mind was creating ways to fabricate opportunities to turn my head and look over my shoulder to steal glances at her. I soon found out that there is actually a limit to how many times you can “accidentally” knock your pen off of your desk until it gets really annoying to everyone around you. . .
Hatching a plan
Once I realized I needed to stop looking at her, I shifted my focus to developing a plan to put me in the same orbit as Christina. I figured if I could exit the classroom quickly I would be able to stand in the hallway right outside of the door and she would have to pass me providing an opportunity to talk to her. So, a few minutes before class was over, I put my plan into motion. I quietly packed up my things early and was the first one out of the classroom. I stood against the wall as the entire class filed out, including Christina who walked past me without a second glance as if I wasn’t even there.
My heart sank.
The rest of the day was filled with other classes, a mediocre dining hall lunch, and then a quick trip back to my apartment to shower before starting my very inaugural shift as the new bartender at a restaurant called the Alchemist and Barrister in Princeton, New Jersey. The dinner shift of bartenders, servers and bussers all reported to work an hour before service began so that we could all have a team meeting, eat our pre-shift meal, and prep our stations before the diners arrived.
I literally almost fell over when I entered the A & B through the side doors for my first pre-shift meeting. Seated at the staff table eating her first pre-shift meal waiting for her first team meeting was Christina. I was the new bartender and she was the new waitress – and we both started on the same day! The serendipity was not lost on me, but I had no idea that this was truly the first day of the rest of my life.
Working in a classic restaurant culture
We worked there for years together and created a ton of meaningful memories: post-shift late nights with our manager Chaz making all sorts of weird egg creations, stealing kisses in the downstairs walk-in when I had to go down and “change a keg”, and every St. Patrick’s Day when Christina would dress up in a Leprechaun outfit and serve Nutty Irishmans by matching customers shot for shot!
We loved working together.
And, we loved the customers. In fact, we are still in contact with some of them. The Alchemist and Barrister was so important to us during our formative years as a couple that we celebrated our college graduation there and even invited some of our co-workers and the owners to our wedding.
But, there was also the other side of working in a restaurant that consumed us during the time we worked there and we couldn’t wait to get away from it.
Toxicity in so many ways
The culture in far too many restaurants is toxic. It is a high stress, high volume, fast paced environment that feeds off of rushes of adrenaline and cortisol mitigated by coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol. Everyone is overworked, sleep deprived and, despite working in food establishments, malnourished. It is the very definition of a chronic stress environment. And, to make matters worse, Instead of a workspace that fosters building one another up, it breeds insecurity. And, insecure people make themselves feel better by tearing others down.
Restaurant kitchens are notorious for the screaming, cursing, and degrading humiliation that run rampant in them – chefs screaming at chefs, chefs screaming at waiters, waiters screaming at everyone. And, a successful waiter, waitress or bartender then needs to be able to brush it all off as they walk out of the kitchen and manage a smile as they return to the dining room to interact with customers as if nothing ever happened.
To top it all off, the very shifts that make the most money are the shifts that everyone else around you are off from. We worked Friday nights, Saturday doubles and Sunday doubles because they were the most lucrative. While our families and all of our friends were out having fun, we were stuck in the restaurant getting yelled at.
A change is needed
I still cannot understand how the system survives when in so many cases both the workers and the consumers are worse off for participating in it? But, culinary schools still fill their seats with aspiring chefs and customers continue to flock to restaurants.
We vowed to NEVER work in a restaurant again
Christina and I were so immersed in “restaurant culture” during the formative years of our relationship that we vowed once we escaped that we would never return. Not only did we never expect to ever work in a restaurant again, but we certainly never expected to own one!
It is for all of these reasons that as the Modern Stone Age Kitchen organically grew, we resisted calling it a restaurant at all costs. We subconsciously didn’t want to admit that we owned a restaurant. That is the reason we hung on to the word “foodery” for so long. But, alas, we now realize that we do in fact own a restaurant and, we couldn’t be prouder.
Why? Well . . . because we learned a lot from our time working at other restaurants.
How the MSAK is different
Here at the MSAK we are intentionally creating a culture that is the exact opposite from the toxic nature of what has become the norm in much of the restaurant industry.
- We realize that if we expect to nourish our customers we must first nourish our own team.
- We work hard to create and maintain a friendly, supporting, fun work environment.
- We celebrate birthdays because they are special.
- We tell stories to one another and, if you listen hard enough, you might even hear us sing or even see us dance every once in a while.
- We close early on Fridays and Saturdays and are closed on Sundays so that our team can enjoy time with family and friends.
- We closed early on Friday, January 19th (which happened to be our 26th first meeting anniversary) because we wanted to ensure our team were all home safe with all of the snow.
We are proud of the restaurant “counterculture” we are building and confident in the way in which we are going about building it. We also realize there is so much more we can do and we are diligently working towards new goals. And, we are not alone!
There are a growing number of incredible chefs and even small family run restaurants that are realizing the restaurant industry can grow to be a source of nourishment, in all ways, for its staff and its customers.