Monthly Archives: June 2012

Food isn’t the enemy, it’s the solution: politics of eating meat.

According to George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, the two most effective ways to help the environment is to eat less meat and to drive less.  (Buying locally does NOT necessarily help the environment).  A lot of energy is required to produce meat, especially beef.  United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization scientists conclude that the business of raising animals for food is responsible for about 18 percent of all warming and causes about 40 percent more warming than all cars, trucks, and planes combined.

So how do we reduce meat consumption?  A few options:

1. Get neo-Leninist, line up meat eaters and shoot them dead.  Then rewrite Constitution.
2. Offer meat eaters incentives to stop eating meat, like group hugs and free yoga
3. Tax ’em till they give it up!  Like with cigarettes.
4.  Scare the shit out of meat eaters.  Come up with propaganda about some terrorist group poisoning meat supply such that men who eat meat will have small dicks.  Women who eat meat will also have small dicks.
5.  Guilt trip and emotional manipulation.  Make it socially unacceptable to eat meat.
6.  Get government out of the business of telling Americans what to eat.  Let private businesses work with consumers to help them develop healthy and satisfying palate for meat that will reduce overall meat consumption.

Review of options:

1. Would make for a great Francis Ford Coppola film, but Pol Pot plot too grisly for most Americans, at least when it’s on US soil.
2. Would make for an awful Garry Marshall film, so let’s not.
3. Would probably be somewhat effective.  May lead to number 1.
4. Not sure if this one will work.  People readily believe in propaganda that suits them but become skeptical when something they consider sacred is vilified.  Eating beef is sacred to most Americans, and beef lobby is too strong to allow such propaganda to go unchecked.  We’d need neo-Leninist government for this to work.
5. May be effective with citizens who are insecure, suspicious, infantile, and cynical.  Similar to Anthony Bourdain’s advocating using social pressure to make people learn how to cook.  Beef lobby too strong to allow this to go unchecked.  Requires Leninist state for it to be effective.
6. No guilt, people don’t have to give up something they enjoy.  May get more people to think about food than to follow (or pretend to follow) government directives that will likely be considered ineffective or flat out wrong within 40years.  (Takes that long because government tends to be slow at admitting being wrong or tyrannical).  Similar approach hasn’t been tried in the US, but there’s some evidence that this approach works well in Japan and France.

Let’s make an attempt to preserve what’s left of American liberty and go with number 6.

USDA tells Americans to eat lean meat.  Some do as they’re told, thinking it’s good for them.  On paper, it is good for them — lean meat has fewer calories than do fattier cuts — but people are complex, they aren’t robots.  Most people want to be satisfied physically and emotionally when they eat.  And nearly all people — I’m convinced of this — prefer, if we assume controlled upbringings free from government propaganda, fattier cuts because they’re tastier and more fulfilling.  Yet Americans, influenced by USDA directives, continue to fetishize white meat over dark meat, lean cuts of beef steak over well marbled portions.  It’s absurd.

The absurdity of American meat eating habits has contributed to the obesity epidemic.  Again, people generally eat not just to be nourished, but also to feel satisfied physically and emotionally.  Fat is satisfying.  When Americans, in their attempt to eat a healthy diet, choose the less satisfying and difficult to properly cook lean meat, they make up for the lack of satisfaction by adding more high calorie add-ons such as teriyaki sauce or ranch or gravy.  Or they fry it.  Or they just eat more of it to get the fat they crave.  Or they carb out on bread and dessert.  Most people will do whatever they can to feel satisfied, fulfilled.  And they should eat for physical and emotional fulfillment.  Counting calories and Weight Watcher’s points every day of the year, feelings of guilt, depravation, unnecessary self-discipline, obsession with minute details of every meal…that’s no way to live (unless you’re a monk or searching for Platonic spirituality).

And yet, that’s how many Americans live.  Every encounter with food is a test of discipline.  They confess their sins to me — “half a pizza and 12 buffalo wings last night” — and ask me to forgive them and make them something that will drive away the fat demons.  They read and read, try to memorize as many facts about as many ingredients as possible.  They spend a lot of money on workshops and ingredients of controversial value.  They’re obsessed with food, yet don’t know how to enjoy it.

For us, food isn’t the enemy, it’s the solution.  In our next post, we’ll explain how it’s possible to eat red meat, enjoy it more than ever, save money, and improve the environment.

Training New Employees Guideline

The main obstacle to adding new stores is creating a system that’s reproducible.  We’re constantly trying to figure out a way to develop workflow processes and training methods that are reproducible at each location.  So we’re working on a How to Train New Hires manual. Comments, especially from managers, are welcome.

Attitude and Demeanor
Several will train new hire.  Attitude, demeanor, and approach to training must be consistent across all trainers.  Lack of consistency will make new hire confused and wondering if there are double standards.  Highest ranking trainer sets the tone and approach, which can be adjusted based on circumstances.  Tone and approach must always be customized based on personality and skill level of new hire.

New hire is not and cannot be your friend during training period  Don’t be chummy, be a bitch.  Be chummy once new hire is established part of the business.

Good trainers don’t simply tell trainees what to do.  They observe trainees at all times.  Be sure they’re operating with all of their senses.  It’s especially important to look at what their eyes are looking at, as it’ll reveal to you their court vision, how much they see.  Those who look down are out of it, looking inward, and are only able to handle one task at a time.  Those who are constantly looking up are constantly searching for something in the external world and are capable of handling multiple customers, running multiple processes.

Listen to their rhythm, the sound of work.  If the sound of something is off, if you hear hesitation or choppiness, correct it immediately before it becomes a habit.

Don’t assume trainee will do something the way you do it.  Sometimes that doesn’t matter.  Often, it does.  Observe!

Some mistakes are result of sloppiness/nervousness/unfamiliarity, others result of character.  For instance, someone who unintentionally drops bowl of mangoes is likely sloppy.  We’re generally not too concerned about sloppy mistakes unless they’re repeated over and over again (in which case it’s either a character mistake or trainee lacks adequate skills for job).  We’re more concerned about character mistakes, mistake borne of laziness, sloth, greed, meanness, narcissism, and so forth.  Watch closely for character mistakes.


We give new hires 20 hours to get comfortable, familiar with surroundings.  We spend the next 20-40 hours scaring the shit out of them.  If the circumstance doesn’t make trainee stressed or uncomfortable, manufacture stress, figure out ways to make new hire uncomfortable.  We’re testing for mental toughness and ability to function under pressure.  If you don’t scare the shit out of them, some customer or circumstance will.  If they can’t handle difficult situations with grace and aplomb, they’re out.  The world doesn’t conform to anyone.  It’s the individual’s job to adapt to evolving circumstances and contexts.
Ask trainee challenging questions.  Make them figure out solutions to problems on their own.  Ask them to identify problems.  You’ll learn a lot about them quickly. Unless it’s busy, avoid telling them what to do.

Help trainee to simplify what they see so they can learn the menu quickly.  There are only a few drink items that need to be memorized.  The remaining items are variations of those.  For instance, Exercist is Veggie Juice plus Apple, or Sweet Version of Veggie Juice.  Help them recognize patterns throughout the store and menu.

Drill them on basic nutritional information (eg how many calories in 2 tbls of peanut butter).

We teach instinct, not how to follow recipes.  Don’t let them read the menu when making drinks.  There are only a few processes and facts we want them to memorize.  The rest they should be able to figure out.  Have them talk, think their way to the correct formula. If it’s busy, tell them what to put in the drink.  If you’re slammed, make it yourself.

Play-act scenarios.  Prepare them for the unexpected.  Use this to break habits, to test their knowledge, and to assess how they handle unusual requests.

We’ll continue to develop this guideline.

In Pursuit of the Impossible – Review of Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro…Sushi is a documentary by David Gelb about Jiro Ono, an 85 year old sushi chef who is recognized by Japanese government as a national treasure for his contributions to Japanese cuisine. His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, has 3 Micheline stars (highest achievement possible), 10 seats, a clinical setting, and a $400 price-tag for 20 pieces of sushi, alcohol not included.

Documentary, vis-a-vis an interview with a leading Japanese food critic, reveals within the first 10 minutes the five attributes that makes Jiro a great sushi chef:

1. He takes work seriously, gets up at 5am, returns home at 10pm every day, 7 days a week.
2. He’s never satisfied with his work, so he’s always trying to improve.
3. He’s OCD about cleanliness
4. He’s a leader, not a collaborator.  He’s a dictator and he makes it clear that he’s not to be fucked with.
5. He’s passionate about his work, so can’t stop thinking about it, can’t stop working.

The rest of the film is a hodge-podge of examples of his attributes without revealing much about how Jiro became who he is.  While I believe that greatness is never an accident of history, the force of character necessary to produce it is very much a product of circumstances and context.  People don’t just wake up with the attributes necessary for greatness.  They’re driven perhaps by necessity, or fundamental emotions such as rage, fear, humiliation, and hate.  We’re provided glimpses of the circumstances and the socio-cultural environments Jiro has experienced — eg. World War II, poverty, abandonment by parents at young age — but they’re not examined enough to give us a clearer sense of how they shaped and motivated Jiro.

The effect is a film that features a dignified and inspirational character, but the film itself isn’t inspirational or educational. Most people aren’t interested in their work, they work for vacation or retirement or survival.  My guess is that these same people want to be passionate about, in love with work.  Dreams of Sushi shows us someone who is passionate about his craft, but fails to show the viewer how to be like him.  Gelb doesn’t ask the right questions and he doesn’t frame and arrange the material in a way that would provide deeper insights into Jiro’s psyche. Even the contrasts between Jiro and his sons, Jiro and his apprentices are superficial, aren’t revealing of the character and personality traits, the circumstances that separate the great from the good, the good from the middling.  The story Gelb seems to tell is that Jiro is the greatest because he’s more passionate and works harder than everyone else.  It’s that simple, you can do it too!

But it’s not that simple.  It takes a deep and broad sense of responsibility to become passionate about something. Steve Jobs was passionate about his work — he literally worked himself to death — because he truly believed that he was responsible for everything that happens in the world, that he was the only person who could inspire people to become revolutionaries, artists.  That without his products and ideas, the world would stagnate.  Lady Gaga is working herself to death because she believes it’s her divine duty to help every kid who feels weird to reach their full potential by accepting their weirdness as a source of strength.  The film doesn’t make it easy for me to figure out Jiro’s sense of responsibility.  We know he feels responsible for his family and apprentices.  Does he also feel responsible for Japanese cuisine and culture, which the film suggests is in decline (eg conveyer belt sushi)?  Does he think that his work sets an example for Japanese youth who, as the film could’ve suggested more clearly, are slipping into mediocrity, becoming lazy, shiftless?  Put differently, what does a great piece of sushi represent?  Is Jiro’s contribution to the world his sushi, or is it what his sushi represents — his mindset, his rebellious nature, his dedication to his craft, his high standards?  My bet is that Jiro seeks perfection — the impossible — not for its own sake, but because he believes his sushi, though sampled by few, has a significant impact on people around the world.  That without his sense of perfection, people, including those who don’t eat sushi, will lower their standards, which will in turn stall world development.

If a deep and broad sense of responsibility is necessary for passion and greatness, then how did Jiro acquire his sense?  Film mentions his abandonment by his parents; the poverty he grew up with; barely mentions his experiences during World War II.  There are suggestions of rage against his parents.  There must’ve been fear during the war.  Humiliation while in poverty.  There was disobedience at school.  What of these experiences, and are these the experiences his sons need to have if they are to ever match him in skill?

Film does make clear that those who are passionate about their craft don’t work for or care about money.  The rice dealer Jiro works will only sell to those who can appreciate it, who know how to properly cook it.  Same with Jiro’s fish dealer. Jiro is great because he surrounds himself with like-minded people, and these people ensure that he receives the highest quality ingredients.  Gelb, however, doesn’t ask Jiro if he has ever been worried about money.  It’s another frustrating example of Gelb failing to capture the struggles within that one has to overcome to live a dignified life, to achieve greatness.  There’s no instruction (not the right word), he just presents greatness as is, something to be admired that few can achieve.

There are more flaws, but I don’t have time to discuss Gelb’s use of music and cinematography.  In spite of the many flaws, the film is worth watching, simply because Gelb features someone who is extraordinarily dignified, interesting, and inspirational. Funny too.

Review of Lynnwood Whole Foods

The addition of Whole Foods to Lynnwood’s city center was the most anticipated 2012 business opening in the SnoKing neighborhood.  Local civic and business leaders, envisioning a walkable Lynnwood city center, hope it’ll serve as an anchor to attract more development capital, more upscale businesses and clientele.  Many are thrilled to have Whole Foods bring “healthier” options to an area known for fast food and restaurant chains, over-sized pizzas and burgers, and all-you-can-eat buffets.  Area residents are counting on Whole Foods certifying Sno-King neighborhood, which has experience significant decline in value since the recession,as a good buy.

I’ve always thought that SnoKing, despite its lack of culturally significant restaurants, has the best selection of grocery stores in the region (because it’s one of the most socio-economically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods) and I didn’t think the addition of Whole Foods would do much to improve it.  For gourmet/upscale, there’s Central Market Mill Creek and Central Market Shoreline, the former offering exceptional selection and service.  There’s H-Mart, a New York based Korean-centric Asian grocery store.  There’s Ranch 99, the LA based Chinese-centric Asian grocery store.  There’s JD’s Market, which caters to the South Asian, African, and Mexican population.  There are Korean grocery stores of various sizes everywhere.  There are several small ethnic groceries — Eastern European, Mexican, African — throughout the area.  There’s the Lake Forest Park farmer’s market that features produce from local growers, and produce stands that offer an impressive array of ingredients at reasonable prices.

I wasn’t expecting to be impressed with Whole Foods Lynnwood, and I wasn’t.  I did appreciate not being bombarded with, as at some other locations, emotionally manipulative life sized posters of local small farmers paired with exhortations to support them, to join in the fight against corporate farms (though Whole Foods sources much from corporate farms, as they control 90 percent of organic market), against corporate foods in general (though Whole foods carries drinks owned by Pepsi and Coca-Cola, such as Naked Juice).  I hate emotional manipulation — “If you love me you’d…” “If you’re progressive and caring, you’d…” — hate, hate that shit.  But otherwise, I didn’t think it could match Central Market (esp. one in Mill Creek) in price, selection, and service.  In fact, selection looked like upscale, organic version of what’s available at QFC in Mountlake Terrace.  Beef is grass-fed, salmon is wild and sustainably sourced, organic version of everything, exorbitant prices for most items except for popular staple items like Almond Milk (reasonably priced).

Perhaps that should be expected, as Central Market sells the love of food and cooking (samples galore and cooking demonstration every weekend), while Whole Foods sells a sense of moral superiority, that one’s helping the world with each purchase of coddled free-range chicken, pampered grass-fed beef, and fair trade coffee beans.  That’s why Central Market carries like twelve varieties of oysters, obscure mushrooms, and devotes considerable shelf space to *authentic* ethnic food (stuff you’d find at Ranch or H-Mart), while Whole Foods mostly provides what people are familiar with.  Central Market introduces customers to new cuisines and unfamiliar ingredients, while Whole Foods familiarizes customers with bohemian food politics and political activism.  Both emphasize healthy living.

Though the popularization of Whole Foods’ brand of politics is problematic, they should be commended for raising awareness about the politics of food and eating, the consequences of lifestyle choices.  Whether one agrees with Whole Foods’ politics — and I disagree with much of it — is irrelevant.  Before Whole Foods, few  considered how their food purchases could impact land management practices throughout the world; or how food production practices could impact the environment; or the fairness and impact of subsidies and protectionist tariff on agricultural products.  Most people simply purchased and ate, rarely giving thought about where what was eaten came from, how it was processed and delivered.  Whole Foods made people aware that food isn’t just central to life — something we need to survive — it’s the center of life, the primary site where we reveal who we are, whether we realize it or not.

What’s most problematic about Whole Foods brand is that it delivers its politics as something upscale, elite, something only those who *attended some East Coast bohemian prep school then off to Sarah Lawrence or Oberlin where they slummed with local hobos followed by grad school at Columbia where they spent too many years writing incomprehensible papers about Marx and Derrida* can afford.  Whole Foods, from its (intimidatingly) down-to-earth upscale design and prices, tells middle-class Americans that in order to be healthy AND cool like us, you’re going to have to pay.  A lot, because this is an exclusive clique.

And many middle-class Americans — increasingly suspicious, insecure, desirous of upward mobility, and envious — are willing to pay, just as they gradually learned to pay $5 for a cup of coffee, and are learning to pay $20 for a bullshit burger.  They’ll pay because Whole Foods has convinced them that Whole Foods is where the wealthy shop, even though the wealthy don’t shop there any more than do middle-class folks.  But not pay too much, as I didn’t notice anyone doing their weekly shopping.  People were very selective about purchases, doing their best to get the most out of their money, to savor the experience without blowing their grocery budget.  Perhaps an organic banana here, a small scoop of grass-fed something, hummus, almond milk, and a few sales items, items they can’t find at their primary shopping site.

And what of the poor, what’s Whole Foods saying to them?  That healthy living is only available to those with money so sucks to be you you lose keep eating your donuts there’s no point for you to even try because you don’t have the cash?  The idea that healthy living is possible only for the wealthy isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous, crippling.  It gives the poor a reason to quit life. It breeds middle-class insecurity. It can destroy a nation.

Is the arrival of Whole Foods in Lynnwood a sign that SnoKing neighborhood has “made it,” is on the verge of becoming part of upper middle-class America, or does it mean that Whole Foods, like Starbucks during the 90s, is becoming a part of middle-class America, giving middle-class Americans the sense of security and importance they crave?  If the latter is the case, then does Whole Foods offer good value or, as Bourdain wonders about many food industry trends, have they, “…after terrifying consumers about our food supply, fetishizing expensive ingredients, exploiting the hopes, aspirations, and insecurities of the middle class — have simply made it more expensive to eat the same old crap?”

Fall Application Questions

Position is ideal for someone interested in a culinary arts and science career.  We aim to place our baristas in highly rated innovative restaurants such as Cafe Juanita, Poppy, Harvest Vine, The Corson Building, and Mistral Kitchen.

You’ll be introduced to skills and concepts that change non-productive, psychopathic, anti-social, self-centered, self-absorbed, bizarre behaviors into productive ones.  You may be expected to unlearn everything you learned in school, at home, and at other jobs.   You’ll learn how to assess the value of your labor so that you can successfully negotiate pay raises; to function at varying speeds so you can synchronize with customer and team; to understand different frames of references so you can express sincere empathy; to run multiple processes at a time so you can work efficiently; to build mental toughness so you can channel stress into productive behavior.  You’ll learn to be responsible, not obedient; to be charming, not polite; to be competitive, not complacent; to be dignified, not nice.  If we think you have inflated self-esteem — and most applicants do — we’ll crush it.

We do things this way not to be mean, but to ensure high standard of service and products.  Our baristas are renown for their speed, efficiency, and customer service skills — other employers regularly offer them jobs.  Watch them, listen to how they work.  Apply only if you want to be like them — competent, confident, and ambitious.

Don’t give the answer you think we want to hear.  Research anything you’re not familiar with.  Look up unfamiliar terms.  Don’t worry about finding the “correct” answer.  We’re more interested in how you think, your approach to solving problems. Don’t over-think, don’t worry about “wrong” answers.  You shouldn’t need to spend more than 10 minutes on each question.


Someone once said that the “poor don’t want to look poor, the rich don’t want to appear rich.”  Assuming this dictum is true, how do the poor and rich present themselves?  What do they wear, where do they shop, what do they drive?  What do they eat?

Why are you not special?

Guess how many hours per week the CEO of Walmart works.

Why are you so lazy?

Why is Starbucks so popular with lower middle class Americans?  What about the Starbucks experience appeals to them?

Upperclass-Middleclass-Lower class
Match food with class.
Kobe beef burger        Pig feet soup          California Roll
Extra lean porterhouse steak          Liver pate         Eighty percent lean burger
Papa John’s pizza         Grilled beef tongue          General Tso’s chicken

From the Bible, Ecclesiastes 7:1, .”A good reputation is better than costly perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.” Here at Alive, we think a lot about death.  How does the prospect of death make one alive?

Person A from age 5 to 25, attends school 6 hours a day, studies 4 hours a day, spends 6 hours of leisure time learning to build and building, with like-minded friends, random things, like a tree house, a bridge, a dog walking robot. A also spends an hour per day daydreaming of building something that will improve world’s standard of living. At age 25, he graduates with a Masters degree in electrical engineering and is offered a salary of $150,000 to work as a product developer for a green tech company. He gets 3 weeks vacation, full benefits. He accepts the position and works 60-80 hours per week, and is expected to be available for phone calls and e-mails during his vacations.  He pays Federal Government 30 percent of his earnings.

Person B, from age 5-25, attends school 6 hours a day, studies 1 hour a day, spends 6 hours of leisure time passively watching TV shows and films like Jersey Shore and Twilight, 3 hours a day daydreaming about being wealthy and pampered and adored by everyone. At age 25, he graduates with a degree in Socks, Drugs, and Rock and Roll. Unable to find a job in his field of study, he takes a job as a cashier at McDonald’s, making $10 per hour, 40 hours per week, or $20,000 for the year.  He doesn’t have to pay taxes.

Let’s assume one of them is “underpaid.”  Which one and why?

Some Application Questions Explained

Customers, especially those who have been involved in hiring, have asked how we use our application questions to assess candidates.  Below are explanations of select questions.

As mentioned in another post, we don’t have a “cut-off point.”  We use these questions to get to know candidates better and to let them know about our work culture.  Ultimately, we’re more concerned about our ability to develop a candidate, regardless of his ability, knowledge, and attitude.  The most difficult obstacle to overcome has been inflated self-esteem, which from our experience is correlated with low self-confidence.  (Poor motor skills is second most common obstacle).

We ignore applicants who think we ask these questions simply to be funny and thus respond with trite jokes (we’ve already received some bad ones).  These are serious questions and we expect applicants to treat them as such.

Note: all questions are original and I’m not a psychologist. So it’s not a certified psychological assessment tool.

July, Mount Baker.  You arrive at a cabin.  In the fridge there’s a whole chicken (gizzards, feet, neck included), 5 eggs and 2 cups of flour.  There’s also a blender, a fork, a spatula, a pan, a water source, a crockpot, electricity, and a charcoal grill.  You decide to make fried scrambled eggs.   How do you make it and what else do you make? 

Render fat from chicken to make scrambled eggs.  Forage for whatever is in season, use wood for charcoal grill to make grilled chicken, make liver pate with blender, use gelatin from chicken feed (or just slow cook and eat it), soup in crockpot, the possibilities are endless.   Point of this question is to test cooking skills, esp. ability to cook without recipes.  We also consider length of response – concise ones suggest no frills attitude, fast cook.

 Do you run a trade deficit with a business?  If you do, are you concerned about it?

Reading comprehension question, where we ask applicant to look up definition of “trade deficit.” Nearly all applicants haven’t been able to comprehend trade deficits, usually confusing it with budget deficit.  Seems that people often hear about trade deficits, usually as something problematic, but don’t understand what it is.  Anyway, nearly all of us carry a trade deficit with a business.  For instance, I run a deficit with my grocers (I purchase more from them than they from me) and I’m not worried about it because they produce the goods I need to operate my business far more efficiently than I.  Question tests applicant ability to understand and explain in plain language a simple concept.  We suspect many didn’t bother to look up the definition because they thought they already understand it.  We make a note of that if we think that that’s the case (we can figure it out during interview).

*Write your great-great granddaughter’s obituary.  Limit to 5 sentences.”

In other words, tell us what the world looks like in the future ie its mores, technology, geopolitical boundaries.  How old does she live till — 56, 207, 892?  Where does she die – United States of Africa, planet Xenox in Alpha Centauri, Los Angeles the capital of Bermuda?  How many spouses does she leave behind – one, four, any concubines?  What does she die from, disease unknown to us, war with Klingons?  Possibilities are endless.  Main point is to use question to envision a different world.  Question tests imagination and how applicant understands self-being in relation to time and the world.

*What is the guy driving a Corvette having for dinner on Thursday? 

Question tests ability to read social codes and nuances.  Several people associated Corvette with wealthy people and lumped all “wealthy” people together, regardless of cultural and political sensibilities.  A few figured out that Corvette is favored by (middle age) blue collar men. It’s the Camaro to Mustang to Corvette lineage.   One memorable response had guy eating store bought lemon meringue pie over kitchen sink.  Another had him eating at Dick’s w/large coke.  A few mentioned steak and potatoes.  I can see him at Scott’s Bar and Grill, Arnie’s, Outback Steakhouse, mocha from sluthut, popping supplements, drinking Muscle Milk. Not many are eating organic quinoa and drinking Perrier, as some suggest.

*How did a grocery store cashier, making $9/hour, convince her employer to give her a $5/hour raise?

 Cashier showed evidence that she generates, over past year, double the sales per register than average cashier and ranks first in accuracy.   In other words, she’s twice as fast as average replacement and argued that her labor is therefore worth twice as much.  Her boss, presented with QUANTIFIABLE evidence of her value, negotiated a $5/hour raise and promotion because he knew he’d save a lot of money by keeping her in place of hiring and training two replacement cashiers.  Got nothing to do with how hard someone works (a useless subjective assessment) or how nice they are (most CEOs are not nice and I’ve asked my employees to not be nice).  I don’t care how “hard” my employees work.  I only care that they bring value that exceeds the time and money I invest in them.   Applicants who tell me that they’re “hard workers” will not be hired because it’s dangerous to hire anyone who thinks their pay should correlate to how hard THEY think they work (even if everyone else doesn’t think he/she works hard).  I never tell employees to work hard.  I ask them to not be lazy and to think of ways to increase their productivity.   I ask them to work smart and responsibly.  Question assesses how well one knows oneself and ability to understand a different frame of reference and to evaluate value of one’s work.

What do you think is founder of Hustler magazine (hard-core porn) Larry Flynt’s passion?  If you’re not familiar with Hustler, borrow a copy of ours.  You can also probably find copies at a porn shop.  Be sure to read the articles (esp. editorials and opinions) and cartoons (not available online).
Question inspired by article on CEO’s and their passion(s).  Anyway, Flynt’s passion isn’t sex or raunchy pornography, it’s free speech.  Shouldn’t need to read Hustler to figure this out.  Wiki article provides plenty of information and insightful leads to films like People Versus Larry Flynt.  Question gives us a sense of how comfortable one is with being uncomfortable (we’re hoping they are uncomfortable).  Also tells us how well candidate can understand emotional and cultural meaning behind material objects. 

Why are you not special?
Wards off those who think they’re special.

Fight in the kitchen.  Hot soup, butcher knife, last month’s receipts.  Which do you throw?
Gives applicant opportunity to think about balance between need for self-expression (anger in this case) and consequences of action.  (Entertaining listening to employees discuss this one.  They settled on throwing the butcher knife).
Mary hires Peter and Paul to dig two ditches, assigning one to each.  Peter finishes in one hour because he used his latest invention, the super-duper soil remover zapper.  Paul, using a shovel and hard work, finishes his in 8 hours.  How much should Mary pay Peter.  How much to Paul?  Who should she hire if she wants a third ditch?
So many directions we can take this question.  Gives applicant opportunity to consider the monetary value of one’s labor.  We’ll then get them to think about who worked “harder” and who worked longer (how long did it take for Peter to invent his soil remover zapper?).  (Many applicants think pay should correlate with how much one “suffers”).

Write the lyrics for fictional song “When a Lamb Loves a Hungry Woman.”  Listen to “When a Man Loves a Woman” for rhythm and melody to match lyrics.
We run on rhythm so we want know more about applicant’s sense of rhythm.  Sense of humor too.

Why are your friends boring?  What does that make you?
The most personal question we’ve ever asked.  It’s not unusual for people to be dissatisfied with their friends (and colleagues, spouse, family, etc.).  It’s unusual for someone to be asked to confront this feeling.  Employees had trouble with this one, as it left them emotionally drained.  We use this question to get a better sense of applicant’s aspirations and weaknesses, and their capability to be self-reflective. ( We’re concerned about mental health of those who say that don’t have any boring friends).

Review of Grouchy Chef restaurant

The purpose of Grouchy Chef, located in a converted industrial warehouse in Mukilteo, is to introduce fine dining to the masses by making it affordable to most.  To cut costs, French trained (?) chef Masumoto works solo — he’s the chef, host, server, busser, and dishwasher — at his 25 seat restaurant.  There are also rules — lots of them — some to introduce diners to fine dining etiquette, others to keep costs down. Chef is renown for his grouchiness when customers don’t follow the rules.

I arrived hoping to learn how to improve the efficiency of my own operations and to see how chef Masumoto deconstructs fine dining down to its essentials.  If we define “fine dining” as a special event, an elegantly theatrical experience where the food, service, and ambiance is extraordinary (but not necessarily innovative), then affordable no-frills fine dining is an oxymoron, or at least conceptually and pragmatically problematic. Something that’s typically associated with fine dining has to go — “will it be the long winded descriptions of each course, the theatrics, the fine china?” — I wondered as we approached his nondescript storefront.  By the end of the meal, I left puzzled with many of Masumoto’s decisions.

Baroque and classical era music (the 80s of fine dining music). Simple, dark, clean interior design more reminiscent of a hip bistro than, say, the Georgian spendor at Herbfarm or the colonial revival at Rover’s. There’s candlelight.  Soda, including Dr. Pepper, is offered in a can, which is left on the table, sharing space with heavy (and obnoxious) fancy goblets and fine china.  No toasting because the goblets are expensive.  Plastic over expensive white table cloth.  Don’t wipe your mouth with the cloth napkin, use the paper one.  Minestrone as soup course.  Plastic menus.  Limited service, don’t ask the chef/server any questions, because he’s busy and we’re trying to keep costs down so more people can experience fine dining. Let’s review some of these.

Masumoto scales back on fine dining service — customer pours own water and orders at the counter, limits questions about food and wine, and doesn’t hear (long-winded) descriptions of dish and ingredients (that few ever remember, it’s like listening to a porn star describe in detail his cock before fornicating).  Pouring water for customers is an odd Western habit that promotes barbaric and feudalistic behavior and increases foot traffic for no good reason, so I’m all for getting rid of that custom in all restaurants (I’ll explain in another post).  Ordering at the counter is a minor interruption of the meal. Not a big deal, it’s like having to take a quick dump during a meal.  Dish and ingredient descriptions are essential, listening to them is not. Masumoto could’ve provided written descriptions for customers to read at leisure, like what they do for oyster orders at Brooklyn Seafood.  We need know to why the food is extra-ordinary, a break from everyday life, “fine dining” special.  If we don’t know why fine dining is what it is, some may think of fine dining as an irrelevant and exorbitant gimmick (sometimes it is), meant to trick the gullible into paying premium prices for the same shit served everywhere else (sometimes that’s the case).  It’s not unreasonable to devote more effort to the educational part of the experience so he can better communicate his belief that fine dining is relevant and worthwhile.  I left without a good sense of Masumoto’s food philosophy, how it can change our lives.

The food was solid — we had the leg of lamb w shrimp mashed potatoes ($17), duck breast w/idontremember ($24) — but not fine dining special, was uninspiring, and some of the contrasts didn’t make sense  (candied carrot w/sweet duck sauce). Meal started with soup.  Don’t think it’s appropriate to serve something as homespun as minestrone as a fine dining course.  It doesn’t take that much more time to make a blended soup w/garnish.  Second course, salad of mixed greens and fruit, was likely made an hour or two prior to opening and placed in a fridge, plate included.  Tasted fine but the slightly frosted plate made the salad look prepackaged, not garden fresh.  I’m fine with prepping the salad before opening, but it shouldn’t take much effort to arrange it during the meal.  No comment on dessert, which was an assortment of small sorbets and cakes.  Desserts are almost always too sweet for my palate.  Oh, and the bread, which came wrapped in saran and was microwaved warm.  That’s bizarre.

Atmosphere was a mixture of comedy (some coming in looked terrified and we thought one woman was going to cry as Chef Grouchy sternly explained the reservation policy she’d unknowingly violated) and surreal seriousness.  Vibe felt serious yet I couldn’t take anything seriously. It was one of the most jarring, dream-like dining experiences ever.

Grouchy Chef is a good place for those seeking solid, boring, bistro style French-American food and maybe some entertainment. Unfortunately, Grouchy adds nothing to debates about the relevancy of fine dining and at times, emphasizes what I consider some of the more superficial aspects of fine dining (fancy goblets).  For Masumoto, it seems, fine dining is just a series of rules and rituals that teach orderly and civil behavior, and less about extra-ordinary food or giving people an opportunity to experience something different, something special (unless his theatrics is the primary experience).

I think it’s possible for Masumoto to make fine dining more accessible without sacrificing what I consider its essential components.  To begin with, he could hire a server-host so he can devote more time to food.  The current system has customers paying for their meal up front, making it awkward to ask for an additional bottle of wine or sparkling water. Having a server who excels at sales would not increase menu prices because the server would be able to generate more than enough sales to pay for his/her salary.  With better food and less harried service, Grouchy Chef may become better known for extraordinary food and novel vision than his (unintentional?)  gimmick, his  cult of personality.

Review of Elemental @Gasworks & Elemental Next Door

Imagine two types of restaurants.  There are those that are obedient to their customers, giving the customers “what they want,” fulfilling even their basest desires.  Like bottomless fries (Red Robin).  Or all you can eat pasta (Olive Garden).  Then there are those that are responsible for their customers, restaurants that challenge their guests, or as Anthony Bourdain puts it, “experiment, push boundaries, explore what is possible, what might be possible.” These are the restaurants that take risks necessary to elevate cuisine.

Elemental @Gasworks and its sister establishment, Elemental Next Door (END), are such restaurants.  The salient difference between the two — as explained by END host and signage — is that the former is a “dictatorship” with “attitude,” where you don’t get to choose anything and they won’t tell you what you’re eating and drinking as you progress through a seven course tasting menu with wine pairing, while the latter is a “democracy” without the “attitude,” where you have to choose your food and wine.  All food and wine offerings at Elemental are available at END.  The standoffish poodle hangs out at Elemental.

We wanted the dictatorship but realized, after an hour of waiting (no reservations or waiting list), that we weren’t going to get it.  Starving and in need of drink, we opted for democracy.  We were handed complimentary champagne the moment we walked in and were directed, after making the mistake of sitting at our (communal) table, to stand in front of a menu written on a scroll.  Too hungry to think about the menu, we asked the server to decide for us.  He refused, reminding us that we’re in a “democracy, you have to do the thinking.”  We ordered all the appetizers — two orders of artichoke dip, order each of truffled popcorn, spicy goat cheese salsa, manchego stuffed peppers — and a bottle of wine, name of which I can’t recall.  The food wasn’t wildly inventive, but was well executed (how did they get every kernel of popcorn to taste the same?) and well flavored.  Just some interesting variations of the familiar.  Party of five, 10 drinks, five appropriately portioned appetizers = $80, tax and tip included.  Easily one of the best deals in town.  And since it’s not the sort of place that attracts those under 30 or cares much about social etiquette and rules, they’re unlikely to card for age.  You can probably get away with bringing a college aged teen and have him experience good food and wine so he’ll never tolerate shit like 4 Loko or Mike’s Lemonade or Long Island Iced teas, whatever it is teenagers drink nowadays.

Elemental, the dictatorship, I’ve been to twice, but that was like five, six years ago, back when it was more of a soft authoritarian regime, where they chose the wine pairing but you could choose the food, than the totalitarian state it purportedly is now, where they won’t tell you what you’re eating and drinking and completely control the pace of your meal.  The current experience is $80 with tax and tip included, making it one of the most affordable tasting menu with pine pairing experiences in Seattle.

If Elemental were in New York City, it’d be one of the most famous restaurants in North America, on par with David Chang’s Momofuku.  Like Momofuku, Elemental is one of those  restaurants designed, as Bourdain puts it, “exclusively for hungry chefs and cooks and jaded industry people.”  “This is the way — this is how good, how much fun our business could be if only we didn’t have to worry about the fucking customers.” Elemental’s primary aim isn’t to please its patrons by catering to their whims, it’s to show them the “proper” way to host a dinner party, the “proper” way they’re to enjoy themselves while eating and drinking. Elemental demands the customer to not be fussy or picky,  to have a patient and adventurous spirit willing to take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith so they can experience a higher, more exalted pleasure.


Two Years Old!

We’ve made it to the 2 year mark!  It’s been an unbelievable learning experience, taught me far more about life and people and the world than any other experience.  It’s fun reflecting on how I and my employees have grown up with the business — we’ve overcome fears and doubts to do things we never thought possible and most importantly, we’ve learned to become responsible.

At this point, the business needs a boss, a real CEO.  More importantly, I need a boss (because deep down, like most men, I’m just a scared little boy who wants to hide in the corner and play with his toys).  A good boss, however, is expensive.  So I’ve been searching for someone I can groom to be my boss.  We may have found one.

This is going to be an interesting year.

Thanks to everyone for helping us reach the 2 year mark.  Thanks to customers who’ve put up with bouts of inconsistency, especially during training periods.  Thanks to customers who go out of their way to market our brand and products.  Thanks to customers for offering to help us fix things, treating the store as if it were your own home.  And special thanks to the employees who’ve put up with a lot of shit (esp. from me).  Couldn’t have made it this far without your charm, smart-ass attitude, quickness, and deep sense of responsibility.  (But remember, you’ll never be good enough).

Kisses, Love you all!