Service 101: The Friendly Incompetent, A Business Archetype

Who is the weakest link in your business?
Who is the weakest link in your business?

Regardless of what business you’re in, every line of work has its share of archetypes. You may make your living in a dining room, in the middle of a retail showroom, under stage lights, or in the center of cubicles. Where doesn’t matter. Just like a movie with predictable characters, we all encounter common personality types in the workplace.

Heroes vs Foes

Boilerplate people we want on our team are types like the fearless leader, the go-getter, the quiet workhorse, the inspirational force, and the problem solver. But no matter how great your workplace is, there always seems to be a few pernicious characters. You know the bunch. They’re the complainer, the drama queen, the liar, or even the Friendly Incompetent.

Business Archetype: The Friendly Incompetent

I recently witnessed the most astounding version of the Friendly Incompetent, a negative business archetype, at a bookstore in Pasadena.The book shop employee was a tall, good looking guy with a nice smile. I noticed him right away as he said hello to customers as they walked into the store. Just as I was taking mental note of his good service instincts, however, I began to notice a pattern of neglect. Every time he’d say hello to a new customer, he’d turn his back on them just moments after they crossed the threshold.

He would ignore needing glances and check his iPhone or push a stack of books from one side of the counter to another, like a child pushing blocks for no reason. When an inquisitive book-buyer made her way to the front desk, the tall smiling guy exited the counter in order to adjust a coffee cup display just before she could reach him. Seconds later, I watched as another co-worker noticed the neglected customer and  jumped to her aid with a great sense of urgency.

Later, the Friendly Incompetent complained loudly about the colors of the bookstore’s carpets and how disappointed he was in the state of the book-selling business. When customers asked for information about a particular item, he pointed them to a faraway shelf, rather than walk the person to the stack of books himself.

After just one hour of observing this man, I calculated he not only lost the business several hundred dollars in lost sales opportunities, he also reduced efficiency in his co-workers. In addition, he created such an uncomfortable setting of bad customer service, I had to leave.

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The Artist’s Way: Reading Detox

"Loco" A wire sculpture by Brooke Burton
“Loco” A wire sculpture by Brooke Burton

Ever feel like your creative well has run dry?  Sometimes wonder if your artistic muse has packed her bags and high tailed it to a town far away?

If you’ve ever worried you might never have another great idea in you, I’ve discovered a sure-fire solution to a blocked creative process: Give up reading and social media for a week.

Get Quiet

Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist Way–a twelve week program that mends the artist and their process–suggests that the best way to get your creative ju-ju back is to detoxify from our modern day information overload. Unplug the TV, step away from the internet, put down the magazines, and stop reading other people’s words for seven whole days.

Though the idea of giving up reading and social media may seem impossible, I’m here to tell you that it is achievable and–once you get through the first wave of detoxification–incredibly rewarding. After just a day of getting away from my usual media inputs, I began to see immediate results. The mental space once dedicated to Twitter messages, Facebook status updates, or obsessive internet surfing–became free real estate for creativity. Inspiration flowed through me without interruption. Continue reading

Service 101: Valentine’s Day Tips

valentines day restaurant table

For any restaurant pro worth their salt, Valentine’s Day is one of the nights you want to work. We train for years for nights like this. During service we’ll see crazy stuff: over the top displays of public affection, cruel scorn, fights, marriage proposals, escorts, sloppy drunks, beautiful couples, angry single ladies, and bizarre match ups.  And that’s just in the dining room.

Valentine’s Day is full of challenges, but it’s a time that’s lucrative for restaurants and for staff. For this reason and and more, we suit up, show up, and get ready for war.

Unfortunately, this Valentine’s Day, I have the night off. And in case you’re wondering, no–I’m not going to go out. I’ll probably make myself some comfort food and watch a movie at home by myself (my husband is working at a restaurant across town). Or maybe I’ll re-read the article about Valentine’s Day I was interviewed for just for the thrill of seeing my name on the on Time Magazine’s website.

Either way, you’ll know where to find me. I’ll be on lock down at my apartment. In the meantime, If you still haven’t figured out what you’ll be doing later tonight here are some words of advice:

Why you should make your own Valentine’s Day Dinner

  • Nothing says I love you more than taking the time to make a special meal for the person you love.
  • Have complete control. Shop at your favorite butcher shop or market, design your own floral arrangement, decorate your home in a seductive way. Because you can control every element of the dining experience you’ll be able to experience lighting, music, menu, and decorations that fit your liking perfectly.

If You Insist on Dining Out on Valentine’s Day:

  • Realize that if you haven’t made your reservations yet, you’ll probably be eating very late tonight. Make yourself a good snack!
  • Know your audience. Don’t take a vegetarian to a steak house.
  • Consider your budget. If you think $35 is too much to pay for an entrée, don’t book a reservation at a restaurant that serves $35 entrees. You’ll be disappointed.
  • Don’t double book. If you hedged your bets with more than one restaurant reservation, be sure to cancel your second reservation as early as possible. There are plenty of people that would love to take your reservation.
  • Show up on time.
  • Find out the seating policy. Does the restaurant expect you to leave after 2 or 3 hours? If so, be respectful of your reservation.  Don’t linger at the table for longer than allotted or you may end up experiencing late table karma later on down the road.
  • Say “Please” and “Thank You”.  Good manners go a long way to impress your date and will make for a more pleasant dining experience.

Hope you and your loved ones have a safe and stress-free Valentine’s Day. For recommendations on how best to enjoy your official night of romance, be sure to check out this earlier blog post.

Easy Breakfast Smoothie Recipe

easy breakfast shake

Don’t own a juicer and want to make healthy breakfast drinks? Great! All you need is a blender, good ingredients, and an imagination for flavor and texture. Here are a couple of my tips for making a great tasting smoothie:

  1. Think about making the most of natural sweetness. I recommend you stock up on bananas and freeze the ripe ones. Grab a few bags of frozen berries and keep them in the freezer for any time smoothies. I love the organic mixed berries at Trader Joes.
  2. Consider texture. Frozen bananas and frozen berries work great. Maybe you’d like to add soft tofu, Greek Yogurt (I’m a huge fan of Fage), a handful of nuts (cashews or almonds are the best), or even roasted sweet potato.
  3. Add in some protein. Look for healthy ingredients like Kefir (I love lactose free Green Valley Organics) or unsweetened yogurt. See some of my suggestions up above.
  4. Use a healthy liquid to tie it all together. I use coconut milk, almond milk, orange juice, and carrot juice to add flavor and/or sweetness.

Since doing a juice cleanse last week, I’ve been making a fair amount of smoothies and breakfast shakes to start my day. By skipping a big egg and toast breakfast, I’ve been able to stay away from caffeine, bread and pasta, meat, and processed sugars for over a week now. This clean way of eating has me feeling clean, healthy, and full of energy. Starting my day off right with a blended smoothie or a glass of carrot juice helps me get into my day with good clean energy.

Sometimes its fun to get adventurous in the kitchen and use already prepped ingredients for new recipes. This smoothie’s texture benefits from the sweetness and texture of sweet potato and the spiciness of fresh ginger. The best part is you don’t have to own an expensive juicer to make this smoothie.  The ginger gives you the energy boost you’ll need (and may reduce your cholesterol!)  and the sweet potato offers complex carbohydrates, potassium, fiber, beta-carotene, and vitamins C and B6.

sweet potato ginger carrot cashew butter smoothie

Sweet Sunrise Smoothie

3/4 cup carrot juice
1/2 cup Kefir (your favorite flavor)
1/2 roasted sweet potato, without the skin
1 tablespoon unsalted cashew butter
1-2 inches of ginger, peeled and sliced (depending upon how spicy you want the drink)
6 ice cubes

Put slices of sweet potato and ginger into the blender with the carrot juice. Blend until not so chunky. Add the Kefir, cashew butter, and ice cubes, blend until smooth. If you want a thicker consistency, add more Kefir. For more liquidity, add more carrot juice. Enjoy.

Who’s Afraid of a Juice Cleanse?

pressed juicery greens

I was in the deli meat section of Whole Foods when my husband asked if I’d be interested in joining him on a three-day juice cleanse. An answer came swiftly.  “No way,” I said. “Not interested.”

He tried again by the salad bar.

“Come on. It’s just for three days,” he said. “I’ll go to the Pressed Juicery tomorrow and get all the juices we need.”

He pushed the grocery cart past the display of pre-made soups and a barricade of kombucha.

“No, thanks. Not my jam,” I said.

I slipped four of my favorite chocolate bars into our cart. I could not encourage an idea that had me going without dark chocolate and coffee for three days. Hadn’t I given up enough already?

Hans was quiet through the frozen food section. He held his tongue as we waited in line behind two chatty Asian women with a small basket of food. They stopped talking long enough to eye our grocery items. They want what we have, I thought. They think a juice cleanse was a bad idea, too.

The cashier waved us over. I unloaded kale, red quinoa, sweet potatoes, and low-fat yogurt onto the conveyor belt. My healthy choices edged towards to the glass of the bar code reader. My ego welled up and banged against fear.  I live a rather healthy life. I don’t drink alcohol or smoke. So why on earth would I need a cleanse?

My husband gave one final pitch. “You have the week off. This is a perfect time.”

I pulled a five-pound turkey breast wrapped in butcher paper from the cart. “What about this turkey,” I said, running scenarios, dates, and health code statistics through my mind. There was a lot at stake here. I had plans and recipes. I couldn’t give up eating for THREE days!

“What about the turkey?” he said.  “We’ll freeze it. Come on. It’ll be good for us.”

It was in that moment that I heard the sound. It was the kind and gentle tone my husband can get sometimes when he knows something about me that I don’t. Deep in there between the consonants and vowels was something good and important. Patience. Wisdom. Insight.

Love conquers fear

This moment was familiar. Wasn’t it just a few years ago when my husband suggested an idea so outside of my comfort zone, I automatically said no to it then, too? Wasn’t it just a few years ago when my life was upside down and needing some direction and my husband asked if I was willing to give up drinking with him for just one day at a time? Hadn’t my life been transformed by uttering the word, Yes?

I smiled as I handed the butcher’s bundle to the cashier. “Would it be okay if we didn’t get this turkey breast? I changed my mind,” I said. “Looks like I’m going to be doing a juice cleanse after all.”

There were no applause or sudden dancing. Just a grin of knowing from the man I love.

“Yes. No problem,” the cashier said. No hesitation was offered with her response. Continue reading

Service 101: Home Health Inspection

home health inspection check list

Food lovers enjoy cooking. But how knowledgeable are we when it comes to safe food handling and cooking techniques?

I always put my customers’ health and satisfaction first at every restaurant I work at.  I’m grateful for my ServSafe manager certification training and educate my staff on good health safety and proper food handling protocols. My kitchens do multiple health inspections a day in order to maintain and uphold their “A” letter grades.  My staff know me as a stickler for finer points and am always pushing them to do better.

But the truth is, I wasn’t always food safety knowledgeable. Back in the early days of my restaurant work, I was what I call “a walking health code violation.”

Small Town Violations

More than twenty years ago I got my start at a fried seafood joint in a small town in Massachusetts. It was the Bon Jovi 80’s and I was a naive, teenage kitchen worker.  I microwaved chowders, mixed thousands of milkshakes and frappes on a stainless steel mixer, and grilled the occasional meat patty at a fried seafood shack without ever being educated on any aspect of food safety. The husband and wife team who owned the fried seafood stand, chain-smoked throughout the shift as they cooked and plated leaning towers of fried seafood.

The owners didn’t mind our big 80‘s hair and rock and roll radio we danced to as we worked over the fried clams. They almost certainly didn’t concern themselves with teaching any of their staff how to maintain a spotless kitchen. I washed my hands once a shift and used the same (un-sanitized) rag to clean counters and my equipment for the entire shift. We used sky blue Windex to wipe down the wood counters and stainless cooking equipment. Even when the kitchen reached temperatures above 110 degrees on hot summer days, the thick cream and milk mixture the raw seafood was dipped into was never refrigerated (once we pulled it from the walk-in). I don’t recall ever seeing a thermometer used to check holding temperatures. That’s a culinary memory I’d rather forget.

I discovered much about the food industry back then, but none of what I learned had anything to do with food safety.

Little City Oversights

Later, in the mid 90’s when I began tending bar at a family eatery outside of Boston, I learned very little about safe food handling standards. I was told to taste juices for spoilage and put out vinegar soaked sponges to catch fruit flies, but that was about it. The chef was constantly hung over and he had other things to worry about.  The kitchen’s cleanliness reflected his work ethic. We served frozen foods deep-fried in oil that I never saw changed and monster nacho plates that were heated up in a dirty microwave.  Vegetarian chili, creamy soups, and sauces were made from scratch and reused until they started to smell bad.

I was food poisoned more than once and frequently got sick.

Upholding an A

It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles in the late 90‘s that I was introduced to a more stringent health code with letter grades. Once I started working in LA restaurants and watched my first thorough health inspection, I quickly learned about cross-contamination, internal temperatures for cooked proteins (165º), date labeling, proper cooling techniques, and the danger of ice scoops in ice machines. I became aware of the importance of frequent hand washing, sanitized rags, proper food storage (cold foods must be held at 40º or less), cooling techniques for hot foods, and proper internal temperatures of refrigerators (40 or less).

The more I learned at work, the more clean and safe my home kitchen became.  I realized in time how hazardous my own cooking techniques were. I learned to never cut raw meat on the same cutting surface as vegetables. I stopped using the dish sponge to clean the counter top. I began looking at expiration dates on dry and frozen foods. I found that using a thermometer in my oven and to test the internal temperatures of the foods I cooked made an immediate impact on the quality (and safety) of my meals. Continue reading

Chicken Liver Crostini Recipe

sauteed chicken livers 1I stopped eating meat at seventeen. The bloody grease on the flat-top grill of my summer job was the initial motivator for my abstinence. Then a documentary about the abuse of our planet and suffering of feed animals sealed the commitment. I didn’t cook or eat meat for fifteen years after teenage resolution.

More than a decade after I swore off meat, I was hired to be part of the opening team at steak house in Los Angeles. During training, I decided to taste meat again for the first time in fifteen years. I put a thimble-sized morsel of dry aged steak in my mouth and felt my body chemistry change almost instantaneously. The warm and juicy meat, the aroma of smoke and earthiness, the fully rounded flavors of the steak made me tingle. I felt my face flush. I felt alive. I began to feel I needed to look past my politics and chew.

It took me some time to figure out my carnivorous stance, but thanks to a greater understanding of my role in the food chain, how to balance my consumption and be responsible and informed, I am able to make educated and ethical decisions at the butcher’s counter.

Mindful Meat Eating

My diet isn’t focused on meats–I eat mostly vegetables and grains–but when I do purchase chicken, beef, lamb, or pork, I purchase the meat from trusted sources.

I do my very best to maintain the same political and ecological views of my vegetarian years by seeking out humanely raised, free-range animals fed on a healthy and appropriate diet by small producers. I shop local butchers (Lindy and Grundy are a pair of bad-ass female butchers in Los Angeles who foster close relationships with their local purveyors) and, whenever possible, I buy directly from the people who raise the animals and slaughter them. I want to know as much about what I’m eating and what impact that purchase has on my local economy and planet.

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Food Woolf: A Year in Review 2012

food woolfIt may not be best to dwell in the past, but it doesn’t hurt to look back and appreciate all that’s happened.  So rather than write a post featuring top recipes or big news stories of the year, I thought I’d take a little time to write something of a gratitude list for this blog in 2012. It has been an eventful time filled with great lessons, delicious recipes, and outstanding moments for me and my family. I hope you don’t mind me sharing them with you!

Perhaps the most valuable lesson of 2012 was to slow down and appreciate the little things. Despite the whirling speed of new tech toys and cool apps, I began to apply mindfulness techniques to my life, work, writing, and even social media. Slowing down may not have been instinctual when I started this year, but after twelve months of meditation and mindful action–I find that I have much more joy and gratitude for the little and big things that happen throughout my day.

Big Summer Potluck #3

I had the honor of being a keynote speaker at The Big Summer Potluck. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing my new internet BFF Maggy Keet and speak with all the good and big hearted people about Mindfulness in the Digital Age.

saveur best piece of culinary writing Brooke Burton

I was nominated for Best Literary Food Writing in April by one of my most beloved food magazines, Saveur.  I might not have won, but knowing that the incredible food writers and editors at Saveur had considered my writing worthy of recognition was award enough.

I continued telling my story about being an LA-based restaurant consultant in my Service 101 essay series. I spoke about the need for restaurants to consider teaching  better bussing. I wrote about restaurant concepts that work, why guests should keep an open mind when visiting restaurants, how I enjoy my work in restaurants, and how I am working a compassion practice in restaurant dining rooms.

Other landmarks during the year that was rumored to be the end of the world included a very busy year in my work of opening restaurants. Some of my clients included Milo and Olive, Karen Hatfield’s Sycamore Kitchen, and the artisanal hot dog stand of Neal Fraser, Fritzi Dog. In addition, I celebrated five years of blogging and became the proud mama of a puppy.

I had the good fortune of enjoying some travel during my year. I visited San Francisco and saw my friend Michael Procopio for a great meal and later he suggested I visit the unique/edgy/performance art coffee shop called The Red Door. Experiencing a meal there was revelatory and completely mind blowing.

There were many great meals and restaurant moments in 2012.  While I may not have spent half as much time I would have like to writing about the meals I enjoyed during my twelve months of 2012, I did manage to snap several hundred pictures of my repasts via Instagram.

Fig and kale salad with feta on

Beyond my meals in restaurants, I found my way into my own kitchen and created a few recipes of my own. A few that I’m most proud of include my simple, and delicious recipes for a Sriracha Chicken, and Kale Salad that was inspired by one of my favorite new restaurants (and clients!), Sycamore Kitchen. My favorite recipe of the year–made so by its versatility and highly addictive flavor profile–is my savory cranberry compote I made last month.  Even though Thanksgiving has come and gone, I’ve made the recipe a few more times since then. In my last batch I halved the amount of dried cranberries and added dried cherries.

I am grateful for so many things, including my family, friends, and all the great people I have had the good fortune of meeting during this year. Most of all, I appreciate and thank you for reading, writing such kind comments, and supporting my writing. I wish you all the best in 2013 and may all your dreams and goals be exceeded in the new year.

Love and peace to you and your family. Happy New Year!

cranberry recipe

Cranberry Compote on Greek Yogurt

Of the many uses of the compote (as a spread for sandwiches and a sweet/savory condiment for turkey and chicken), my favorite may be as a topping for yogurt and ice cream. I love how the sweetness of the cranberry sauce compliments the flavors of an unsweetened Greek Yogurt. I especially love putting it on top of Fage: it’s low in fat and super creamy!

1/4 cup of Cranberry Compote
1 cup of Fage (or plain) Greek Yogurt

Put the yogurt in a bowl and top with compote. Stir in to sweeten the creamy yogurt.

Suggestion: Add nuts or granola for an additional, crunchy texture. Enjoy!


Service 101: On Your Side

restaurant consulting los angeles

“Hospitality exists when you believe the other person in on your side.”               –Danny Meyer


The first time I became aware of this important dynamic of service, I was in my mid-twenties and more than a few years into my career as a bartender.  I’m not sure why I hadn’t seen the important link between the service person who gives a damn and an engaged customer. I might have been naturally inclined to give that sort of service, it took an extraordinary waiter with international charm to make me realize the equation needed in order to create a memorable service bond.

The restaurant was called Dali, a small Spanish tapas restaurant that straddled the border of Harvard Square and Somerville. I went there for a romantic evening out with a then boyfriend, and we were taken care of by an older fellow with grey hair and a thick Spanish accent. He was what I called “a lifer”, a person who never got out of the restaurant business. He carried himself with proud gait of a professional but was also suave and flirtatious. The waiter winked at my boyfriend with a knowing smile and made me feel like the most beautiful woman in the room. He made us feel like VIP’s as he coaxed us through the menu in a playful and knowledgeable way that felt equal parts conspiratorial and friendly.

Thanks to his service, the sangria was like nectar, the food was mind-expanding flavorful, and everything he suggested showed us a whole new world in food.

I glowed for days after that dinner. It wasn’t until later, when the gauzy haze of perfection began to fade, I was able to make out some of the key guideposts of what made his service so spectacular. His service was flawless. His movements were graceful. The waiter’s timing was spot on and, above all, the man made us both feel like he wanted nothing more than to be the best server in the world for our important celebration.

The Dali waiter showed me the importance of a guest feeling like they were the best thing that happened to him all day. He showed me the power of making a guest feel like they were taken care of, and cheered on until they had the best time of their lives. This lesson is something I carry with me in all that I do.

Tips on how to give Great Service

1) READ your guests:
When approaching a guest, read the body language, energy, and banter as you approach the table. What are the cues you pick up on? Maybe the guests are on a first date and nervously banters. Maybe the guests are old friends who desperately want to catch up. Perhaps the diners are business associates hoping to get to the meal as fast as they can. Regardless of who your guests are, you can use your powers of observations to figure out WHO your guests are.

2) LISTEN to what they want

3) IDENTIFY what your guests need:
By carefully listening for cues and clues of what a guest likes and dislikes, you will be more able to find a way to identify what your guest wants and how you can get it for them. Be aware of the need to treat guests individually when multiple guests at one table may have divergent desires.

4) Tailor make your response to the specifics of the guests’ needs:
Communicate to the guest in a manner appropriate with their needs that you identify with them and will do everything you can to make sure they are satisfied with their experience. Note: how you deliver information to a guest is just as important as how you deliver food to a table.

5) Ensure the food and service is impeccable:
Match your actions with your words. Stay on top of the ordering, delivering, and clearing of food. Read the energy of the table as the food comes out. Be aware of new needs that will come up throughout the service. Checking in with guests, changing the flow of service as necessary, and reading your table’s energy throughout the course of the meal will help to make a satisfying dining experience for your guest.

Season of Giving

coffee shop coffee on foodwoolf

I owe a debt of gratitude to a woman who verbally attacked a young cashier the other day. It was a small act of cruelty that lingered with me for days. I couldn’t shake it until I could find a positive solution to my pain.

I was at my local coffee shop, the day after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The sun had just come up. Sleep and sorrow wrapped around me like a fuzzy scarf. The vexed woman spoke with the cashier in a disappointed tone.

“What do you mean you’re out?” she said.

“I’m sorry,” the cashier said. “We are out of the green tea powder right now. May I get you something else?”

The customer seethed.

“I can’t believe you don’t have my drink,” the woman said.  She ranted about professionalism, disappointment with the cashier, and dismay at the coffee shop’s business practices.

A manager stepped in and offered apologies.  A free beverage was proposed.

“I came here specifically for that drink,” she said.

The manager packaged up a complimentary bagel and a beverage for the woman. She offered it with a smile and a sincere apology.

The red-faced woman snapped the bag from the manager’s hand and stormed out of the shop without a word.

It was just barely seven in the morning.

86 Happiness

I couldn’t fathom the source of her outburst. How a missing green tea powder could inspire such venom so early in the morning was incomprehensible. Pain and anger felt for lost children I could understand. And yet, for this woman on this particular day, an 86’d green tea powder really cut her to the core.

A few hours later, I noticed I was still thinking about the coffee shop melt down. Rather than move past the incident, I replayed the events in my mind’s eye over and over again. I started to embellish the memory. I added fictional speeches in which I would express the need for compassion and gratitude in a broken world. I became anxious for the staff’s well-being, worried they were traumatized. I concentrated on her angular gestures, the tone of her voice, and the way she carried herself as she moved past the barista station.  Honestly, I was kind of obsessing over the whole thing.

I shared with my husband how torn up I was over the coffee shop blow out. Rather than belittle my caffeinated fixation, he kindly suggested that I take more time to explore the root cause of what had me so upset.

A walk around the block helped calm my thinking. By the time I returned to my apartment’s gated door, I realized I shared a trait with the ill-tempered customer. I, too, felt a disproportionate amount of emotion over a minor thing. I had what the unhappy woman had: an amplifying mind. I magnified the coffee shop mistake and transformed it into a grave injustice.

Seeking a solution, I reached out to a dear friend. My companion grinned as she prescribed a set of contrary actions to alleviate my condition. She suggested I do five to ten unselfish acts of kindness for the next few weeks, making sure that no one noticed. The goal of my work, she expained, was to spread joy to others and keep the whole business to myself.

“These mitzvahs,” she said, “are only for you and God to know about. No one else.”

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Service 101: The Importance of Bussing

busser cleaningBussing may be the most important aspect of service that is overlooked by restaurant owners and managers. Perhaps it’s because business owners think guests don’t pay attention to the little things like how a table is cleared or when a water glass is topped off. Maybe it’s a pervasive mentality that bussing is a simple job that anyone can figure out. But great bussing is a complicated job that requires experience, training, and passion for the work.

Go to an average restaurant and you may see some tell tale signs of a neglected bussing team. You may see an overflowing bus tub filled with dirty dishes hiding in a corner or see a busser cut in front of a guest on their way to clear a table at the end of their meal. You might watch as the rushed worker clinks plates together as they snatched up the dishes like playing cards. Maybe you’ll be left too long with an empty glass or a pile of empty sugar packets in front of you.  You could find your table wet from a fast wipe down or a chair littered with crumbs. Perhaps you’ll cringe when your busser sticks their fingers in a stack of glasses as they carry them away.  When a table goes neglected for long stretches and then is suddenly barraged by a fast moving busser struggling to clear the table at the end of the meal, diners feel rushed, ignored, or worse–unimportant or unseen.  All of these things may seem minor at first, but when the problems add up during a meal, these little missteps begin to subtract quality points from your dining experience.

“How hard can it be to clear a table?” I’ve heard many a customer say in frustration.  I’ve even seen restaurant owners and managers remark that “any idiot can bus a table” while failing to show the staff how to do their job better. But the truth of the matter is, clearing and re-setting tables in a timely fashion isn’t a simple thing. Bussing requires skill, training, timing, grace, hospitality, and efficiency.

Investment in Service

Because restaurants are in the business of earning profit through the pennies and nickles on every dollar, many restaurant owners choose to focus their support staff training in one area alone: clearing tables quickly. Typically, the instruction offered isn’t so much a formal training as it is daily tirades on the need to “move faster!”

The general lack of guidance and good coaching leads to all sorts of sloppy choices. Rather than challenge their staff to work smart, clean, and gracefully, the average restaurant leader pushes their support staff to cut corners, take shortcuts, and do whatever it takes to clear and reset a table in a timely way.  Many business sacrifice the quality of their service over the long term in order to chase the short game of getting a single table cleared quickly. The result of this short term thinking: thousands of dollars of loss in breakage, lost silverware carelessly tossed in garbage pails, unhappy customers, and food that is mistakenly thrown away that has to be re-fired for a customer’s to-go request.

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Five Year Anniversary of Food Woolf

Food woolf anniversary of five yearsOn November 29, 2007, I made a decision that would start a chain reaction of transformation and change. I wrote a recipe for a dish I developed and clicked the “Publish” button for the first time on. Five years ago today, I staked a place for my little blog, Food Woolf.

Even the smallest action can result in big change. Just ask a ship captain how a simple adjustment of just one degree–sustained over time–can seriously alter a boat’s final destination.

A life changing meal in Panicale, Italy brought me the awakening I needed to wake me up to the need to enjoy my life as an artist. I was an isolated, frustrated screenwriter with few film credits to her name and no Hollywood sale to pay the bills. I was constrained by my art form. The act of screenwriting felt far too futile and dedicated to the constant practice of living in fantasy.

The decision to start my blog was the result of a resolution to try something different. Food Woolf would be my place to offer up weekly literary homage to food, cooking, and my life as a restaurant professional. I would use the blog to motivate me to leave my home and document my life in the world.

It took me a while to sand down the edges to get to the core of what this blog was about. My first post began as a kind of love letter to Nancy Silverton and a conversation we had about a recipe I developed. Over the years I dabbled in restaurant reviews, food profiles, and even did the occasional food news round up. I charted my irrational fear of baking, and spoke about the challenges of being a waiter.

Along the way I found my voice.

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Bittersweet Memories and Cranberry Sauce

I always thought of myself as a mature kid. Markers of my full grown abilities were imagination, a faculty for prolonged unsupervised play, and a talent for cooking.  If I could cook–it seemed–I was old enough to take care of myself.

I learned the basics young. In nursery school my teachers showed me how to mix chopped cranberries, orange zest, and sugar in a bowl to make a simple cranberry sauce. By second grade I could put together a bowl of cereal without help, spread butter on toast, and decorate apples with cloves for Christmas ornaments. In third grade, I mastered cinnamon sugar toast and began learning how the numbers on the toaster could turn frozen food into something warm and satisfying. By the time I reached the fourth grade, I could make snacks for my brother and sister when we got home from school and oversee my siblings in their raucous play.

Being able to cook made me employable. I was a babysitter by age 10.

Maybe its because I was the first born. Perhaps, it was because I was self reliant. It may be the fact that I was an independent child capable of feeding herself and her siblings. I could re-heat chicken nuggets and fish sticks without anyone standing over me. I made pizzas out of pita bread, Ragu tomato sauces, and chunks of the random cheeses my mother bought at the grocery store. I was creative with my cooking. I found recipes in cookbooks and began dreaming of the meals I would cook.

Dreams become reality

The summer after I turned ten, my mother packed an extra big suitcase for a trip across the country. I held my breath as Mom filled the olive green suitcase with big sweaters, cotton pants, and prayer beads. She stuffed a canvas bag with my sister’s baby clothes and toys.

“Are we going on a trip?” I asked. Continue reading

The Space Between

It starts with just a brick. One after another, the bricks are stacked along a single line that’s been drawn in the gritty dirt. From your window you can see the empty lot, the hole in the ground, and the yellow plastic ribbon that stretches from one stake in the ground to others.  There are men in dusty hard hats drinking coffee from paper cups and pointing at clip boards. Then comes the cement truck and men who like to yell orders to each other as they spoon a warm bed of cement over another row of bricks.

How long it takes for the wall to come up to the first set of windows seems like months. The building process is dusty, loud, and inconvenient.  Then seemingly all of a sudden, light begins to change. A wall–a new wall of red brick– reaches past the first floor window frame of your building and threatens to block out all the windows.

Weeks pass and all that you took for granted–the view from the second floor to the intersection and its cross-hatch of thick black wires on telephone poles–is threatened. Bit by bit, your open sky is edged out by a beast of building.

When construction stops and the last of the electricians and ladder crews leave, the neighborhood rushes to investigate the new building. There are office spaces for rent and a Coffee Bean on the first floor. For weeks there are traffic jams and squealing horns. It’s as if people have never seen a cup of coffee before.

Three floors of sunlight and sunset pinks are gone and you stop by the coffee shop in hopes that they’ll give you free cups of coffee for a year because they stole your sunshine and your view without every really asking–but they never do. There is no free pass for neighbors. The teenage workers nod their baseball-capped heads and shrug their rounded shoulders when you complain about the banging of their industrial trash bin against their new wall of new brick.

A year goes by.

One day the promise to never buy a cup of coffee from the neighbors is forgotten. You run out of organic beans from your friend the coffee roaster, and buy a latte. The next week, you feel reckless and fill a paper cup with milk from the coffee station and take it home for the pot of coffee you brewed yourself. They owe me this, you tell yourself as you spoon the whole milk into your cup.

Another years passes. The view that you once held so dear slides into the memory file. You buy lamps and hang cheery pictures and find ways to bring light the spaces where it used to come to you without effort.

Then one morning, you remember how things used to be. You step outside to take a good look at where your view once was and where a new brick building now stands.

There’s a cushion of space between the two buildings. A pocket of air cushions painted white brick from its dusty new neighbor. There isn’t much distance between the two buildings–maybe just enough for a small woman’s pinky or a thin rope to be pulled from one side to another–but just barely.

It’s odd how a building could bring all sorts of change to your life and yet it never did touch a thing. Big walls go up, new structures are built, but not a thing changed to the outside of your home. All the change happened within.

That gets you to thinking about all the things that have changed in your life. In two years time you’ve taken the steps to live life in a whole new way. You’ve transformed yourself through action and better thinking.    It’s an inside job, you’ve heard people say, and it’s true. Dramatic change can happen just like that–slowly and steadily. Incremental and gradual.

And just like that, the space expands. You see that you haven’t lost a view, you’ve gained a new perspective.

For the first time in years, you’re happy that big red brick building went up just outside your window. You’re grateful.

Kale Salad with Figs and Feta

Fig and kale salad with feta on

When I go to the market, I always grab at least one bunch of kale to take home. The leafy green is a trusted source of nutrients like beta carotene, vitamin K, and calcium.  Curly or lacinato holds up in my refrigerator for days. It’s a perfect choice for someone who is a little too busy to cook everything right away. When other more delicate greens threaten to wilt away the moment their picked, robust kale holds up in my crisper for days on end. Kale is, without a doubt, the perfect food source for a busy lifestyle.

It wasn’t until I had the pleasure of helping the Hatfield’s open their newest restaurant, The Sycamore Kitchen, that I discovered a whole new way of eating kale. Raw kale in a salad may not sound particularly crave-worthy, but the combination of sweet figs (or you could use Medijool dates), tart cheese (I like feta but the Hatfield’s prefer blue), and curly kale makes for a meal that is wholesomely satisfying.Brooke Burton's recipe for fig and kale salad with feta

Kale Salad with Medijool Dates and Feta

Serves two

Be sure to use curly kale for this recipe. Wash it well, remove the stems (fold the leaves in half and cut the stem out by slicing down the center fold), and chop the leaves into tiny, bite-sized pieces. The smaller the pieces, the easier it is to eat. I recently discovered a pre-washed and chopped bagged kale at Trader Joes. A super convenient choice, especially if you’re on the go! One note of caution, however, the bagged kale sometimes has its share of stems in it. If you notice some stems have made their way into the mix, chop them off!

For the Yogurt dressing:

1/3 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of agave syrup
salt and pepper to taste

For the salad:
4 cups chopped curly kale (before chopping, remove stems from the center of the kale)
4 whole ripe figs (or substitute with 4 Medijool dates, chopped), halved
1/4 cup feta, crumbled
1 small carrot chopped into small bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup chopped red cabbage
1 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar

To make the salad, sprinkle the kale with a small pinch of salt and a light drizzle of vinegar. Massage the greens for a few seconds until you feel them start to soften a bit. Set aside as you chop up your veggies.  I suggest that if you have any random veggies hanging out in the fridge, add them to the salad as well. I recommend chopping up a bit of radish, celery for a bit of extra crunch! Add the carrots and the cabbage.

For the dressing: Mix all the dressing ingredients in a separate bowl. Make sure to mix well with a small whisk or fork to create a creamy dressing. Taste. Season or adjust for taste. Add the dressing to the salad mixture. Toss. Add the figs and the feta. Toss some more. Serve.

Basic Shopping List

Brooke Burton's easy shopping list and menu plan

An empty refrigerator in a food lover’s home is a sure sign that things have gotten busy. In my case, that means a restaurant-opening schedule, a young puppy that needs to be to taken care of and trained, and a husband and home that needs attention.  After that, there’s barely enough time to cook, let alone shop for food.

Lately, my refrigerator looks more like a refrigerated plastic shelving unit.

Yesterday when I opened the refrigerator door, the little overhead light showed me nothing but wilted basil, fancy mustard, mayo, sriracha, handmade jelly, a jar of some kind of juice-soaked cherries, soy sauce, and fish sauce.

Time for me to go shopping.

But what exactly does one buy when there’s no food in the house, stomachs are growling, and the puppy is whimpering and in need of a good walk?

If I’ve got less than an hour to go shopping, unpack the groceries, and make dinner, I’ll rely on my tried and true shopping list.  I can zip through any market in about twenty minutes flat with this memorized list. The seasonal basics help us stay within budget, keep us away from relying on take-out, frozen or packaged foods, and gives us room to work with hearty ingredients that have a good shelf life.

Because even though I may work in restaurants, I often don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about menu planning and cooking. The following list includes what I shop for along with a few simple menu ideas.

Brooke’s Basic Shopping List

My basic shopping list allows for seasonal variations for several basic meals that feature protein and vegetables. I can use milk for my morning coffee or to pour over my granola. For snacks we have a square (or two!) of chocolate and a handful of nuts, a piece of cheese, or fruit.

Almond Milk
1 Greek Yogurt
1 Regular yogurt
1 dozen eggs
1 square of tasty cheese
1 chicken
a bunch of herbs
some fruit (whatever looks good)
lettuce (whatever looks good)
2-3 bunches of kale
granola (or the ingredients for making my own)
a bag of almonds or pepitas
sparkling water
2-3 bars of dark chocolate

Meal 1 (breakfast/lunch/dinner)
Kale and eggs

Meal 2 (dinner)
roasted chicken
with sauteed kale

Meal 3 (lunch)
left-over chicken salad on greens

Meal 4 (breakfast)
cheese and herb omelet with greens

Meal 5 (lunch or dinner)
Kale salad with feta cheese and figs (or dates)*

Meal 6, 7, 8 (breakfast/lunch/dinner)
yogurt with granola and fruit

Do you have a basic shopping list you rely on? What’s yours?


*Recipe to follow!

Service 101: My Neighborhood Could Use a New Restaurant

My neighborhood could use a new restaurant, a post on

Thank goodness the current state of the economy hasn’t stopped plenty of new restaurateurs from opening a new establishment.  Since it’s my business to help people open restaurants, I’m incredibly proud of the places I have helped open because they all seem to fill a gaping hole in the food scene that myself and tons of others have been craving. But even with all the new businesses opening, a lot of us are left wanting for more.

So when the New York Times wrote a piece in which they polled the paper’s top food writers to find out what restaurants they wished would open soon in New York City, it got me thinking…What restaurants are still missing in my city and what do my top food blogging friends want to see in their town?

So, in hopes of inspiring a potential new wave of much-needed restaurant openings, I decided to reach out to a handful of my favorite food blogging friends to see what kinds of eateries they were longing for in their neighborhood.

My neighborhood could use a new restaurant on

Gaby Dalkin of What’s Gaby Cooking–Los Angeles

I would KILL for for a fun sandwich place like Beyond Bread in Tucson. They have basically every sandwich under the sun and then even more fun ideas that you’ve never thought of and 123980 kinds of homemade bread.

And I’d also like a killer pizza place that is super inexpensive where you can go and order a slice or two, eat it in the restaurant, and peace out for under 8 bucks.

we need a new pizza place in los angelesLucy of Ladles and Jellyspoons--Los Angeles

What I want? Not necessarily in any order: a simple traditional French bistro that served exquisite food, an English pub with great British food, a Jamie’s Italian (cheap Italian with amazing pasta), and last but by no means least, Ottolenghi’s Cafe and NOPI

Marla Meridith of Family Fresh Cooking–Orange County

We need everything [in Orange County]. High quality, chef owned restaurants would be a great place to start. I can’t stand all the corporate, low quality, big box restaurant chains.

"My neighborhood needs a new restaurant" on

Heather Christo of–Seattle

Not a week goes by that my husband and I don’t whine about how there is no great Jewish deli in Seattle (you know, with real bagels, dill pickles and big sandwiches!) I would also give a toe to have Balthazar to plop right down into my neighborhood. And we are really missing great Italian food in this city- there are very few options.

And Me?

Well, since we’re making our wish list, I’d like to make an official request plea to Portland, Oregon chef Andy Ricker. Los Angeles could desperately use a Pok Pok LA or Pok Pok Wings on Fairfax  would be a welcome addition to my neighborhood. I’d even go so far as offer relocation services to any of the Vietnamese restaurant families from Orange Country’s Little Saigon.

my neighborhood could use a new restaurant on


What restaurants are missing from your city?



Into Action

getting back to exerciseThe hardest part about being stuck in a rut, is getting yourself out of it.

Maybe you’re feeling derailed in your life or your job. Can’t get up the inspiration to cook. Perhaps you don’t quite have it in you to exercise like you used to. Maybe you find yourself staring at the computer screen, unable to create your next post/essay/letter to a friend/chapter of your book/poem/article/creative masterpiece.

The stuck-ness

There are times when I feel like I can do anything and everything. But sometimes, I feel truly stuck. I walk around the apartment aimlessly, eating granola and yogurt out of the container. I try to find my way back to the computer to write something and wish for motivation to come and overtake me.

But nothing happens.

‘Cause when stuck-ness comes and stakes a claim, there just seems to be nothing I can do to over come it.

Then I remember. There is a solution.

The solution

The best way for me to get out of the stuck-ness is to do the EXACT OPPOSITE of what I’m feeling. I have to practice contrary action.

If I feel unmotivated to write, I have to write for one hour.

If I don’t want to cook, I cook something.

If I can’t bear to look at myself in the mirror because I feel uncomfortable in my skin, I go for a walk or a hike in a canyon.

If I feel lonely and don’t understand why no one is calling me, I pick up the phone.

If I feel anti-social, I go out and do something with friends. Continue reading

And then this happened…

My husband and I just adopted this beautiful new puppy.

lab shar pei puppy

From what we can gather, he’s a mixture of lab, shar pei and something else… we can’t be sure. He’s all play time, love, and excitement. He loves to eat and play. The husband and I are beside ourselves with happiness. Not much sleep (or internet, eating, reading, going out) is happening. But we couldn’t be happier. Our little guy is helping remind us every day how beautiful every moment is. He definitely helps us stay in the moment!

It may be quiet around here at Food Woolf for a week or so while we get our little guy used to this big, beautiful world. In the meantime, feel free to share with me any great puppy training hints in the comments section…I’m all ears!

Why I love working in restaurants

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of work we can do in a day. Sometimes when our work becomes challenging, it’s important to slow down. It may feel like you don’t have a lot of time, but it’s important to take the time to appreciate what you’re doing. Because at the end of your day, don’t you want to remember why you do what you do and put in so much effort?

Make a gratitude list for your vocation

When I focus on the good that comes into my life because of what I do, the more happy I get. Making a gratitude list is a great daily practice and one that helps keep me grounded.

Here’s what I’m grateful for today:

why I love restaurants
The uniform may be the same, but no two days are the same.

Why Brooke Burton loves restaurantsUnlimited access to coffee.  Lots of coffee.

Foodwoolf.comThe surroundings are inspiring. Everywhere I look there’s something (or someone) I want to know more about. Ingredients, techniques, style, craft, food stories, and big personalities abound.

hardest working restaurant peopleRestaurant people are some of the hardest working, funny, dedicated, big-hearted people I have ever met. Every day they show me how to be brave, be strong, have faith, and be strong–no matter what.

If you pay attention, you can learn something wonderful every day.

why I love restaurantsMy husband and I met at a restaurant we worked at.

Because repetition of a simple act can bring mastery.

Every day is a huge challenge. Every day has its own big rewards.

Why I, Brooke Burton, love restaurantsI may not eat all day, but when I finally do get a meal, it’s usually pretty mind blowing.

The light.

I spend most of my time thinking about being of service to others.

It’s quiet in the chaos.

Being of service to othersI love food, knives, fire, movement, and the energy of a busy dining room. Oh, and I don’t do well in cubicles.

When service gets tough, the professionals step up.

Tasting beautiful things is a job requirement.

What I learn at work, I bring home to my kitchen.

What are you grateful for?