Service 101: Why Good Customer Service Is Hard To Find

Time = Money
Time = Money

Want to know why great customer service is hard to find? Because it requires an investment of time, money, and planning.

We’re fast to complain about the shortcomings of businesses who fail to give great service — just read Yelp and you’ll see all sorts of disappointments in the area of customer service — but are we actually willing do something about it?

We all may hope a culture of appreciation and helpfulness was built into every business exchange, but desire doesn’t make it so. Money and intention do.

So if you want great customer service, you need to start investing in it.

Investing in Hospitality

Kindness and generosity of spirit may be inherent for some, but natural empathy and kindness is a trait that requires cultivation in most people.

The average Jane and Joe don’t spend their days thinking up ways to relate to another person’s pain. The hourly worker isn’t empowered to dedicate time to creatively problem solve a solution that will make a stranger feel better about themselves and the product they just purchased. In truth, most consumers and employers want fast and efficient help that comes at a low price. They expect nicety and warmth will be offered to them gratis.

The sad truth is, we live in a world where we expect altruism and compassion but we don’t cultivate these traits in our institutions. Schools don’t require Mindfulness and Compassion 101. The workplace isn’t where you take classes on empathy. Our government doesn’t require our public servants to be trained in radical hospitality. I mean, who can afford such frivolities!?

And yet, how is it we expect people to be giving and kind to one another in our daily exchanges, if we don’t invest time in speaking about such things?

If you want to grow employees or people who treat others with warmth and compassion, we have to take the time to teach such traits.

And guess what, folks. Time = money.

business exchange
Invest in hospitality

Time = Money

We can wish all day long that kindness and compassion were inherent traits that were  taught in homes and in the business world, but–on average–they aren’t.

As a people, we would rather spend money on software training, speed, and efficiency than traits like big-heartedness and unselfishness. Check out the job postings on most company websites and you are not going to find empathy and benevolence listed under job requirements.

To get great customer service we have to build meaning into our work and begin growing gentleness and hospitality within us.

A Call to Action

Businesses: If your business collects complaints about customer service or you own or work at a restaurant that’s plagued with flaming Yelp reviews, I suggest you think about investing more time into building a culture of hospitality. If you don’t know where to start, I suggest you seek outside help (there are great books and people like me who specialize in teaching such things).

Consumers: If you find yourself consistently disappointed with the service you get at restaurants, banks, retail stores, and daily business exchanges–I have a revolutionary suggestion for you: start investing time and money into supporting the businesses that treat you well and learning how to be kinder to yourself and others.

If you want to be treated well or have employees treat customers with kindness and respect–we have to be willing to invest in it. How will you start investing?

The Big Traveling Potluck, A Revolutionary Gathering

audience

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised 2.0*

A poem inspired by The Big Traveling Potluck. *Adapted from Gill Scott-Heron’s original 1970’s spoken word poem

You will not be able to stay home and read about it from your laptop, brother and sister.
You will not be able to plug in, Face Time, or zone out on page views and rankings.
You will not be able to lose yourself on Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram;
Skip out for a hand-crafted cocktail during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by KitchenAid
Or shown on the Food Network without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you glossy, inkjet pictures of
Melissa Lanz, Matt Armendariz, or Helen Jane
blowing a bugle or leading a charge in Temecula
to find a personal mission statement, be kind to yourself, or
embrace your blog as your power name.

The revolution will not podcast a web-isode of
Maggy Keet, Erika Pineda, and Pam Anderson
being generous and kind.
Gaby Dalkin and Lori Lange won’t be there to
tell you to mash avocados into Guacamole or
bake snickerdoodle blondie bars three different ways.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the California Avocado Board
or Harry and David, Whole Foods, Redwood Hill Farms, Sabra, or Kerrygold
and will not star Ree Drummond
or Mary Sue Milliken.

table at Big Potluck

The revolution will not make your cupcakes look more sexy.
The revolution will not offer you that font for free.
The revolution will not make you more relevant.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner,
because the revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of your favorite blogging characters
in mustaches and shiny hats showing you how to have faith in yourself
or a Power Point slideshow that will give you the steps it takes to be fearless and successful in online publishing.
The revolution will not be televised.

reedrummond

The Real Housewives, Bon Appetit, and Top Chef
will no longer be so damned relevant,
And making friends with so-in-so in order to get invited to “that thing”, will not be as important,
and people will not care if Food Gawker and Taste Spotting accepted that photo or not,
Because all kind of people will be more interested in talking about
how their work online can make a difference–
not just in their own lives but in friends’ and strangers’ day to day.
Trends will mark how people which people are forging a new trail
and the markers will be fearlessness,  self-lessness, and compassion.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on Facebook
and no pictures of macaroons, quinoa, gluten free flour mixes, and multi-course dinners on Instagram
The theme song will not be written by Justin Timberlake, scored by John Williams
nor sung by Adele, Elton John, or Jack White.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not start playing
after a short commercial about a new app, a new camera, or a new ceramic dish for your prop closet.
You will not have to subscribe to the meal plan,
or worry about natural light vs. artificial light,
or how to improve your brand image with a cute banner.
The revolution will not go better with Neuske’s bacon.
The revolution will not show you how to win the internet.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.

helenjane

The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
The revolution will make you the pilot.
The revolution will put an apron on you and tell you to cook with heart, already.
The revolution will make you a digital publishing house of one (or many).

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.

The revolution will not be re-broadcast, Tivo’d, or saved on Hulu.
The revolution will be digitally published.
The revolution will be live.

Salted Dulce de Leche Latte

salted caramel latte at homeI have a dirty little secret: I have a thing for milky, sweet coffee drinks.

Look, I know the fondness for a spicy or sweet latte isn’t the worst sin a person could have, but it isn’t a transgression I want to indulge in all the time. Now that my job description includes working in with lovingly crafted artisanal coffees, my palate needs to be developed so I may experience the nuanced flavors, exciting aromas, and subtle textures of a well-made cup of coffee or espresso.

Coffee is like wine; the flavor of the beverage is the result of climate, growing technique, varietal, location, and how the fruit is harvested. The process of getting a bean ready for consumption requires such an incredibly long process and delicate labor, it seems wrong to cover up its natural flavors.

Ask any coffee expert and they’ll tell you that a truly great coffee — like a beautiful glass of wine — should be enjoyed in its most natural state. A mindful drinker can experience aromas, flavors, and mouthfeel that can only be encountered if the beverage is treated with respect.

Additives assault a coffee and rob it of its inherent and natural flavors. Overly hot milk, whipped cream, packages of refined sugar, spice dustings, sprinkles of cocoa, Splenda, or flavored syrups do nothing to heed the delicate nature of a coffee bean. All that extra stuff disses the fruit.

All that being said, I really do enjoy a hand-crafted, flavored latte. Forget mass produced syrups, artificially enhanced nondairy creamers, or flavored powders. If I’m going to attempt to make a flavor cocktail with my caffeinated beverages, I use high quality ingredients.

Salted Caramel Latte (Dulce de Leche con Sal)

What makes this decadent salted caramel latte so good is the balance of espresso with the sweetness of the caramelized milk and the highlight of Maldon sea salt. This isn’t the lowest calorie beverage, but it’s a cheat-day worthy treat!

2 Tablespoons of Dulce de Leche*
1 cup of whole milk.
1 shot of espresso
1 pinch of Maldon Sea Salt

Begin to heat the milk in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Add the dulce de leche. Stir often, making sure not to let the milk scald. The milk is ready when it begins to thicken and micro bubbles begin to appear on the side of the pan. Add half the pinch of maldon to the milk. Stir and remove from the heat.

warm milk

Pull your espresso shot. Add your shot to a warm, appropriately-sized coffee cup. Add the milk. finish the drink off with the smallest 1/4 of a pinch of pulverized Maldon sea salt.

Serve immediately.

*Dulce De Leche is an ingredient you may buy from a store or make from scratch at home. For a 100 % from scratch recipe, I suggest Alton Brown’s 3-hour step by step guide. Or if you want to make dulce de leche from  sweetened condensed milk, David Lebovitz has some suggestions.

TC’s Big Yes

Tom "TC" Cheever. Photo Credit from Jennifer Hancock Ferguson
Tom “TC” Cheever. Photo Credit from Jennifer Hancock Ferguson

There’s no easy recipe for dealing with pancreatic cancer.

In a space where I rely on certain structures of form, images, and ideas, I can’t find a formula to talk about profound grief. I can’t make the connections between a recipe, a photo, and words of sorrow. How does a culinary writer approach the topic of death and not reference about food? Is it appropriate to talk about loss and an easy-to-make pizza?

Ever since I found out pancreatic cancer took my friend Tom “TC” Cheever in January I’ve struggled to find a way to express my grief.

Just 43 years old, my friend was a well-respected improvisational comedian, sketch comedy writer, the father of three beautiful kids, a loving partner, and friend to all who knew him. No one expected pancreatic cancer could overtake the bright light that was TC. I certainly didn’t. He was a big, hearty guy with a laugh that could wring the awkwardness from any moment.

TC embodied improvisational comedy’s most important rule: say yes to everything. He leapt into improvised scenes with a big smile and his arms outstretched like a catcher ready for anything. I swear, he made every scene he was in better.

But now that TC’s gone, I’m left with an unexpected void and an uneasy silence.

The inelegant return

There is no dish that pairs well with pancreatic cancer. No well-lit photo of a plate of food to distract myself from the sadness. No pithy story that ties up the ends of a beautiful life cut short by fate in tasteful bows.

I can not turn to a traditional post to find my way through this. Instead, I celebrate my friend’s life through memories and story telling with friends. I fill up the space with love and service–getting into action is always the best way to move through pain and fear–but it’s a slow, incremental process to mend the fissure.

“I have nothing to complain about in my life,” TC said in a speech he wrote for his memorial. “And neither should you.”

It’s true. There’s nothing to complain about. I am alive. I have words to play with. Meals to make with friends. Time left to show up and –if I can muster it– be of service to everyone I meet.

TC taught me to say YES to everything–even the hard stuff. Say yes to the sadness. Say yes to the discomfort. Say yes to healing. Yes to the possibility of what the next yes will bring.

Yes.

 

Work Small to Go Big

dear company X
To Whom It May Concern

Got an email yesterday from an internet promotional firm, Company X* today. The first line hit me like a shot of fear, pulled straight from the freezer.  “A website is only as good as the kind of traffic it has,” the email read.  The only measurement of my writing, the email’s author suggested, was in the number of visitors who come to my site. The email wasn’t done there. If I really cared about the perceived value of my blog I would invest in Company X’s services to boost my organic page ranking on Google. I would email right away to sign up for specialized SEO improvements and program for other B2B thingamabobs.

Rather than write a vengeful response, I hit delete. It was the kindest thing to do for everyone involved. Because there’s no point in getting upset, angry, or hurtful.  This little blog isn’t trying to compete with Corporate America or The Number One Website in America. What that salesman was selling doesn’t apply here. My writing is quiet industry, not big business.

Now I’ll be honest with you. I hear plenty that sometimes makes me wonder about this stance. There are plenty of sources that are quick to remind me that if I don’t stay ahead of SEO/Marketing/or traffic rate monitoring I’m already too far behind to catch up. But I know in the center of my being that the only way for me to truly succeed is to think differently.

Being an entrepreneur or blogger today doesn’t mean following the same rules as big business. We gotta work small to go big.

Outside of Industrialist Thinking

Seth Godin — an entrepreneur, marketing guru, and best-selling author of over a dozen books — proposes that successful entrepreneurs of today need to avoid the industrialist mindset and be creative in our approach to business.  Unlike the olden days of success measured by the millions, the entrepreneur of today can’t expect to win over the entire world. The modern businesswoman must figure out how to deeply impact a thoughtful few.

If we create something special that can inspire or profoundly move just ten people, Godin suggests, those individuals gush to a handful of friends about the great thing they just found. Those friends will tell ten people, and if you move that group too, you’ll watch as your work creates a fully vested, heart and soul marketing campaign for your unusual website/brand/product. By working small and thoughtfully, you can grow big from the bottom up. Momentum builds.

Continue reading

Freelance with Faith

comarades in arms

Living the life of an entrepreneur is exciting and rewarding. Especially when it isn’t harrowing and daunting. Being a consultant, an artist, or a specialist for hire means you have to be uniquely talented, work hard, and be patient for the next right job to come in. Never having a set schedule is a benefit, but freelancing requires a strong belief in one’s self and trust that you’ll get through difficult stretches between jobs. In short, we gotta have a lot of faith.

Faith as a business model?

Yes, operating from an intuitive place isn’t a concept that works for everyone. It’s an idea that can make most people’s skin crawl, especially those who rely on market trends, data, and poll results. But for people like me who work from the gut, intuition as a business model is something that requires practice and a lot of vulnerability. For every gutsy move or courageous jump, there are plenty of uncertain moments that cause white-knuckle indecision and fear.

Being isolated and working in a way that’s opposite of how most mainstream business people operate can make for some truly uncomfortable moments. That’s where having like-minded friends comes in.

We need others who share the same business challenges and have a similar mindset to run big ideas by. When we’re feeling crazy, fearful, and generally uncertain of ourselves, it can really help to have like-minded people who know what you’re going through to share their insights, advice, and good will. When the going gets rough, it’s good to know there’s someone else out there who knows exactly what we’re going through.

One of my freelance cheerleaders is Vivien Kooper, an LA-based ghost writer who makes a living helping ordinary and extraordinary people tell their life stories in book form. My friend is funny, smart, and shares a common language for the big, esoteric ideas.

What I value most about Vivien’s friendship is how common her un-common language is to me. Her language of faith, fear, and a willingness to surrender over to a higher power is part of her daily language. “I’m just staying in faith that I’ll be taken care of,” Vivian said to me after a particularly lean couple of weeks. It was exactly what I needed to hear. “I just know that the right job is going to come in when it’s supposed to.” Faithful words like that comfort me and offer a sense of relief.  She reminds me it’s okay to believe that one of my job requirements is to surrender to the unknown.

That’s certainly not the kind of feedback I get from every business contact I make. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Foodwoolf.com

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 FoodWoolf.com

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.