The Writings

My Photography Lessons from the Kitchen

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I was out with a group of friends recently, with a few newcomers mixed into the group, and I caught myself duplicating a lot of the ramblings I’ve done before. We all do it - we have those anecdotes we tell at parties when meeting new people, all well-rehearsed and mastered, with the ebbs and flows timed just right after years of recital. The tale of working at the Michael Jordan restaurant, when MJ himself made his way through and, rather than actually greeting the staff, just walks on by everyone. The first time you traveled to San Francisco and were shockingly taken aback by the contrast in hospitality of the natives compared to the stark coldness of New Englanders. Or the story about culinary school, where your deranged teacher, Chef Johansen, would always yell at you with a voice like the Batman villain, The Penguin, shouting, “MISTER TEE AAYYY!”

You recount old trips, old bosses, old friends, old watering holes with masterful precision, timing each over-told punchline perfectly, and continuing the storytelling at the anticipated moment when the laughter would die down. It’s like a conductor at a symphony, signaling each instrument at the exact moments throughout the concerto fluidly and flawlessly.

Suddenly, SOMEONE throws a wrench into the composition, which is startling... and yet equally refreshing.

Amidst this recent gathering, and during one retelling of an episode during my restaurant days, one of the newbies decides to interrupt my reliving of those days and asks me a question:

“So, do you regret your decision to work in the restaurant industry, especially now that you’re a photographer?”

Sheesh... doesn’t he get how this game works?! I tell the story and he laughs. That’s how this transaction works.

And now, story time was thwarted. I had to actually THINK.

DO I regret my decision to work in the restaurant industry?

And then, I gave my answer, which seemed to surprise everyone. “No, not at all,” I replied. I suppose they were expecting a different, bitter-sounding, remorseful response, but I just couldn’t give them what they were looking for. As much as I hate on the business and tell countless stories about times gone wrong during them, I loved it all.

“And had it not been for the restaurant industry,” I continued, “I would not be as good a photographer as I am today.” I think that puzzled them further.

“Why is that?” they asked, stunned. “They don’t seem to initially go together."

Well, I’ll tell you, and I’ll give you four good reasons why.

To begin, the restaurant industry taught me that the experience is everything. When you think about restaurants, you think “food”, and that makes sense. You can walk aimlessly down a busy street with no inclination toward any one particular cuisine, then stop at a restaurant’s window where a menu is placed, scan it, and determine if the options sound appealing. And that’s usually what gets stragglers in the door. However, what gets people TO RETURN to your restaurant? The food, sure, but if the service is terrible, or the decor or ambiance is unappealing, would you go back to that place?

There’s a place here in Arlington called Ray’s The Steaks, a steakhouse, as you could guess, which has some of the most delicious steaks around, as well as tasty sides. I had heard and read so many reviews of the place, how wonderful and delicious the meals were.

So, one day, I decide to try it out. I made a reservation prior and, upon entering, I mentioned to the host this fact. The host couldn’t have been more disinterested, and seemingly unacknowledged my existence. After a few more attempts, I flagged down a server, who also couldn’t have been more disinterested, and after a few more minutes of waiting, finally seated me.

To make a long story short, the theme of disinterest seemed to carry on throughout the dining experience. The server couldn’t care less about me, and when my order was wrong, and I later asked to speak to a manager, the manager was disinterested as well. The steak was mighty tasty, though, and I could make a living off that Mac & Cheese.

However, I have never been back since.

What does this say? Even though they put out a great product, because of the service, I refuse to ever return. To put that in a photography perspective, I could take the very best photos in the world, but if I’m a pain in the ass to work with, nobody is going to rehire me. Experience is king, and much like people go to a restaurant for the food and return for the experience, photography business are the same way.

Another lesson I have learned is customer service skills. No matter what business you are in - restaurants or photography - you are working with people. You have to be able to relate with people and, going off creating a pleasant experience for the guest, you have to be approachable to the guest while working well with others as a teammate with your colleagues.

In order to do my job effectively, I had to have a great attitude and focus during my shift at all times; if they see you sweat, you’re losing control of the situation. I would handle guest complaints with a firm, but also gentle hand, being there for the guest and trying to accommodate their needs while also not compromising the goals and targets of the establishment. People would try to pull one over on us, but I had to sift through that rubbish to get to the heart of the matter. Or, if there was a genuine complaint, I had to handle it with the utmost respect and courtesy to make sure that the diner’s experience wasn’t tarnished or ruined. It’s a delicate process that requires you to be on your A-game at all times.

Customer service is a very big part of our jobs, but it’s not the only one. We also have to collaborate with our teammates and coworkers, and for a photographer, that involves folks like our studio managers, assistants, and on a broader scale, art directors, project managers, or even the client directly. If we’re not personable and approachable, people will tend to not want to work with us. And we have to be flexible with our own visions to collaborate with that of the clients and work together to achieve our goals. It’s all about teamwork in both the restaurants and photography gigs.

As a restaurant manager, I had to wear numerous hats. I was making schedules, tracking and counting the money, keeping up with the happenings of the dining room, managing staff, and much more. All the while, stuff would happen during a shift that you couldn’t plan for. A fire alarm goes off in the middle of dinner. Rain begins to flood your kitchen. A guest had a little too much to drink and vomits all the way to the restroom. All the joys of working in the business.

During my time as a photographer, while I’m thankful that nobody has vomited while we were shooting, there are just as many tasks to juggle while calamity and chaos weaves throughout your day. Your camera decides to stop working seconds before the bride walks down the aisle. Your memory card gets corrupted. Your flash stops firing. A storm sweeps through the area, knocking the power out in the entire region. Anything can happen, and you have to somehow be prepared for it and come up with a plan.

Even without natural or technological disasters, running and maintaing the day-to-day operations of a business is not an easy task, as well. Organizing the books and playing “accountant” as you pay bills and prepare budgets, scheduling and planning upcoming shoots, marketing and getting your name out there, establishing connections with wedding planners or publication editors.

Time management is all the rage as a restaurant manager and a business owner. Juggling all of these tasks simultaneously while running a successful operation is extremely difficult, but after enough practice and getting acclimated with the routine and how things run, you start to know your way around the business world and how things work. How to manage your books more efficiently so you’re not screwed come tax preparation time. How to properly plan for your upcoming shoot so you execute your vision better. How to network better so you’re able to make those connections and woo potential clients and publication editors. It’s all about managing your time and being the most efficient you can be.

Enhancing the experience, customer service skills, the ability to work as a team, and managing your time while wearing multiple hats are all things I was able to learn as a restaurant manager. Had it not been for my ten years in that business, I wouldn’t have been able to hone and master those abilities, which have been effective in achieving and maintaining my business today.

Now, granted, when I was explaining these things at the gathering, there was alcohol present, so I was probably not that fluent nor coherent... maybe that long-winded... but either way, I think they - and hopefully, you - get the point.

Until next time,

- Patrick