The Side Dish: Why Taking A Drag Is Such A Drag

It became completely obvious to me when I was part of the catering business that I was, indeed, what I had long suspected…a perfectionist. At the beginning of every event, the chef and I would go back and forth on the minute details of everything from the tables to the dishes to the staff, the eternal battle between one woman’s client ideals versus one man’s culinary vision.

I’d return to the buffet table a dozen times before the guests arrived, adjusting each candle, reorganizing napkins, dishes, accompaniments. I’d rehearse the evening’s plan with our event captain, our bartenders, and of course, the chef himself. Most of the time, we found a common ground, agreeing to disagree, one of us bowing to the other’s event desires. But the one thing that always kept the evening’s harmony at bay – the plan for cigarette breaks.

As a restaurant diner, one of my biggest pet peeves is the moment when you realize your server has departed the dining room floor, mid-evening meal, to indulge in a brief break. A relief server inevitably steps in, perhaps missing your drink refill or bringing your next dish when it’s cooled off a bit too much. What’s worse for me, however, is when the originally designated server returns to the floor to complete the service surrounded by an invisible cloud of heavy, nostril-intruding cigarette smoke.

Because of my experiences as a diner, I was adamant – nay, downright obnoxious – about cigarette breaks. Only thirty minutes before an event, and only after the last guest had left the building would I allow any of our staff members, the chef included, to exit for a drag. Breaks were still allowed mid-event, but I tried to encourage an alternative to smoke sessions, offering snacks, drinks, or magazines to the staff members taking refuge in their fifteen minutes.

When I stumbled across this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discussing the high rate of smokers within the restaurant industry, it reminded me of my attempts to promote breathing breaks instead of opportunities to get in one more smoke. Much as the article notes, after years of work in busy restaurant kitchens during frantic meal services, the chef always argued that it was nearly engrained that breaks were for smoking. You don’t get fifteen minutes away from a busy line just for a breather, he’d say.

And what about the impact on tasting food before it leaves the kitchen? Surely singed tastebuds and a smoke-intoxicated sense of smell would make it difficult to judge the flavor of a plate accordingly. If I were the chef, I’d feel more confident in the dishes leaving my kitchen if I knew my cooks were on the line with a full sense of taste and smell.

With the food industry having a smoking rate nearly double the national average, I’d like to see more non-smoking initiative in both the dining room and the kitchen. Managers who encourage breathing and meditation breaks, chefs who offer healthy, smoke-free leadership to their kitchen assistants. Could it possible to promote a healthier break habit within such a high-stress industry?

~Jennifer Heigl

*Photo courtesy of joseph o. holmes/

4 replies on “The Side Dish: Why Taking A Drag Is Such A Drag”
  1. says: Erin

    Whoa. I waited tables for 8 years (in Pittsburgh, no less) and smoked the entire time. I only quit smoking after I quit waiting tables.

    I’d argue that there is another reason for the high rate of smoking — simple stress. I was completely overwhelmed because of the skeleton crews that most restaurants used to run the floor, and running into the break room and grabbing a puff or two was my only solace.

  2. says: jenniferhh

    I agree – it’s definitely a stress-related habit. It’s just such an interesting catch-22 given that the food biz is so customer-driven. At what point does a personal habit impede on your ability to offer good customer service? And is it something that managers and chefs need to address with their staff?

  3. Smoking was so much a part of the world pre-80’s that most people who did NOT smoke were looked at as being weird! I don’t smoke anymore, but I don’t shun those who do. It would be bad for my business – I’m in the wine industry and many European wine importers and producers still smoke – and seem to be able to taste wine pretty well. Seeing that old guy on the sidewalk in Georgetown taking huge puffs of a cigarette on a cold and rainy day..I felt sorry for him – little pleasures lost to the moral brain police..

  4. says: jenniferhh

    With it being so rampant within the industry, I’m wondering if managers/owners/chefs could provide a healthier leadership for the overall better good of the business.

    Thanks Erin and Charlie!

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