Throughout my years in the hospitality industry, I've navigated a rich tapestry of culinary environments, from the whirlwind of smorgasbord buffets where we served thousands of daily meals to the refined air of fine dining establishments, the meticulous grace of Swiss hotel dining rooms, to the vibrant buzz of Chart House restaurants. Each setting offered its unique lessons and memories, yet all echoed the same themes: the intricacies of human nature, the resilience of the human spirit, and the invaluable essence and camaraderie of teamwork.
My journey began in the bustling world of smorgasbord buffets. Here, starting from humble beginnings, washing dishes and bussing tables, to ultimately becoming a waiter. It was a realm where efficiency reigned supreme. The mass of clientele, each with their unique preferences and expectations, taught me early lessons in patience, adaptability, and the art of being attentively responsive.
Working in fine dining during my college years marked a transition to a world where service transcended mere functionality. It was about crafting an experience. With an emphasis on precision, etiquette, and a keen eye for detail.
Post-Vietnam and after my stint in the Marines, an adventure beckoned. My friend John Anderson, a veteran of Chart House restaurants in San Diego, and I embarked on a journey that took us hitchhiking from California to New York, and then flying on Icelandic Airlines – the most economical option – to Europe. In Amsterdam, we acquired an old VW van, which became our chariot to Switzerland, revisiting Grindlewald, a village I had cycled to almost a decade earlier when I was just 16. We found ourselves jobs at the Bellevue hotel in Kleine Scheidegg, a remote establishment reminiscent of 'The Shining,' nestled at 7,000 feet altitude, cradled by the imposing Eiger mountain. Our compensation for six days of work per week – punctuated by ski breaks each afternoon – was modest yet rich in experiences: SF500 ($125) per month, room and board, and a ski pass. John delved into the wine cellar, while I navigated the dining room and ran up and down six flights of stairs for breakfast room service.
The Swiss hotel system and experience, shared with an eclectic international crew from as far away as New Zealand, was as enriching as it was challenging. Our collective days were marked by shared meals and stories, a fusion of past and present from corners of the globe, and late night skiing by moonlight to Grindlewald for dancing in our ski boots. The elegance and precision demanded in the dining room were unparalleled, and the exposure to guests from various cultures enhanced my understanding of global diversity and the nuances of international hospitality.
Upon returning, John resumed his role at the Chart House in Aspen, later promoted to opening a new location in New Orleans. He gave me the opportunity to help renovate the French Quarter restaurant (in New Orleans, in the summer, without air conditioning). It was there I was recruited to their management training program, eventually working in restaurants in Connecticut and Boston and back again in New Orleans.
At Chart House, I learned the importance of systems and checklists to ensure consistency. The Chart House's ethos, shaped by its senior management – predominantly ex-SEAL team members – emphasized meticulous organization and redundancy, and team camaraderie that extended beyond the staff to include our guests.
Throughout these diverse experiences, the system of receiving tips stood as a constant, candid barometer of performance. It underscored the direct link between diligent service, customer satisfaction, and personal reward. This meritocratic system was not just about earnings; it echoed the Rotary motto of 'Service Above Self,' reminding me that exceptional service and genuine care for customers always came first. If you didn't perform, you didn't receive tips.
From the vibrant chaos of smorgasbord buffets to the meticulous charm of Swiss hotels, and the dynamic ambiance of Chart House restaurants, my path through the hospitality sector has been a profound learning journey. It shaped my hospitality career and life philosophy, teaching me the value of teamwork, the art of service, and the joy of meeting life's varied challenges and opportunities head-on.