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For anyone who has ever worked the Christmas season in a restaurant, you can fully understand the chaotic hustle that happens at this time of year. Furniture is continuously rearranged, parties expand and your dreams are filled with ringing phones and popping corks. (The proper term for this is “server nightmares”). Guests are in celebration mode, and by the end of the season it is an exhaustive effort to keep up. That being said, it is also a lucrative time of the year, which always makes for a more positive and energetic staff. All in all, it is one of my favourite times of the year because generosity is overflowing in the restaurant. Everyone is sharing wine, snacking on treats, and helping each other out. For the month of December, I fully commit myself to The Restaurant. After a hectic month of clearing tables, pouring wine, hosting events, and the occasional shift in the dish pit, it is easy to go on autopilot. As a side note: if you have read Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” you will know that managers’ find great solitude in the dish pit, so don’t feel sorry for them when they are getting their hands dirty.
In the blink of an eye, the manic month of December is over. For some, the exhaustion sets in. For others, it is a fresh start with resolutions for better health and happiness in the upcoming year. For me, it is always a time of reflection. I look back on another year spent in The Restaurant, ruminating on what I have learned, who I have met, and who I have lost touch with. I turn off the ‘Sommelier Robot’ that worked in December and return to being Karen Kho. Human.Being? To be honest, as I get older, I think long and hard about what I do for a living and ask a very simple question. To quote Danny Glover in Lethal Weapons 1-3, “Am I getting too old for this s@#% Riggs”? For years, I measured the answer to this by whether my job was still challenging, by my physical health and by my mental state (ratio of server nightmares to a good night’s sleep). But this year was different. This year, I asked myself the very simple question of WHY? Why do I continue to work late nights and long hours? Why do I enjoy running up and down stairs all night? Why do I relinquish my weekends to make others’ special?
After much thought, the answer came to me after yet another evening of entertaining at home over my short holiday break from the restaurant. Hospitality is in my blood. For this, I should clarify: I am not claiming to be a good host, rather, I am incredibly hospitable. I am likely to forget to stock the bathroom with toilet paper, and more often than not, I will play rap music for the dessert course. Not Martha Stewart material to say the least. That being said, I will always remember if you don’t like pork or have an allergy to garlic. Whether you are in The Restaurant, or in my home, you will always be treated as my guest. The idea of hospitality for me extends past serving food and wine. It is the art of treating others how you wish to be treated. I am far from perfect at this craft, which is why I have always found my job challenging; there is always a lesson to be learned. Working in a luxury market can often cloud your judgement. Being inundated with fine wine and food, it is easy to think that everyone has the same dining expectations. The reality is that dining out is a luxury, something which many cannot afford.
Yesterday, I ventured out of my home in search of shiitake mushrooms and tamari. As I walked to the specialty market around the corner from my house I stumbled upon $200 lying on the sidewalk. I looked around, but there was no one to be found that could have possibly been the owner. I stared at the money, thought about how hard I had worked for the last month, my mounting bills, and my sheer luck at finding this money. Then I picked up the cash, turned around and placed it beside a homeless gentleman I noticed sitting on a bench shivering in the cold. I spun around without saying a word and kept walking. I looked back only once to see him grasp the money tightly in his hands and continue to shiver.
For all of my education, the best lessons I have ever learned are that everyone deserves a good meal and that I don’t have to be on the clock to be hospitable. I am not a sommelier robot. I.Am.Karen.
Happy 2011.

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