Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures on the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In "Heart of the House," Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
Whether it's good or bad thing, the restaurant industry is notorious for providing temporary jobs to students, postgrads, actors, and just about anyone who needs to pay their rent in New York and isn't in possession of a full-time job. In fact, many industry veterans start out this way, picking up a restaurant job and passing time until they find a "career"; that is, until they realize they're exactly where they belong.
This week we sit down with Soy Chiever, who moved to the city from Austin in pursuit of a job in the natural science field. Quickly realizing how little interest she had in working in a lab, she began climbing the ranks in New York's bartending scene—serving up cocktails at 230 Fifth and Soho House along the way. Now a floor manager at STK Downtown in the buzzing Meatpacking District, Soy reminisced about the only bar that would hire her when she started out, making the transition from bartending to managing, and regularly hosting high-profile clientele.
Take me through your experience in the restaurant industry. I've been in the industry since I was 15. I've done everything from wash dishes to being a hostess and a bartender. It's such an addictive industry. I had no intention of going into the service industry as a career. It was kind of a supplement. I was a bartender in college and that was my way of getting through school because I could work odd hours. And I came to New York to pursue a "real job" in natural sciences, which is what I studied, and hated it, because what do you really do with natural sciences? I dabbled in it, did a few interviews for anything from lab work to research, and realized this is not what I want to do.
So then what? Everyone wants New York experience. I'm sure you've heard this before. And being from Austin is like being from another country. Everyone told me just to lie, and I was like, I can't lie, so, the very first place I actually got hired was called Crime Scene. It was right on Bowery, diagonal to where CBGB's used to be. It was horrible. It was actually scary. It was owned by some retired New York cops and they were trying to make it cool. The most I would make was $40 for an 8-hour shift. Eventually I got an interview for 230 Fifth. I met the GM who asked me questions like "What's in a rusty nail?" or "What's in a negroni?", and I told him, "I don't know. Let me come train tomorrow and I will spend from the minute I walk out of this door until tomorrow when I come in researching classic cocktails. You can ask me anything and I'll make it perfectly." And he was like, fair enough. So once I had that on my resume it was a little easier to get work at places that weren't like Crime Scene.
What do you love the most about working in the restaurant biz? Do you see yourself as a lifer? You have to constantly roll with the punches. You can have the same issue with two different people and the solutions may have to be two totally different things. It's kind of like persuasive writing at its best, except on your feet in five-inch heels 12 hours a day. But I'm absolutely a lifer. If I wasn't a lifer I would've just stayed bartending, where I was working 3 days a week making $95,000-$100,000 a year. That's like a dream job. But I'm realistic. You have an expiration date as a bartender in New York City, especially if you're a female, and I wanted to make a career out of this.
What are some of the differences you've noticed between those two experiences? When you're a bartender your dynamic with the customers can be very dominating. You can joke with them, you can kind of tell them you're the boss. And you would think that when you're the manager or the GM you're even more of the boss, but the rapport you have to develop with customers is totally different.
Being a female in the industry, do you ever experience discrimination? All the time. On a daily basis, I'll be walking through the floor, all geared up with a huge set of keys and an earpiece, and people will think I'm the hostess, asking if their table is ready yet. We have an Asian bartender and I have people running after me asking where their tab is. If I have an issue with a table and they don't like the answer I've given them, especially if the issue is with IDs because we're very strict on that, they'll say, "Well can I talk to a manager?" and I have to tell them "Absolutely, I am a manager, my name is Soy, here's my card," to which they'll say "Can I talk to a real manager?" or "Can I talk to a male manager?" This happens at least twice a night. So you just have to be very patient, you kind of just laugh it off and say yes, I'm happy to get the GM for you but you'll get the same answer from him.
Restaurant managing is notorious for its insane hours. What do you do to decompress? There's a local watering hole, called Ara, which is a place where really no one except people who work in the Meatpacking go to. It's out of place for the neighborhood because it's all clubs down here and Ara is this really quaint wine bar. And we know all the bartenders there so we'll go see them and they'll come see us. There's another place we all go to which is so lame but it's called Istanbul Grill on 14th Street. Sometimes we don't get out until 5 in the morning, so we'll go to Istanbul Grill because they're open and no one else goes there. It's quiet and it's just us, and we eat and we vent about things. And if we can get out in a decent amount of time and we have something to celebrate, we'll go to the Tippler, where they have really good cocktails, not just vodka Red Bulls.
How do you guide your waitstaff to approach steak newbies, people like myself who don't know the first thing about cut and temperature of meat? The way we categorize our steaks even on our menu is by small portions, medium portions and larger format steaks. Everyone knows how much they're going to eat. So then you'll have three to five steaks in each format. The servers will ask things like if they want more marbling, explaining that it's fat content but it adds flavor. When someone says, well I don't want a lot of fat content but I want the flavor, we'll recommend a bone in filet.
We have a lot of girls that come in who don't want to go for the rib-eyes, which the guys always go for, as well as the sirloins and porterhouses. The women usually go for the bone-in filets, the small filets, skirt steak is really popular with both females and males.
I'm going to be honest. When I went to STK for the first time in Las Vegas, I was most impressed by this mysteriously delicious bread. Can we find that in New York also? Yes! Every steakhouse has to have our signature bread. It is so addictive: it's sourdough bread, and it has a bleu cheese butter on top of it, and it's served with a chive oil.
here does the nightclub aspect come into play and how has that affected your demographic? There's nowhere else like the Meatpacking District. It's just this watering hole for anyone from the bridge-and-tunnel crowd to the Financial District and Midtown professionals. The demographic is alcoholics [laughs]. And it keeps you on your toes, especially at night, because we are this weird hybrid of half restaurant, half club. We have people enjoying a really nice dinner and then people dancing on top of the booth behind them.
Monday through Wednesday, we have a lot of corporate guys that come in and buy the big Magnums, the really great wine and champagne, live it up, throw down their black cards left and right. On Thursday you have them plus all the ladies that know the men with the black cards are here. And then Friday and Saturday are self-explanatory. Saturday we call "shitshow Saturday"--it'll be a normal restaurant until about 8 pm, and then it turns into a jungle. And as the night progresses, there's no room to walk, there are people dancing on things and we're trying to make sure they don't fall.
STK has become somewhat of a celebrity hotspot, and because of my tabloid addiction I know the Kardashians frequent often. What has that been like? High profile clients come in all the time. I don't have time to watch reality TV but yes, they've been here, they've also been to Asellina, our property in the Gansevoort Park. It's crazy how effective that is. I have droves of women in here all the time saying "I'm going to order exactly what she had, and ask what table she sat at." It is a phenomenon for the restaurant industry to have that kind of association with a celebrity. But we try to give everyone that comes in here a lot of respect because they're trying to decompress too, so they don't want light bulbs going off in their face. Some of them love it though, the Knicks come in here all the time, the Giants came in the day after they won the Superbowl, the Rangers were in last night. The Mob Wives have been here, the Housewives from Bravo, the Basketball Wives, I don't even know all the shows. But the guests absolutely love it. They're all craning their necks, trying to get a good look.
Last question--what do you look for when hiring front of house staff? No matter what job they're applying for, it's important that they're charismatic and they have a good work ethic. And that comes through. I also look at how long they've stayed at their other jobs--sometimes that matters and sometimes it doesn't. I have a soft place in my heart for people who don't have New York experience because I know how hard they're willing to work to make it.
With bartenders and servers I'll ask them the basics like describe your favorite dish at your current job, or how many covers do you usually take care of in your section. But I'll also ask weird questions like "What would you do if you caught a co-worker stealing?" And it's always interesting to see how they answer that because you can tell how honest they are, how long they've been in the industry, and what they really know.