Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Online Ingredients for Success

Waiter Develops Restaurant Reason to Help Others Who Are Sometimes Forgetful

Last summer, a diner at Eatery asked a waiter what is used to make the mascarpone dumpling filling.
The waiter at the Hell's Kitchen restaurant stared blankly before offering this insight: "Mascarpone." Then he made up nine other imaginary ingredients—right as the restaurant's owner walked by.

"He heard me totally lying to these people," the waiter, Michael Mignogna, said recently. "I totally botched it."
The aspiring stand-up comedian-turned-waiter was given an ultimatum: Learn the intricate menu—or lose his job.

He decided to stay. Over the course of two weeks, Mr. Mignogna snapped pictures of every dish, developed a system to categorize information, designed a set of icons to specify everything from potential allergens to temperature choices and cobbled together a rough website that was made available to other waiters at the restaurant.

Then, six weeks ago, the 28-year-old Mr. Mignogna launched Restaurant Reason, a social-networking site that enables restaurants to train staff, do on-line scheduling and provide an internal discussion forum.
Instead of firing him, Eatery became his first customer.

"A light bulb went off in his head," said owner Sean Connolly, who has since purchased a subscription for his second restaurant, Whym. "Michael's really surprised us."

 Gone are the days when a waiter could simply say he recommends the catch of the day with the chef's special sauce. An increasing level of sophistication among chefs is matched, if not surpassed, by demands from diners, who expect detailed descriptions of where the fish was caught, how it was prepared and even its transportation mode to the plate. An array of dietary restrictions and food allergies have complicated menus further, restaurant owners and managers said.

Waiters are drilled in which salads contain gluten, and which sauces harbor sugar; they are trained to decode mysterious descriptions such as "pastrami-style salmon" (it has to do with the spices) and tested on which dishes contain nuts.

"Some of the cooks don't know all the ingredients [if it's not their station]," said Eatery chef James Henderson. Waiters these days, he said, "have to know a lot."

Most restaurants rely on tastings and printed packets that can run into dozens of pages and need to be reprinted as menu items change.

"They're printing up all this paper," said Eatery waiter Jeff Davies, "and there's always something wrong with every one."

The most high-end establishments still tack up schedules on the walls, requiring staff to come to the restaurant to view their shifts and stations.

"We're still there—low-tech," said Kevin Mahan, the managing partner at Gramercy Tavern, who estimated that each employee packet can run to 50 pages. "There just hasn't been anything presented that would make some of this easier or less paper, which would be nice."

Read the rest of the story here.

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