Video by Mariya Pylayev
One of every twelve American workers makes a living in the restaurant industry, as AOL Jobs has reported. As a result the sector encompasses a broad swath of workers, from the fast food crew members protesting for higher wages to the managers of America's trendiest eating establishments. Jordan Salcito, the 33-year-old beverage director for the New York-based Momofuku restaurant group owned by David Chang, is a member of the latter category.
Salcito recently spoke to AOL Jobs about her life as a beverage director from the floor of Momofuku Ko, a counter-style restaurant located in Manhattan's East Village. And while countless aspiring foodies would be willing to swear off pork buns for a whole year to be able to stand in Salcito's shoes, her life is hardly an unending leisurely lunch.
"You have to always be on," she said about the experience of occupying a management position with Momofuku. "A restaurant is a live being that doesn't sleep a lot," she explained. And so she's constantly e-mailing to make sure dishes have been properly tested at the four main Momofuku restaurants in New York City, for instance. Or she's running between the restaurants to make sure cooking "tools" are in place. Recently had to run out of a fitness class to rush delivery of a wine selection to a customer at another restaurant who had sent in a request by e-mail.
Salcito's flair for hospitality is plainly obvious -- she made sure to step out and pick up coffees for everyone taking part in this interview. And she said she spends about 20 percent of her time on the floor of the restaurants, where customers exhibit a consistent trust in the staff. She recalled one incident when "a couple came in and said they worked in the industry," she recounted. "They asked us to come up with a tasting menu of our choosing. That was really enjoyable."
Salcito is also no stranger to enforcing discipline from the top. Just recently, she noticed the frequency with which the specialty zalto wine glasses were cracking from wear and tear at Momofuku. So she decided to implement a system of checks and balances through a spreadsheet on which each staffer's cracks were tallied each month. "It solved the problem," she said, before adding that the results weren't used to punish workers.
Working in the restaurant industry can of course often mean long hours of mind-numbing work. But Salcito said one of the best things about working in a cutting-edge restaurant is the creative freedom the workers enjoy. For instance, Ko just came up with a wine list composed only of sparkling wines. And an entrepreneurial instinct is also often helpful; Salcito herself has launched her own wine business, Bellus Wines, which gives part of its proceeds to the Tory Burch Foundation, which helps empower women entrepreneurs.
"We were all very nervous and didn't know how people would react," Salcito said. For example, the task of pairing the right wine with a red-pepper soup proved particularly vexing, she said. All the wines they tried didn't work out until the staff experimented with using one wine to coat the glass before rinsing it out and pouring in a second. "Watching people's faces when you get it right is really fun."
How does she explain the process of selecting the correct wine for each dish?
"It's like kissing all the frogs until you find the right one."
How do you break into such a restaurant?
From her experience "it's completely integral" to have proper culinary training. The main exception, she noted, is workers who come in from foreign kitchens. In her case, she completed the "garnish-your-degree" program at the Denver campus of Johnson & Wales University, a one-year program intended for graduates of non-culinary programs. (Salcito received a bachelor's degree in English and philosophy from Haverford College.)
How did she get this job?
Salcito's rise to her current position is due as much to grit as to a "willingness to work long hours during evenings, weekends and holidays," she said. As a new college graduate living in New York City without any professional dining experience in the city, Salcito dropped off ten resumes at ten restaurants she wanted to work at as a hostess. Two called back, including the now shuttered Tapo. From there, she was able to make vital contacts. "This is an industry, like many, in which strong networks are crucial," she said.
In particular, she credited onetime Tapo chef Fran Derby for inviting her to join her to work at wd-50, one of the many restaurants Salcito is able to include on her resume. She's also completed an an externship in the kitchen of Daniel, a New York mecca of haute cuisine. "Someone has to be in the basement peeling tomatoes for the confit."
While she felt it was important to have a "grasp of what it meant to work somewhere classic," she's ended up at a restaurant group that's at the cutting edge of a new movement in dining, which she describes as "amazing food in a casual environment."
Chang's restaurants are located in bohemian areas in Manhattan and display books like, "Cooking with Coolio," on the bookshelves. "You can have the same quality of food without linens on the table," she said. It also champions accessibility-- everyone, including David Chang's mother, has to call in to make a reservation. But it still could never be considered cheap dining; a dinner at Ko is priced at $125 for the tasting menu.
"Hospitality is the single-most part of the industry," Salcito said, recommending Danny Meyer's "Setting The Table" to anyone hoping to enter the field. "The book is about how we're here to make people happy. People have so many options. In New York, for instance, there are 6,000 options. Why do we like the places we go to? Because they make us happy."
What's the best part of your job?
"When you work with wines, every day is different."
"Not being able to be everywhere at once and accepting you can't please everyone."
Momofuku Ko is located at 163 1st Ave. in Manhattan, New York.
For more about how millennials are changing the wine industry, go here.