Setting the Table: The Role of Hospitality in the Two Best Performances of the Year

Abe Beame explores a key link between two exceptional film performances.
By    December 11, 2018

Abe Beame has logged a lot of hours in the kitchen.

I’ve worked in restaurants between New York City and San Francisco throughout my 12-year career, and the book that most shape my worldview and behavior, my life and philosophy, is called Setting the Table. It’s not my favorite or the best,  but it’s one that I would call my bible. A book about hospitality that transcends its context as it relates to the art of making guests (not customers, guests) feel welcome in a bar or restaurant. But it’s a way of treating people, a way of thinking about life, the interactions you have with your guests, co-workers and bosses and the effort you put into the work you do and why you do it.

My two favorite performances of the year focus on this art: Regina Hall in Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls and Yalitza Aparicio in Roma. They’re two women who we love for being great at their jobs — far beyond perfunctory competence. It permeates their every deed and thought. They’re artists embracing moment-to-moment challenges, and seem to find true love in the people they service, the people they work with, and the people they work for.  

The author of Setting the Table, Danny Meyer,is arguably the “Greatest” Restaurateur in the history of New York City. With his Shake Shack franchise he’s approaching the stratosphere of the most successful, but it’s Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, his sold off Eleven Madison Park and his closed Tabla that did more than succeed; it changed the way New York, and by extension the world, views hospitality and the dining experience. In his book, the central metaphor revolves around what running a hospitality business is like. Imagine a table perfectly set. The salt shaker is set dead center. Human nature, the dulling effects of day in and day out routine, circumstance, life is constantly pushing that salt shaker off center.

The job of the owner, or manager, or server, or cook, or dishwasher, or porter, is to come into work everyday and find that center — to find that center with everyone around them in service of the guest and the experience of that guest. To take true pride in the work you do and give your guests a respite from their busy lives. People who have made an absolutely miraculous decision to come into your establishment and spend hard earned money on the experience you’re providing. It’s why this year, I got a salt shaker tattooed on my arm. The two women who anchor Roma and Support the Girls exude this clarity of purpose, this purity of philosophy and intent.

Support the Girls has loftier goals than simply presenting a platonic ideal of hospitality. It’s about toxic masculinity, it’s about the precarious place our country finds itself in. Through it’s simple metaphor of a woman doing her best in a tits-and-beer fast casual restaurant in what we can assume was Texas, where it was shot, it’s quite effective in that endeavor. But the film is more Mike Leigh than Mumblecore. We also see a woman in her element performing apex hospitality in the most unlikely of spaces. Double Whammies is a kind of crucible for Regina Hall’s Lisa Conroy. Regina Hall, in our lives forever, has achieved peak gravitas and is irresistable here. As a Hooters-ish manager she has an owner who is racist, volatile, and wildly inappropriate.

She manages a staff of women who can be difficult to motivate and discipline, given the unstable nature of their lives and their temperaments along with the ownership-instituted restrictions on conduct and scheduling;  she has her own life which is often given short shrift. What we love about Lisa Conroy is her humanity, the obvious care and concern she shows for her staff, the intensely comfortable bonds she forms with her regulars, the family atmosphere she has miraculously instilled in a God forsaken hellhole. It’s a place I want to go eat at. It’s incredible.

Conroy is not some subservient try-hard pleaser. When a guest gets out of line with a server, she is a fierce den mother. When the server she runs a fundraiser for (that violates all sorts of restaurant policies) to help deal with difficulty in her personal life reveals she’s going to get back with her asshole boyfriend who caused the difficulties, but tries the keep the money anyways, Conroy is downright terrifying in reprimanding her former employee and the dickhead she’s staying with.

Then she takes the squandered raised funds and puts the money in the restaurant safe. She has an absolute ethical code that goes beyond personal need or subjective morality. Towards the end of the film, she decides to quit because the indignities of her position at Double Whammies are too great, but she is far from soured on the industry. She is a prodigy who lives for the work, for the bond between co-workers and the guests she serves and there’s nothing else she, or we as an audience could imagine her doing with her incredible talent.

In culinary school, for several months, I worked as a cook and caretaker for a small family on the Upper West Side. They were a fabulously wealthy couple, stereotypically neurotic West End Jews. A mother driven insane by the distant and often off-on-business father, an only son bearing the weight of the mother’s unhappiness, real cliche shit you’ve seen in paperback pop culture dozens of times. In many ways the work is more difficult than the quick hits and brief interactions you face in a volume bar or restaurant, which constitutes several hours a week with a majority of your guests (if that).

Being a personal Chef/caretaker is a different kind of intimacy. You are at the whims of a single fickle master. Drawing the lines of professional distance become difficult, the balance of needs you have to weigh between the child you’re ostensibly responsible for, the parents you’re working for, the food you want to cook both for yourself creatively and them as nourishment that has to fit certain preferences and restrictions, are impossible values to balance simultaneously.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma lays its title sequence over tiles. As the credits appear, soapy water begins to wash over the tiles, mirroring the froth of waves rolling over a beach (A visual allusion that will end up central to the story). We later will realize the tile is a driveway attached to the home where the stunning Yalitza Aparicio’s Cleo works for the wealthy family she lives with. A driveway that is often strewn with the family dog’s shit she is constantly being chastised for not picking up and keeping clean. It’s a powerful metaphor for the work of this woman, in her profession and her life.

The film is concerned with far more than Cleo’s work. Specifically, the pregnancy she discovers early in the film and her struggle and disappointments as a burgeoning mother trying to find her footing in life. But what first endears us to Cleo is the attention to detail, the concern and the emotional intelligence with which she approaches the job she is very good at. Whether tidying up the home, preparing food for her family, being a shoulder to cry on for the family’s matriarch or caring for the children she clearly loves and at one point risks her own life to save, Cleo performs her thankless tasks with uncommon and irresistable dignity and grace.

We’re addicted to process in our art. The police procedural, the meticulously orchestrated heist film, clever protagonists on shows like Better Call Saul flexing intellect and getting ahead with an immaculate scheme. Roma is a different kind of procedural. The laundry, the meals, picking up the dog shit, it’s a labor of almost Buddhist routine and dedication. We can’t help but be awed by her.

The two women central to these movies are well loved by their writer/directors. They combat societies that are ignorant or ambivalent to the work they do, the struggles of their lives. We see them constantly let down, betrayed and violated by the men around them. I was reminded of Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, a kind of Job parable about a woman and the unlikely sacrifices she has to make to attain an unconventional sainthood. Both of these films are portraits of types of saints, women who are put upon in their work and their life, but continue to dedicate themselves selflessly to the human beings they work with, the human beings they work to serve.

I happen to work in hospitality but I imagine even if you don’t, the movies are the equivalent of a tough but uplifting performance review. You walk out of the theater refreshed, motivated and renewed in your dedication to being great at whatever it is you have to do everyday.

Every year, during the holiday season here in New York my wife ritually takes a weekday off from work. At least a half day for her anyways, and like most people who work in hospitality for a living, my days off fall during the common work week. But we’ll choose a place in Manhattan, somewhere with windows facing out on the street, places with a little history or at least have the gravity of history, classics in the making. Places that have this ineffable quality. They’re soul warming places, run by competent and professional restaurateurs, places with a jacket, vetted with experience, places that have made quality in service and execution their reason to exist.

This year we picked perfectly. The space was perfect, light and bright, all polished wood, leather banquettes and clean tile. The room hummed with the energy of happy people enjoying a holiday lunch, scored to the music of the restaurant: the pleasant chatter of guests in the dining room, the percussion of stainless steel pans moving on and off the kitchen range. The food was of course great, the drinks were well made, all the tangible things you could evaluate an experience on were beyond reproach.

But what elevated the experience to transcendent was our server. He was an average-looking young white dude, unusually kind and patient eyes, perhaps he was a grad student or aspiring actor. With servers in Manhattan there’s always something else. But for a few hours he was here, working a Friday lunch shift at the place he goes to work and pay bills. He was well acquainted with the particulars of the menu, the service and preparation of each dish, understood what would make logical sense in the progression of the meal (A sign that the chef/owners had taken the time and care to properly educate the staff and hold them accountable to these details), what apps made sense together with the mains flowing from them and what drinks to pair with the food.

Our waters were refreshed, plates eaten clean were pulled immediately, silverware was swapped out when necessary, when a beer he suggested had just 86’d, the waiter poured me something else and comped it. But beyond the physical work that makes up the progression of a lunch, in the moments we had alone with him he forgot about whatever trouble he’s contending with in his life (or at least didn’t let us see that he couldn’t), he put aside the timer in his head constantly running, telling him the apps were dragging on table X, that he needs to check in with table Y, that a young woman at table Z is trying to make eye contact, and he was present in his interactions with us.

He made us feel like our brief time in this warm and beautiful space mattered, and for 90 minutes my wife and I forgot our toy-strewn apartment, our temporal fears and frustrations that exist outside the cozy confines of this restaurant, and we felt appreciated and cared for. We remembered why we do this every year.

Something I’ve developed over the years, cribbing off Danny Meyer, is that at the heart of any great restaurant is a group of people who love each other. You can feel it in the air when you walk into the space, you can taste it in the food, its present in every interaction. People who love each other simply do better work, they put more care into the food they cook, they put more care into the drinks they make, they put more care into the tables they serve. Everyone is working to make their co-workers lives easier because they care about the people they work with. It’s a harmonious and symbiotic ecosystem in its best, utopian form.

They’re a staff that probably goes out for drinks after work, that texts on days off, that are in each other’s lives beyond this job, probably eventually for much longer than their tenure at the restaurant or bar will last.

Like this place, the women of Roma and Support the Girls have created familial units, oxygen rich environments that are beneficial and nurturing top down or bottom up. It isn’t a science, but an art born through maximum exerted effort and big hearted attention to the small things. I was lucky enough to experience such an atmosphere just yesterday afternoon having a casual lunch with my wife — then we went to see Roma.

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