For the past fifteen years, Christopher Gerber has been knocking around the Chicago hospitality scene, in roles ranging from food runner, server, maitre’ d, to restaurant consultant. He’s diplomatically walked the line between the front and back of house in such esteemed venues as Trio, Tru, Nomi, Alinea, the Publican, and many others.
WSE: So, you’ve been doing this for….
Gerber: Fifteen years. My first job in restaurants was as a runner and sometimes dishwasher at a place called Rigoletto.
WSE: What led you to a career in hospitality?
Gerber: Acting, naturally. No, actually, it was meeting a chef at my place of work that was not a restaurant and him basically telling me to come work for him.
WSE: Do you think Service is Dead, as the Zagat’s and some others have recently claimed?
Gerber: I feel like that is an impossible statement to make…. when you look at it, service has just changed, some places have brought it down to compliment the nose-to-tail, farm-to-table experience. That style has never been about a sort of ‘elitist’ experience. I understand what they’re saying, but I think the service is there, it’s just more laid-back. You can get a hippie vibe.
WSE: Do you think servers have changed?
Gerber: There’s a big gap in finding people who want to serve. There is a lot more to service than just the nuts and bolts of take the order, bring the drinks, drop the check. It’s a relationship. It really is like someone coming to your home. You offer them something to drink, you take their coat, make sure they are warm enough, or cool enough. It’s just like having a houseguest, and if you approach it with the same heartfelt energy… you have to bring that to the table. All I want is for the my guests to be happy, that’s it.
Be welcoming. Be genuine.
WSE: You know, ‘Be welcoming, be genuine’ are two of the four commandments in Starbucks’ training.
Gerber: Really? that’s funny…. I’ve never worked at Starbucks, I swear.
WSE: Suuure….How do you feel about another tenet that the Bux made famous, ‘always say yes?’
Gerber: The answer for the most part, is always yes. But if a person is being belligerent and wrong… then no. Break up with them and move on. It’s that relationship thing again. We all have people we dated once and don’t date anymore… and there’s a reason why.
WSE: Do you think there is a difference in service in Chicago?
Gerber: Chicago as opposed to New York and LA? Well, you have a glut of actors in New York and LA that you don’t have in Chicago. The times I’ve dined in LA, too, I sometimes got this feeling that staff was looking over their shoulders to see who was more important in the room. Chicago has a good mix, there’s an openness in Chicago that lends itself to service, I think.
WSE: What are your go-to restaurants?
Gerber: Strictly speaking about Chicago, I’d have to say avec is still tops for me. Consistent items, seasonal. Always amazing food. Arami is creating some visually stunning and amazing sushi, I’m a little tired of the “farm-to-table, organic, sustainable, nose-to-tail, shared-plates” thing. So, I’m ignoring those. I think Schwa is still very viable. Alinea, of course. Sepia is very much at the forefront of Chicago dining.
WSE: So you don’t like to share, huh?
Gerber: I’m consulting for a restaurant right now where the whole menu is intended to be enjoyed individually. You get your own appetizer and your own entree… it’s liberating.
WSE: You’ve worked in some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country—what do you think is the biggest misconception about fine dining?
Gerber: That it has to be stuffy. I truly believe that so long as the servers handle their guests with grace and dignity and are knowledgeable about the food & beverage side of their job there’s no need to disallow them your gregarious and humorous side of yourself.
WSE: What 5 tips would you give diners who want to make the most out of their night out in a restaurant?
Gerber: Such an awesome question!
1.) What I would say first is an old Second City phrase which is “say ‘yes’ to the improv”. Too often guests dine and try to fashion the experience to their specifications. Oftentimes, as in any profession, the professional knows their area of expertise better than you do. So, allow us to do what we do. Obviously, this is disregarding serious allergies and other dietary needs but that’s a whole other tangent.
2.) Don’t ask “what is your favorite dish?”. Worst question ever. I love the Lobster roll. But you’re allergic to shellfish. So we’re back to square one. Ask specific questions about a certain esoteric ingredient. Or “what’s new and exciting?”, or “what is the chef excited about right now?” are also good ones.
3.) Try to show up for your reservation early.
4.) When you’re asked if you’re enjoying the dish you’re eating, be honest if you are not. A restaurant worth its salt will respond accordingly if you dislike it by offering something else in its place. We can fix the problem if you tell us then. There’s not much we can do after the Yelp! review.
5.) Be specific with price range with wine. It helps the server find a range and sets up the parameters rather quickly.
WSE: What is the strangest thing you have seen happen in a dining room?
Gerber: A lady finding an aphid in her morel. Someone cutting their tongue on the food. People stealing anything and everything that’s not nailed down. But what takes the cake is having your dining room flood from the floor above. On Valentine’s Day.
WSE: What is your favorite restaurant right now?
WSE: Your favorite wine or cocktail?
WSE: Do you cook for yourself at home?
Gerber: I do. No “go-to” dish. I basically choose a protein that looks good at the market and build my dish around that. Sort of like Top Chef albeit at a much slower pace… And I’m the only contestant.
WSE: who has been your greatest mentor in the hospitality industry?
Gerber: Henry Adaniya
WSE: What makes Henry so great?
Gerber: The best thing about Henry is that he’s not afraid of taking an idea and throwing it in a pan, or throwing it off the table entirely. He doesn’t have a static idea of what works. What works for one restaurant doesn’t work for another one, and he taught me not to be afraid to be wrong. He said “you’re gonna fuck up. I’ll be here to tell you that you fucked up, and then we’ll get over it.” And that was a watershed moment; it empowered me to take ownership.
WSE: Do you think mentorship still exists in hospitality?
Gerber:I didn’t see it as much ten, fifteen years ago, actually. Back then, it felt much more like there were chefs, and there were
owners. The restaurant culture now is much more chef driven, but when I started out it was much more about the owner. He was the guy that welcomed you in and took great care of you. The chef was a guy in a white coat that most people never saw. But there’s an idea now about building a team, growing talent, and knowing you can’t do it on your own. As restaurant groups grow, things can get compartmentalized… to have a good brand you have to have good mentoring. Here in Chicago, I see it with the guys at the Boka Group, One Off Hospitality, and Grant [Achatz]’s restaurants.
WSE: Is there a food or cuisine that you are excited to explore right now?
WSE: What is the most memorable meal you have ever had?
Gerber: Trio in 2002
WSE: What are you looking forward to next?