Analyzing "Back of the House"

Advantages and limits of a psychological lens.

November 21, 2013

Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant by Scott Haas 

Published in February 2013. 

The subculture of the restaurant industry is endlessly fascinating.  

Why would any sane person choose to work immensely long hours in high stress environments for comparatively little pay?

How does a restaurant as a unit of production, a microsystem of work, function as a team to deliver a consistent level of product and service?

Back of the House is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable addition to the restaurant as workplace drama and chef as superstar genre.  

The origin story of these books all trace back Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, the first behind the scenes restaurant/chef book to break through to a popular audience.

Back of the House is interesting because it is the first psychological study of what makes a chef, and the restaurant that he runs, tick.  

Scott Haas is that rare combination of a PhD level practicing clinical psychologist and food writer.   He is a real deal shrink.  Someone qualified to both interpret the behaviors and emotions of his subjects (chefs, cooks, bartenders, etc.) and to pass judgement about the quality of the food and drinks that they produce.

In Back of the House Haas profiles chef Tony Maws and his (apparently awesome) Boston restaurant Craigie on Main.

Haas’ technique is to basically treat the restaurant and its workers as his patients, embedding himself in restaurant life and culture (and helping out in the kitchen) while asking everyone how the they feel about their work.

This approach leads to some observations (restaurant’s are substitute families, chef’s substitute parents), but surprisingly little insight.  

My bias would be to understand the restaurant world through the lens of economics.  We never really learn how the business of a high-end restaurant works.  What are the big expenses?  Where does the money go?  How has the introduction of new technologies into the restaurant world changed the economics of the industry?

Pairing an economic lens with a a psychological lens would have helped explain how a place like Craigie on Main works, and what the workings of one successful restaurant says about the larger high-end restaurant industry.

Reading Back of the House made me not only want to go to a fancy restaurant, but to find a way to apply Dr. Haas’ psychological lens to the workplace dynamics of higher ed.  

This is a framework that I had not previously thought to apply to the people in higher ed who work in increasingly team based and collaborative units.

Have their been any studies on the psychology of the university workplace?

What are you reading?



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