The most powerful illustration of the innate absurdity of the tipping system I ever heard was from the influential American chef and restaurateur Barry Wine. At his fabled restaurant The Quilted Giraffe, a luxurious New York City dining temple, beggar’s purses were sold in clusters of five for $50. To make them, a cook griddled five crepes, arranged them on a prep counter, spooned caviar and crème fraîche into their centres, gathered up the sides, and tied each of them closed with a chive. For walking a plate of these sinful bindles to the dining room, the server received an extra $7.50US in the standard fifteen-percent gratuity formulation. Meanwhile, the cook who prepared it didn’t earn so much as a supplemental penny for their painstaking labour. By the same token, the tipped employee, who earned a paltry hourly wage, depended on supplements like that to pad their income, although at an upscale restaurant like The Quilted Giraffe, waiters rarely felt that sting.
That was in the early 1980s, about four decades ago, a time when Wine and other groundbreaking colleagues like Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters in Berkeley, California, and Michael McCarty of the eponymous hotspot in Santa Monica, individually embarked upon what has often seemed a quixotic pursuit: to abolish tipping in favour of menu pricing that allows for a decent wage for all restaurant employees, whether they work in the dining room or the kitchen, while simultaneously ending a dehumanising practice.
All these years later, the system is still in place, although widespread calls for an industry reset have included renewed support for its abolition. A Venn diagram of industry dysfunctions could easily have tipping at its centre, touching as it does on pay inequities and wage insecurity, discrimination, workers’ rights, and dignity. Female servers routinely endure indignities—implied and overt, verbal and physical—to appease male diners in hopes of ensuring a decent tip; every server lives with the stress of their income being diminished one customer at a time; and these and other issues disproportionately impact women and people of colour, who make up a sizeable percentage of the restaurant workforce.
Hospitality carries different connotations in the United States than it does in much of the world. In a story in the anthology Don’t Try This at Home (full disclosure—I ghosted it), Eric Ripert recounts his days in a restaurant school in Perpignan, France. Originally training to become a waiter, it was only as a result of his ineptitude in the dining room that he redirected to the kitchen. But he didn’t view one pursuit as inherently better than the other.