On Liberal Oases and Serving Foodies

For a bit longer than a month now, I've been living and working in the vibrant liberal oasis of Ann Arbor, Michigan. When deciding where to "winter," Michigan is not a state that springs to mind. In fact, if the CNN report that I saw out of the corner of my eye at the gym is to be believed, this winter has been the "most miserable" winter on record in Detroit. So why in the world have I found myself in the middle of a seemingly never-ending polar endurance test? Good question. Some especially frigid days, I wonder that myself. Most days, though, here's my short answer: I needed a place to pass the winter, and Ann Arbor is a liberal oases full of local food, great restaurants, a relatively low cost of living (relative to other places I was considering, not to the surrounding area), and coincidentally happens to contain one of my best friends.

The term liberal oasis is one that gets thrown around in regards to many midwestern college towns, but few earn the title the way that Ann Arbor does. Madison might be larger, but the sheer volume per capita of markers of progressive values here in Ann Arbor is staggering. Of course, world-class universities draw progressive employers, but a few dozen tech start-ups doesn't explain the level of foodie saturation in Ann Arbor. Besides a year-round farmers market and an old-fashioned food co-op, Ann Arbor boasts not one but TWO Whole Foods, at least three other natural foods stores, and the culinary juggernaut that is Zingerman's. Zingerman's "Community of Businesses" includes a world-renowned deli (read: cheese counter!!), bakery, creamery, and restaurants, among many others. Just like a great university, a great cheesemonger draws other ambitious food purveyors - an artisanal salmon smokehouse, a hot sauce maker, a tortilla factory, and of course lots of great breweries.

What this food paradise means for me is plenty of selection of great food, easy access to real farm eggs, lots of temptation for expensive fancy cheeses and cured meats, and a very discerning clientele. When I got my serving job at a local brunch institution with an emphasis on local, natural, and organic ingredients, I thought it was a great fit. Then the training started. That commitment to quality also extends to the waitstaff, who are expected to know the ingredients of all 100+ items on the menu, but also the provenance of all of the meat and other specialty items. Needless to say, the training was more intense - and more regimented - than for any other job I've ever had. Tests following every training shift on restaurant policy, salad ingredients, crepe garnishes, etc., led up to a massive test on the entire menu I had to pass before I could take tables by myself.

For all its culinary pleasures, Ann Arbor might be both the best and the worst place to be a server at a popular, upscale restaurant. Over and over again in our training, we are reminded that the customers at "Resto X" (name protected for no real reason that I can explain) are very discerning, and we need to know where we source the many special and artisan products on the menu. Notwithstanding the specialized menu, 2014 is already not the best time to be in food service - not only is gluten on the tip of the national tongue, but more and more people are reading trend pieces about farmed versus wild-caught salmon, nitrates in cured meats, and why your greens have to be organic. With the exception of the national gluten scourge (a topic for another day), I love that Americans are getting more interested in where their food comes from and how it's grown/raised. I think more people need to ask whether their beef has been injected with hormones, their corn is GMO, or their arugula is carrying pesticides, but while that might make it a better time to be a sustainable farmer, it does not make a server's job much easier. Now, not only do I have to memorize the hundred items on the menu, but I need to know which items have panko breadcrumbs mixed in and that no, we don't have a separate gluten-free fryer, but I also have to figure out whether each particular customer is a severe celiac (yes, I acknowledge there is such a thing) or just an avid follower of television doctors or supermarket tabloids.

Here in Ann Arbor, there's a bit more than the casual Dr. Oz watcher to contend with: the average consumer is not your average consumer. Sure, there are plenty of sorority girls who come looking for a good egg white omelette or a nice fluffy waffle, but there are many more Ann Arborites who want the cupping notes on the different single-source French press options. Serving a "foodie" is not necessarily worse than serving a civilian, but it certainly requires a bit more skill, either in sheer knowledge or in bullshitting agility, both of which I happen to possess when it comes to food. So during my brief stint here in this liberal culinary oasis, serving foodies may be my purgatory, but the attendant gastronomic pleasures just might make up for it.