Who has the harder job – the back-of-house (BOH) or the front-of-house (FOH)? It is a question that is often passively answered by biased opinions from their respective halves of the restaurant. Servers, bartenders, hostesses, and food runners will sit back, roll their silverware, and adamantly tell you how difficult their jobs are. Personally dealing with customers is downright awful and they’ll be sure to make anyone aware of this. On the other hand, chefs and dishwashers will strongly debate that their daily ten-hour shifts prove otherwise. As a guy who has worked both sides of the spectrum I’m here to finally settle the argument.
Let’s start with the easiest criteria to measure, the average length of a work shift. There is no question that aside from bartenders the average FOH employee works a much shorter work week (in terms of hours) compared to your average line chef. Now, this is largely due to one simple fact –BOH’s are rarely full staffed, whereas most FOH’s are often over staffed.
With that being said, most chefs are forced to work longer days and often six days a week. Granted, most servers are also working the same amount of days, but they have the luxury of leaving early due to the fact there are bodies available to cover their sections. Most chefs do not share in that opulence. Hence, their workdays and work-weeks tend to carry more physical stress.
However, despite averaging a larger amount of hours chefs do have one unique luxury. Chefs share the frill of avoiding direct, personal interaction with customers. Now, there are always exceptions to this rule. For example, open-kitchens offer zero shelter for chefs. In addition, most are fitted with a kitchen table of sorts; plus I’m withholding a Chef de Cuisine’s occasional greeting role with tables/customers. In open-kitchens like these, chefs are essentially a complimentary piece to FOH – they are a part of the show.
Now, that exception aside, chefs can often avoid the stress of actually dealing with a customer; instead they are forced to deal with customers’ irritating (and sometimes dumbfounding) orders. In the middle of a rush the last thing a chef wants to see is a substitution – let alone a culinary crime like a well-done duck. These subtle customer preferences are thorns in every chef’s side.
Regardless, chefs have the convenience of bearing with these erroneous requests for a short period of time. They can avoid the thirty minute conversation of trying to explain to a customer that a duck is best served mid-rare; cooking it all the way through will only take away from the protein making it tough, rubbery, and an utter waste of fine product. Unfortunately, servers have the painstaking task of sitting through this discussion, verbally pounding their head against an ignorant wall…again, and again, and again. This sort of cruel punishment can drive even the sanest server mad especially when they need to come back and explain the situation all over again to a newly irritated chef.
Aside from customer interactions there comes a rather conversational topic the two sides rarely see eye-to-eye on. That disputed topic is the issue of downtime. Whether or not FOH’s employees will ever truly admit to this is mute, but there is no denying that FOH has a ton of free time on their hands throughout their shift compared to the likes of BOH (that’s safe to say at any facet of this industry).
Now, I could argue this is a large part due to management. However, that would be unfair for both parties. Any successful restaurant/business should have managers maintaining an exemplary standard for their respective teams.
That withstanding I cannot refute that the nature of a kitchen preparing for a night of business involves far more intricacies than FOH. This often results in more jobs and daily preparation especially (as previously stated) if a kitchen is under staffed. On the other hand, FOH chores are less detailed and require less manpower. Keep in mind; most FOHs are fully staffed meaning these chores can be split among workers and effectively finished in a timely manner, thus alluding to more downtime.
The mundane task of polishing silverware (with the complimentary milk crate to sit on) is no way comparable to the likes of cleaning three dozen strip loins after a Friday night rush. It is safe to say that the ability to share tasks during a shift is what tilts this argument in favor of the BOH. Chefs are often isolated with their required work (it is the nature of a kitchen). Chores are chores; they are relative to the employee’s position in a restaurant. Yet, there is no denying that the inability to routinely have that extra hand of help handicaps a kitchen’s amount of actual downtime. The FOH will always have a greater portion of free time during the course of a shift because of those extra persons on deck.
Lastly, the portion of the debate that will always be contested – the skill set needed to be a BOH employee compared to a FOH employee. I could easily make the case that for one portion of a restaurant majority of the workers had to go to culinary school and learn their trade, but that is largely unfair and unjust. Especially, considering that servers/bartenders in higher scale outlets are extremely well-versed in every avenue of the industry from the cuisine to the service and all the way down to the vino (wine). That’s a particular set of knowledge that many chefs cannot comprehend.
All that being said, that is at the uppermost level of this industry – essentially less than 10% of restaurants reach that level. The harsh truth is that most chefs can serve, but most servers cannot be chefs. It takes a much larger quality of skill to manage tickets, maintain productivity, and withstand the pressure of the rush in the BOH. Anyone can learn how to carry a tray or mix drinks, but few can learn how to properly execute starting and plating multiple proteins, sides, and sauces for their appropriated dishes.
For the doubters of this fact I can cite the two positions most often considered the easiest in their sectors of a restaurant. For BOH it would be the dishwashers – anyone can wash a bunch of dishes, right? For FOH it would be the hostesses – anyway can sit and usher customers towards their tables, right?
To be blunt, not everyone could handle the daily routine of a being a dishwasher. Albeit, it appears stewards just wash dishes all day. However, the actual amount of work they are given during a shift can be considered the heaviest workload in a restaurant. On the flip side of things, nearly anyone (given they look the part) could be a sufficient hostess largely because it is the one position (in FOH and BOH) that requires the least amount of focus/attention. Hostesses maintain a restaurant’s schedule – helping facilitate the pace of the rush – along with customer’s first impressions of service. As long as they remain regimented during their shifts their workdays are essentially stress-free. In consideration, of these facts, the simplest BOH position requires more effort than the simplest FOH position.
That settles it; it is inherently tougher to be working in the back-of-house than servicing in the front-of-house (3-1 in favor of the BOH if you were keeping score). BOH has fewer designated positions, but those positions require more daily attention and within that sense the positions demand more skill. FOH often offers luxuries that are present due to the facile fact majority of persons can handle taking orders and serving the appropriated food/drinks to the consumer. Whereas not everyone can cook a perfect steak multiple times throughout the course of a night.
When all is said and done a good restaurant is only as good as its weakest link. Even if the FOH may have the easier job a FOH is only as good as their respective partners. It takes two to tango and I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit a good FOH can make a poorly run BOH look a hundred times better. In the end, great food requires great service – you can’t have one without the other – no matter whose profession is pound-for-pound the tougher of the two.