I Heard You Like Work Stories

So I put a story about work about work stories in your work story about my work.

Look, it’s an email! I haven’t sent a Strange Work in many months—since I started my current job, my actual and not super strange Work, at Zagat Stories. Turns out having to work at a job means less noodling around on email newsletter about work and jobs. But what if I were to send an email newsletter about work, concerning a column I wrote for work, about that work? Would that be wrong?

So yes, I wrote a column about conducting 100 interviews with people working in restaurants, mostly during the pandemic. Well over 100 interviews by now actually. When I started this job, I certainly did not expect these interviews to be so newsy, fraught, and emotionally draining in a new yet familiar way. In media and publishing, we’ve gotten quite accustomed to watching our industry collapse. But it’s taken years and years. The restaurant business has been smashed by an annihilating catastrophe in less than six months (really more like three months).

By all means read and enjoy and ponder (and share widely) my Letter from the Editor at Zagat Stories (oh and schedule me for your Zoom panel and podcast and such). I’ll probably do more of those letters in future as we experiment with new formats, but in the meantime here’s a little extra bonus work story that was cut from the column, about the first interview I did at that job.

When I first report to work at Zagat in the middle of December 2019, I’m handed a list of potential interview subjects I can start with right away. Many are already decoupling for the holidays, but I manage to schedule a call with Laurent Gras, a chef working at Saison in San Francisco. Interview preparation for me involves reading the last few years’ worth of interviews with the subject, then not asking those questions—and picking up on small details that repeat.

With Gras, two things interested me. First, before Saison, he had an unexplained gap of several years between jobs. And second, in many interviews, there was a tossed-off reference to his love of bicycling. I decided to ask him about both. It turned out the reason for the former was the latter: After a tumultuous departure from a chef job in Chicago, he joined a racing team and biked for six years.

We spent most of the conversation talking about bicycling, what it meant to him, how it transformed his life, how it mirrored his work ethic, mental state, and approach to cooking. He was thrilled to talk about this other passion, clearly a huge part of his world that nobody had much asked about before. It was far more revealing, a far more human look into his character as a person and a chef, than prodding him to expound on his culinary philosophy for the thousandth time.

I came away from the interview excited to have more conversations like that. I still prepare for interviews by researching the subject, but I rarely prepare questions as much as a few ideas to talk around conversationally, and I often don’t even get to all of those. This means I must sometimes reassure publicists and assistants of my noble intentions when I tell them I can’t share questions ahead of interviews because I don’t have any to share.

Two weeks later after we spoke, over New Year’s, Gras quit his post at Saison, departing for parts unknown. I assume he’s still living and riding somewhere out there, like the rest of us.

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