It was a Friday night and a party of 10 entered Dorado’s, a Mexican restaurant on Park Avenue. The patrons were greeted by a sky with lush clouds painted overhead, posters of a matador and a couple tangoing and festive, spicy, salsa music playing through the speakers.
The warm, tropical atmosphere served as a welcomed respite to the sharp, frigid Rochester winter. As the large group walked the handful of steps to their table already stocked with menus cups of water and silverware several members took notice of the day’s specials: chicken empanadas served with black beans and chicken tortilla soup.
Bartender Nate Nickens walked up the steps to the kitchen and said, ‘Our eight top just became a 10 top,” as he prepped some chips and three different salsas for the party downstairs.
‘That’s what we like to hear,” Amber Taber, the cook on duty for the night, said, resting on the counter.
Really? Doesn’t that mean more work? ‘Two words,” she said. ‘Job security.”
This paradox is familiar for those who work or have worked in the food service industry: a simultaneous love for and hatred of customers. They’re the sole element that keep restaurants afloat. More importantly, they’re what put money into servers’ pockets, and, perhaps because of this, waiters and waitresses, bartenders, cooks, chefs, managers, busboys virtually anyone who comes near the food put on a pretty face whether they want to or not.
As a dishwasher/busboy, I’m mostly in the kitchen and have limited interaction with the customers. At best, I might run a dish out to a table, but in the 10 months I’ve been here that’s rarely happened.
Employees are doing more than just doing a service by handling the food; they are performing. The customer is always right, even if he is being an ass, and so groans, sighs and screams are sublimated into smiles and quips, all in the hopes for a bigger tip. Dishes are cooked and presented with skill and style. The entire staff dons a front and works together, a team of performers, to provide quality service. This is even more so at Dorado’s, a cozy establishment with only nine tables during the winter (which is doubled during the summer).
‘It really is a synchronized dance,” Taber, a 21-year-old Rochester native, said.
There is indeed a certain flow, and it has its origins in the kitchen. At that moment, Taber was deftly handling the 10 top’s order, queuing plates up and utilizing strategic grill locations for an optimal food to grill ratio. She’s been cooking for four years.
Do you like your job? ‘Love it,” she said, pan-frying up salmon. ‘There’s something about good food, and people love those who make it. It’s not just a job; it’s an art, a trade, it’s reputation.”
Do you feel you take on a persona when you cook? ‘A rock star, dude,” Taber said with utter cool. ‘It’s very empowering.”
Sporting a bandana and a pierced eyebrow and lip, thumb and index fingers acting as guns while she flipped, chopped, diced, ladled and rolled food into delectable presentations Taber certainly looked the part.
If Taber is the David Lee Roth of Dorado’s, all swagger, a talented showman (in this case show woman), then its owner and head cook Jon Swan is its Leonard Cohen, a down-to-earth, practical guy with an incredibly dry, sarcastic bent.
When asked why he opened up a restaurant, the Pittsford, N.Y. native said he didn’t remember. But seriously? ‘I didn’t want to work for anyone else. This is all my family knows.” His mom, Robin Banister, owns Cibon, the restaurant next to Dorado’s, as well as Roman Holiday Gelato, also located on Park Avenue.
Twenty-eight-year-old Swan opened Dorado’s Nov. 17, 2008, and looking back said, ‘It was nerve-wracking. I was excited, I was nervous.” Swan continued, deadpanning, ‘I was so nervous I actually shit myself.”
Opening date, surprisingly, also marked his beginnings as a cook. Swan received constant praises and compliments on his dishes despite having less than two years cooking experience and having never been formally trained.
Does all this flattery go to his head? Has he become a prima donna? The answer, simply, is no. ‘I just do what I got to do,” Swan said as he ladled some sauce onto an enchilada. He’s pure substance, no flash, an adroit bare bones man with no sense of ego.
Do you feel like a performer when you cook? Swan turned around from the grill, looked me in the eye, and said, quite seriously, ‘No.” He’s more of a pragmatist than anything else, one who has his ends in sight being his own boss and is willing to perform the means to achieve them.
He does, however, know this is a team effort. ‘You can’t do this by yourself,” Swan said as he rang the kitchen bell, a signal to the servers below that food was ready.
Nickens grabbed one plate in each hand and balanced an additional plate in each forearm; I followed him with the rest. We reached the party of 10’s table and set the dishes down in their correct place. The party was animated, and to keep their spirits going, decided to order mojitos and margaritas.
Nickens walked around the bar and got to work, effortlessly mixing and concocting various types of alcohol into tasty beverages and chatting with the folks at the bar. He’s been bartending for four years but has been working in the restaurant business since age 17.
‘Everyone wants to be a bartender,” the 25 year old Virginia native told me. ‘There’s more prestige, it’s just a cooler job.”
Do you feel like you perform when you’re working? ‘Kind of,” Nickens said, ‘It’s still you cause you show your personal characteristics, but you find out what works, what gets you money and you do that even when you don’t want to.”
‘That’s the key to being a bartender,” Nickens said, scratching the goatee on his olive skinned face.
Do you see Dorado’s working as a team? ‘Absolutely. It’s all cohesive,” Nickens said, cracking open a beer. ‘You’re only as strong as your weakest link. Everybody has to work together, especially here, cause it’s so small.”
And then the tables turned. Nickens asked me whether I felt like a performer whilst on the clock.
“To tell you the truth,’ I said, “No; anyone can do what I do. You can’t wash dishes with flare.’
‘But you work hard,” he told me.
‘We all work hard,” I said.
Well, then, if that’s the case, maybe that’s what being a performer is: doing whatever it is you do to the best of your abilities. If that’s the case, I guess I am a performer.
Rosario is a member of the class of 2010.