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Dec 6, 201212:22 PMBeyond the Bio

A Closer Look at MBQ's Power Players

The New "Normal:" Tsunami's Ben Smith on the restaurant industry

Dec 6, 2012 - 12:22 PM
The New "Normal:" Tsunami's Ben Smith on the restaurant industry

Note: This is the first entry in our new weekly blog, "Beyond the Bio," where we ask MBQ Power Players to write a post of their choosing about their industry. The Power Players category in the November/December 2012 MBQ is Restaurateurs, and we have asked Ben Smith, executive chef and owner of Tsunami restaurant, to take us on our maiden voyage. Check this space weekly for future installments of "Beyond the Bio."

"Most restaurants fail. The sad ones are stillborn. The mad ones flourish within the bustle and excitement of fame, notoriety, the thrill of the new. But they rarely sustain the glow. They are balloons kept aloft by a restless crowd. Only the strange, the freaks of restaurant perfection, can sustain life beyond a few years." — Sam Sifton, The New York Times Magazine

This quote hit a nerve with me the first time I read it. The italics are mine, and they are meant to emphasize the crux of the matter when it comes to my business: the restaurant business. The other Greatest Show on Earth. You are not long in this business before you begin to understand how strange it really is. Once you set off down the path of working in a restaurant or a bar, your life starts to change pretty quickly. Your hours are different from the hours of "normal" jobs. Your peaks and valleys are completely opposite of your friends and family in the "real world." (And speaking of those friends and family, if they aren't in the business, too, you might as well kiss them goodbye).

Most people look forward to the weekend. Many people look forward to holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some people like Sunday brunch. Some people like Mother's Day or Valentine's Day. These people don't work in restaurants.

Restaurant people have a completely inverse perspective on the week from 9-to-5ers. Desk jockeys see the week as a slow countdown to the weekend, when they will have time to unwind from a grueling week and recharge for the next one. Restaurant people see the week as a gradual buildup to the weekend, when we will have our butts handed to us while cooking for and serving and cleaning up after the 9-to-5ers who are doing the exact opposite of what we are doing. "Normal" people look at holidays as a time to take a break from work and reconnect with family. Restaurant people see holidays as a time to work overtime and disconnect from their families.

These odd hours and this inverse experience from the "normal" is what helps us bond as a group. This is why restaurant people are thick as thieves in their social lives. We don't go out on Friday and Saturday nights, we work. We go out on Saturday and Sunday mornings after work. When most weekenders are snugly tucked away in bed, some of us are just getting started. If you call a friend with a regular job at 10:00 on a Sunday night to go out for a beer, you will most likely get the old "it's a Sunday night, are you mad?" response. If you call a restaurant person, you are more likely to get the "let me finish my coffee and I'll be right there" response.

For the lifers in the business, there is a turning point you reach when you realize that you can never go back to the normal world. You are a restaurant person. You have arrived. You are among your people, "the strange, the freaks of restaurant perfection."



Power Players Bio:

Ben Smith

Executive Chef and owner of Tsunami restaurant. Culinary Institute of America. Previously Stars Restaurant, San Francisco; Cafe Mozart, San Francisco; Chesleigh Homestead, Australia; Lodge at Koele, Hawaii. Best New Restaurant 1999, Memphis magazine; Best Seafood in Memphis every year since opening, Magazine magazine; Restaurateur of the Year 2010, Memphis Restaurant Association; frequent mentions in the Best of Memphis poll including Best Restaurant, Best Seafood, and Best Chef, Memphis Flyer; Project Green Fork; Memphis Restaurant Association; past VP of the Cooper-Young Business Association. Supporter of several charitable organizations. Son of iconic local artist Dolph Smith. Married to Colleen Couch-Smith; they have three kids.


Old to new | New to old
Dec 11, 2012 08:38 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

This is an interesting article but I am confused about Ben's current status. Doesn't he live in Atlanta now and isn't his new job as host of a food network show?

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Dec 11, 2012 02:54 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Spot on analysis, chef, spot on. I've been in the business for 13 years myself, working FOH and BOH. Everything you said is true. When everyone else relaxes, we work. And having worked Sunday brunch for going on the last 4 years, I have come to loathe the Sunday brunchers- especially the ones that come right when we start closing it down.

Dec 17, 2012 08:59 am
 Posted by  Greg Akers

You're thinking of Ben Vaughn, who now lives in Atlanta and is host of a new Food Network show.

Feb 4, 2013 01:31 pm
 Posted by  TheInconspicuousChef

Like others Ive been in the industry for several years,I came up the European way via Apprenticeship through the ACF. This article rings so true, it takes a special breed to work hospitality and whats sad the so called 9to5er's watch the mindless staged dribble on food network and only see one aspect, or wonder why is that chef such an arse to everyone..If they only knew its the love of food and respect of the art. Yes we are freaks outcast and several other words that wouldnt be fitting to repeat, but to put it simply without us freaks there would be no going out or trying new things or favorite places to go.
A good chef is a thick skinned short tempered long loving goal setting artist, who's biggest reward is a smile and the return customer...
Thanks Ben,

Mar 11, 2013 01:38 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I love the article, but my favorite part is the expression on Ben's face as he looks at us across his Franken-dish: Chilean Sea Bass.

From the very beginning this was one of his greatest hits... too great. When, in the zest of youth and yearning for new discoveries, he tried to replace it on the Tsunami menu years ago, it was as if he'd offered his customers cake (with a bad French accent). Some sea bass starved fans even wrote Ben Vaughn ugly letters in their confusion, just to be sure.

Ben's reputation for seafood is well earned (no one in Memphis has a better touch, even for oh-so-easily over-cooked offerings like calamari and mussels). That's what makes his Chilean Sea Bass so amazing.

That said, he lends the same skill to everything on his menu. So, please, scroll up to the top, look at his picture again, and for the love of God try the duck. CWVIII

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