Are You My Mother? is the title of a children’s book I loved to read to my son. In it, a baby bird falls out of its nest and wanders the earth, asking backhoe diggers and cats if they are its mother. Like that baby bird, lost in the disorienting psychic space of the post-industrial service economy, equally confused workers find themselves asking people, readers, followers, friends, and acquaintances the question, “Are you my customer?”—or better yet, for those of us who believe in craft labor, “Am I serving you, my customer, or a higher cause?” Recent media hits, including the 2022 film The Menu, the 2016 novel A Gentleman in Moscow, and the second season of the FX television series, The Bear offer their viewers and readers reassuring, well-crafted, and entertaining answers to this increasingly fundamental question.
As we are more and more alienated from the realm of production, so our lives are more and more oriented toward the ancillary domain of customer service. “Are you my customer?” has become an existential question. Who are “you,” the customer, anyway? You are me. Customers R Us. We are always customers of something, asking to be served ourselves. Customers are impatient, careless, unforgivable people, but they also kind of have it hard. It’s exhausting to be constantly demanding better service, asking to see the manager, stewing in a sous vide of discontent and resentment. In California where I live, customer service has been perfected as a technique of depersonalized friendliness and insincerity. “Hi, how are you? My name is Cathy, I’ll be your server today!” followed by a careful self-effacing, flash of teeth and perhaps even a slight bend at the waist.
The professional classes, however, believe that they serve a higher purpose than that of serving or servicing a customer. When we face a student, patient, administrator, donor, peer, etc., our presence is supposed to represent years of expertise and training. We are devoted to a body of knowledge, insistent that we should not have to cater to individual comfort. We and our professions demand respect. We complain about our students not understanding their role in the master/apprentice relationship because they’re so used to being customers. But is it their fault that the world is designed according to service economy parameters? In the service economy world, providers are supposed to be as smooth as river rocks, lubricated by the emollients of the post-industrial world of work. Those of us who haven’t been sufficiently polished rebel helplessly, clinging to flimsily traditional ways of being together in an unwieldy guild system.
Professional agony in service economy hell is reflected in the suffering of Ralph Fiennes, who plays Chef Slowik in The Menu, a tyrannical genius who has invited an exclusive group of high rollers for a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience. Mark Mylod’s film is a crude allegory of the ruinous effects of the culinary industry on our ability to enjoy cooking and eating. The only person who seems to enjoy eating and survives the impending conflagration is Margot (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), the reluctant companion of Slowik’s most masochistic fanboy, Tyler (a supremely slimy Nicholas Hoult). Margot is a date-for-hire and, as it turns out, is also providing services for another dinner guest, a silver-haired billionaire named Richard (Reed Birney). Richard was invited as Slowik’s financial backer, but Margot recognizes him as the man who hired her as a sex worker because she reminds him of his daughter.
Margot eventually figures out that Slowik has slated all his customers for death, and she devises a way to save herself by giving mad chef Slowik one final order—for a cheeseburger and a ticket off the island. Margot uses the “voice” of the customer to control Slowik and save herself from the s’mores-inspired auto-da-fe that will consume diners and service personnel alike later in the film. Slowick obeys Margot because he realizes that she is not a member of the foodie class; he decides that as a fellow service worker, Margot does not deserve to die. Though billed as a horror film, The Menu offers its audience a cathartic way out of the final massacre by providing Margot as our point of identification. Unlike Michael Haneke’s punishing Funny Games (1997), which demonstrates a cold sadism towards a captive audience, The Menu lets us off the hook, allowing us instead to enjoy the sight of Taylor-Joy chowing down on an obscenely juicy burger at the end of the film. Also, did the American Beef lobby have anything to do with product placement in The Menu’s denouement? It’s priceless marketing for hamburgers.
Unlike Slowick, who is intrusive to the point of murder, service workers should of course be unobtrusive. Their world only intersects with the world of the customer insofar as they incarnate the wishes and requests of the one who pays. Not only does the service worker sell her labor to her employer, but she also sells her personality, her intelligence, her friendliness, and her passionate commitment to commodities in return for a meager salary.
In A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles’ 2016 best-selling novel, service work is the opposite of alienated labor: hospitality is elevated to the highest of arts. This pleasant piece of capitalist propaganda captures the spirit of Cold War Yale (of which Towles is an alum), a place where elites had the privilege of enjoying a fantasy that refinement and erudition were the real engines of historical progress. Towles’ novel centers on the life of Count Rostov, a fictional Russian aristocrat sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in Moscow’s legendary Metropol Hotel by the Communists. Before the revolution, the Count enjoys in the Metropol a luxurious, fully-serviced apartment overlooking Red Square. When he is classified as an enemy of the people and put under house arrest, he moves into the servants’ quarters, a series of cramped, low-ceilinged rooms in the attic. There he recreates a more constrained version of his former aristocratic existence. The Communists don’t confiscate his books or his antiques, and for some reason, the Count is also able to enjoy perpetual room service and a weekly shave at the hotel’s barbershop. All the hotel workers love him for his courtly and refined manners and continue to treat him like a lord.
Over the course of three decades of house arrest in Russia’s most luxurious institution of hospitality, Rostov becomes the maître d’ of the Metropol’s legendary restaurant, conspiring with the chef and sommelier to provide Soviet elites with the level of service and quality of food pioneered by the French hospitality industry. In addition, he has a love affair with the USSR’s most beautiful and popular film star and befriends another long-term guest of the hotel, the precocious nine-year-old Nina Kulikova. Nina grows up to be a devoted Communist, but her life is marked by political tragedies: her husband is sent to the gulag, and before following her husband into internal exile, she returns one last time to the Metropol to leave her daughter Sofia in Rostov’s care. Rostov has his dark moments, but because he is so committed to service as a higher pursuit, he is able to maintain his morale by embracing and embodying the refined service culture of the venerable institution. Taste and discretion ultimately keep him going despite his inability to see the Bolshoi ballet perform in person or take a walk on Nevsky Prospekt. All’s well that ends well when Rostov engineers Sofia’s defection to the West and his own escape to Idlehour, his family’s estate, to spend his old age there with his film star lover.
Towles does two wonderful things in this meringue of anti-Communist propaganda. First, he weaves a narrative that demonstrates that simply being an aristocrat and practicing gentlemanly manners is enough to make one a superior person. Second, he conveys how possessing the ability to discern the finer pleasures of life will give one resilience, humor, virtue, and courage to face the most constrained of futures. Finally, he shows that the highest levels of the service industry provide the best jobs to the best people, whose service ethos creates a rich world, impervious to Bolshevik revolutions, politics, and injustice. In such a world, the highest values and pleasures are preserved for the customers by virtuoso servants, who are devoted not to people or money but to the vocation of service itself. The inner geography of Towles’s Metropol Hotel is reminiscent of Yale, where well-funded seniors enjoy cramped single suites on the top floor of their pseudo-Gothic and colonial residential colleges. A Yalie like Towles could spend their days like Rostov, reading Montaigne’s essays in low-ceilinged rooms under the eaves, accompanied by the soft cooing of pigeons, and then emerge for dinner in a grand Harry Potter-style dining hall, where he could regale sophomores with his wit, wisdom, and savoir-faire. The New York Times reviewer loved this novel because it goes much “deeper than social political commentary”, which we all know is such a BORE.
Season 2 of The Bear offers an even more powerful and extravagant allegory of the redemptive powers of the highest forms of service work. The Bear has met with almost universal critical acclaim. It is the most contemporary and powerful of all the service industry fictions we have encountered so far. Centered on the fate of a landmark Chicago hole-in-the-wall restaurant called The Beef, The Bear argues that transforming a grimy, family-owned restaurant into a Danish minimalist restaurant with Michelin star ambitions will save the people who work for it simply by elevating them to a higher level of service provision. The Bear, like A Gentleman in Moscow, tells us that the disciplined service qualities of fine dining and fine design are uplifting and healing—they offer a way for lost but talented souls like Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas), Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Marcus (Lionel Boyce), and Carmen (Jeremy Allen White) to move from caricatural blue-collar psychological lifeworlds to the exalted realm of artisanal craft discipline.
Michael Berzatto—played by the feral and sexy Jon Bernthal, specialist of the white-ethnic, blue-collar, American version of Jean-Paul Belmondo—stayed to run the family business so that his brother, Carmen could leave it. Michael is stuck in the damaged neural pathways laid out by their mother, played with blood-curdling, alcohol- and narcissism-soaked bravura by the amazing Jamie Lee Curtis. The Season 2 episode “Fishes” is a flashback to a Christmas dinner past and is a tour de force of acting and cinematography. Shot entirely in claustrophobic close-ups of family members and guests trying to survive a chaotic Christmas meal fueled by rage, addiction, and family conflict, the episode offers a psychological explanation for the troubles of the Berzatto siblings. Throughout the episode, their sister, Sugar (played by Abby Elliot), is possessed by fear and guilt: her vulnerability is magnified by the utter unpredictability of their charismatic and self-destructive mother.
Carmen manages to escape the family chaos into haute cuisine, the kind caustically lampooned by The Menu, but his own healing is incomplete without having started a restaurant of his own, a dream that the Berzatto brothers seem to have shared. Carmen’s way of coping is through cooking, and cooking well. His culinary apprenticeship is told in shaky, blurry flashbacks, with a tyrannical, Slowick-like chef barking torrents of abuse, intercut with close-ups of virtuosic slicing, dicing, foaming, tweezing. Despite these experiences of abuse, “Carmy” believes that training and discipline in cooking will help The Beef’s stalwart employees get to “another level.” He offers his family and friends opportunities to train in his elite kitchen and plans to reopen The Beef as The Bear. These classes and internships provide Tina, Marcus, and, finally, the explosive and incompetent Richie with opportunities for their own transformations.
Sidney (Ayo Edebiri) is Carmen’s right-hand woman, and The Bear allows her to deploy her talents, finally becoming the Chef de Cuisine she was destined to be. Her training is already excellent, but her demons are legion. She had returned to Chicago from the Culinary Institute of America only to faceplant in a high-end catering venture. But The Bear heals her as well, allowing her to reconcile a personal history marked by failure and loss with her culinary ambitions. Utter devotion to fine dining, the kind you serve with smooth Metropol-hotel-like discipline, is presented as both psychologically and spiritually redemptive. In a world out of control, we can at least—in the words of Richie’s supervisor at a three-star Michelin restaurant where he polishes forks for a week—offer each other respect.
This elaborate encomia to the highest levels of the service industry earned The Bear a raft of glowing reviews for Episode Seven, “Forks”, during which Richie learns to be a man. Most of the reviews, like the one in Esquire, are little more than plot summaries and testimonials to having dined in the glow of service virtuosos at Eleven Madison Park, NOMA, and Chicago’s Ever, where the episode about Richie’s internship is shot. Olivia Colman, playing Chef Terry, the owner of the restaurant where Richie is interning, serenely imparts a lesson worthy of Max Weber’s Protestant ethic: “Every second counts.”
But it is Richie’s supervisor Garrett (Andrew Lopez) who prepares him to receive the full force of Chef Terry’s koan. Garrett’s impassioned monologue about respect is a modified version of a Jordan Peterson speech made for under-parented young men in the Internet Age. Richie has been unteachable up until this point, but Garrett’s speech and the humiliation of polishing thousands of forks finally teach the loudmouth, semi-loser something about how to be a human being. You wonder if maybe everyone needs to hear that speech at some point in their lives, except not for the purpose of individual salvation, but for political preparation to respect the collective struggle of other workers. As it is, there simply aren’t enough Garretts to go around for all the Richies in the world: that’s why we get Jordan Peterson.
So to get back to reality, the reality of service work in a world where the social contract is broken: anyone who has worked in the lower end of this industry knows that the worst thing about it is being treated like shit by some insane customer, or just generally like you’re not really there. Service workers are supposed to be invisible and without character. Once they become intrusive, either through incompetence or a surfeit of personality, something in the relationship has gone wrong and calls for “the manager” ensue. Routinization and Taylorization of service in large franchises and conglomerates perpetuate the fantasy of frictionless social interactions. Weaned on social media and money, the rich and the wannabe rich are the most disrespectful people of all, so when we talk about the actual conditions of service work, we talk about selling our labor in order to be treated almost like inanimate objects, things that could soon be replaced by machines.
Teaching respect is the first step of teaching, and when you ask teachers and professors about their own burnout, they will talk about the general lack of respect for learning and even the rules of the classroom. When you ask students about their burnout, they’ll say that they are tired of being disrespected as well. Respect then is a supposedly non-monetizable quality of human intersubjectivity that is difficult to manufacture, in short supply, and in The Bear’s logic, self-generated. For Garrett, no matter how boring (polishing forks for hours on end) and humiliating (being berated by your boss) the job, you do it with respect. You do something well not for money or recognition, but because you want to do it well. Tell that to a fast food employee, or an UberEats delivery person. In the trenches of hard restaurant work, it is a foul-mouthed solidarity and the right amount of drugs, rather than respect, that keeps workers on their feet for the twelve hours of heat and grease, chaos and dirty glasses, broken plates and misdelivered orders. Shit-talking bosses, colleagues, and customers allow a level of raw conversation and authentic interaction to help workers cope day in and day out with the harsh conditions of serving customers who don’t respect them or their work.
In 1979, Arlie Hochschild published The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, a sociological study of the intensive management of feelings necessary for new forms of American work. Her subjects, from bill collector to flight attendant, are eloquent about the alienated nature of their work and repeatedly express the fear that their work-required selves will become their actual selves. It is against the backdrop of industrial labor and an understanding of alienation that Hochschild’s interviewees talk about the commercialization of their feelings. They do so with a great level of awareness about the ravages of post-industrial self-presentation.
In 2023, with labor unrest on the rise, the liberal culture industry has presented consumers with visions of reconciliation between service worker and work. These stories present a communion between the two by borrowing from some of the most cherished values of craft integrity and aesthetic autonomy. In A Gentleman in Moscow, the aristocrat turned maitre d’ shows us how to escape political tyranny through devotion to the Metropol itself. In The Bear, damaged people are made whole by their collective commitment to making and serving the most creative and sublime forms of food. The Menu presents us with chefs and their assistants as suicidal artists who will not just shock but kill the bourgeoisie in the name of food for food’s sake.
Unfortunately, this recent spate of fictionalized narratives of service industry redemption will not help workers overcome alienation. Can we as artists, critics, and activists come up with counterpropaganda about the exploitation of human beings at the heart of service work? This summer, the Unite Here 11 hotel workers strike brought much needed attention to the low wages paid for service jobs that support Southern California’s tourism industry. As witnesses to historic levels of labor unrest, we should give up on finding a definitive answer to the questions, “‘Are you my customer?’ or ‘Are you my Boss’”? We must find our way through the post-industrial landscape of carefully groomed identities and affects in order to ask one another a better question: “Are you my comrade?”
Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared on CLiuAnon.substack.com.
Catherine Liu is Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Virtue Hoarders: the Case Against the Professional Managerial Class (University of Minnesota Press, 2021) and American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism As Cultural Critique (University of Iowa Press, 2011). She is currently at work on a book about fifty years of austerity and the rise of trauma culture.