the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Gratuity

The last time I was in New York City, I went upstate with my two friends, John and Eric, for the sole reason of having dinner at a famous culinary institute.

It was my idea.   John and Eric are self-proclaimed “foodies,” guys who consider going to Zabar’s or Trader Joe’s a “night out on the town.” Whenever I come to New York, we always meet one night and they take me to some hot new restaurant.  This usually means an establishment where the portions are small and the prices are exorbitant.  I’m not much of a drinker, but they are, so by the end of the night, it is not uncommon for two bottles of wine to be consumed, and two bottles of wine at these pricey New York restaurants can cost as much as 1,375 pancakes at IHOP (don’t bother to check. I worked it on the iphone’s calculator.)

This well-known culinary institute is located two hours north of the city. The graduates of the school go on to work in the restaurant, catering, and hospitality fields.  In order to give the students some real life restaurant experience, there are three fine dining establishments right on the school premises – a French restaurant, an Italian restaurant, and an American restaurant.  Each can be very popular at different times of the year, and it is very difficult to get reservations to your first choice of restaurant.  We were lucky enough to get a seating at the French restaurant.

Each of the school’s restaurants is overseen by professional chefs, but the students work in various roles.  A round robin method of teaching ensures that to every student gets a taste of what it is like to work in a restaurant.  One day, a student can be in the kitchen, and the next day he can be a waiter or a busboy.  Because these restaurants are part of a teaching environment, the price for a fine meal here is much less than a comparable restaurant in the city.  It is not inexpensive, but that you can hopefully manage to leave the premises with it costing more than $100 a person.

John drove us upstate in a rented car.   As we pulled up to the culinary institute campus, we quickly noted that the school looked like any other east coast college. There were ivy-covered academic buildings and dorms for the students. The main center where the restaurants were located looked like a student union.   Inside this main building were long hallways and photo displays of famous alumni.  The hallways split into branches, leading to the different restaurants.  From the hallway, everything seemed very “collegiate,” but once you walked through the door to one of the restaurant, and saw the elegant seating, the wine cellar, and the formal maître de, you were transported to a five star restaurant.

Our table was ready at the French restaurant.  There was only one seating per evening. Jackets and ties were required.  I forgot to bring a sports jacket from LA, so I borrowed one of Eric’s tight, ill-fitting tweed jacket, which made me feeling like a very preppy sausage.

Our meal consisted of several courses.  The food was rich, very French, and very good, but to be honest, I have no recollection of what I ordered or ate during the meal.  The truly memorable part of the meal was the service. It was at a level that I had never experienced. Our doting waiter was Carlos, a senior at the school. There were at also three assistants at our beck and call, all wearing black pants and white shirts, who hovered around us like helicopter parents. I’m sure each of these assistant’s positions had a specific name, but I recall them as “the guy who constantly refilled our glasses,” “the guy who brushed the crumbs off of the white tablecloth in between courses,” and “the girl who exchanged our silverware at least seven times.”

We also had a sommelier, who looked all of twenty-one years old, but spoke in that affected, pompous tone of a mini-Tim Gunn.  After the sommelier suggested the best bottle of wine to complement our dishes, we asked him how he learned about wine at an age when most kids are drinking Miller Light.  He replied that he was always fascinated by wine, but doesn’t drink much of it when he goes home. He preferred a “good martini.” I thought this young sommelier was an asshole.

As we enjoyed our meal, John and Eric congratulated me on my excellent idea of coming to this restaurant.  We were getting a lot of food and drink for our buck.  We could eat well, but not be bankrupt for the rest of the month.  When Carlos brought us bottles of the culinary institute’s own “pure well water” when we asked for glasses of water, we politely refused, and requested tap water instead.  I noticed the tinge of disappointment at that moment on Carlos’s face, as if we didn’t deserve to be served by him.

I didn’t feel quite at home in this restaurant.  Although the staff worked hard, the constant attention and attitude was anxiety-producing.  Who were all these young Top Chef-wannabees? Were the students being brainwashed by the school into looking down at their own patrons? Or was this just youthful enthusiasm, much like I sneered at my parents when I was newly-minted freshman in college and, during my Christmas break home, learned that they had never read Plato’s Symposium, or even cared to.

One of the busboys, probably the most down to earth one of the staff,  told us that this was the last meal of the semester, and that they were being graded by their teacher as they served the meal.  We learned that the stern, white haired maître de was also the class teacher.   He carefully watched his class from his position in front of the room, making notes on a tiny notepad. The girl who constantly changed our silverware went from bubbly to pale and frightened as the teacher marked something in his book.  Did she bend over on the wrong side as she exchanged our forks – to the right of each guest, rather than the left? Despite the elegance of the décor and the excellent food, being a guinea pig in a five star culinary laboratory was about as restful as a chaotic Passover Seder at my aunt’s home.

Finally, the bill arrived. As Carlos handed us the billfold containing the bill, he gave a small disclaimer.

“On the bill, there is a 20% gratuity added. It is purely voluntary,” he said.   “The gratuity is not for me, but for our school’s scholarship fund to help other students in need.  If you would rather not leave this gratuity, please tell me, and I will bring the maître de over to take it off the bill.  As for the service, especially my role in your meal, I hope it was all exemplary.”

As Carlos walked away, John, Eric, and I discussed the situation.

“What you think he meant by that statement — “I hope my service was exemplary,” asked Eric.

“I think he wants a tip.” said John.

“A tip for the scholarship fun AND a tip for him?!  We’re not going to give TWO TIPS!” I muttered, my cheapness showing its colors. After all, the whole reason we drove two hours upstate was to save money!

“Neil’s right,” said Eric. “Let’s not give the gratuity to the scholarship fund.”

“I agree,” said John. “You tell him, Neil.”

“Me?!” I shouted, startling the well-heeled couple at the next table. “Me?” I said again, this time in a persistent whisper.

I imagined the entire scenario of what would happen.  I would tell Carlos that we didn’t want to leave a gratuity to the scholarship fund. He would sneer at me and head to the front to fetch the maître de . Heads would turn as the eagle-eyed maître de would leave his perch and strut over to our table.

“Can I help you?” he would ask.

I would be forced to repeat my statement about not wanting to leave a gratuity to the scholarship fund for needy students. An evil grin would form on Carlos’ face as he enjoyed my humiliation. The maitre de would take the billfold and head back to the front to take off the charge. As he walked, he would hold the check in the air, attracting the attention of each patron at every table he passed.  They would all turn towards me, knowing EXACTLY what had just happened.  They would shake their heads in pity and disgust, as if they had just seen me urinate in my wine glass.

“I’m not telling Carlos,” I told my friends. “I get nervous just handing a two-for-one coupon to a server at the Olive Garden. You do it, John.”

John paused for a second and then refused.

“I’m not going to have the maître de walk all the way here in front of everyone to take off the gratuity.”

Clearly, John’s vision of the scenario was similar to my own horrific one.

We all sighed.  We would give the “voluntary” gratuity for the scholarship fund.

“What about Carlos?” asked Eric.

We looked towards the kitchen door.  Carlos was standing there like a statue, his hands folded, waiting, clad in black pants and perfectly ironed white shirt, his chin held high, dreaming of a time when he would own his own restaurant, a day when he could stop acting nice and could openly torment his staff and his customers like an American-born Gordon Ramsey.  As a senior at the culinary institute, this would be the last time serving a meal as a student.  Now he was on his way into the real world.   Would he be a sous chef on Park Avenue or a server at Burger King in Bayonne, New Jersey?  Who knew?

“We have to give him a tip,” said John.  “What kind of message would we be giving him about his future career if we stiffed him on his last meal?”

Eric agreed.   I was the only hold-out.

“He’s a student!” I protested. “This is part of his learning. It’s a school.  Did anyone ever tip you for turning in a well-written English Lit paper on Charles Dickens?”

I was outvoted.

Next week, I’m going to be in New York.  I’m sure I’ll meet up with John and Eric.  We’ll have  dinner at some fancy new restaurant that was written about in the New York Times. I’m sure it will be expensive.  But I doubt it will be half as expensive as our last outing — to the culinary institute two hours away, considering the car rental, the gas, the meal, and the 45% tip.


  1. Claire

    Maybe the person fixing the breakfast buffet at the Holiday Inn in L.A. would qualify for a scholarship, and your donation will save thousands of Americans from the disappointment of wet eggs and rubber bacon.

  2. Billy Wright

    This sounds like a scene out of could only be considered a toned down Tarantino movie. We’ll call it: “Resevoir Puppies”. So you don’t tip do you Mr. Pink? “Me?” “Why do I have to face Carlos?!”

  3. Danny

    The meal sounds horrific from beginning to end. Thanks for the tip on never going to eat at a culinary institute! I hope your friends John and Eric are independently wealthy–they’ll need it! But please tell me the 20 percent added to the bill did NOT include the price of all that wine? Do you think most people who eat there leave two full tips? Outrageous! Is the food insanely cheap?

  4. Heather

    I’m a college student. No one tips me. Perhaps as I serve dinner to my family, I should ask them if I’ve given exemplary service? 😉

  5. Sarah

    This is a tough one for me. I was not in Culinary Arts in college, but I was in Culinary Arts in a vocational highschool (Not by choice, long story. Same highschool Emeril Lagasse went to though lol). It was run the same way as a college. We all rotated through the cooking, food prep, baking and serving in the “Tea Room” which was the schools restaurant. When we waitered/waitressed we were not allowed tips and it stated that in lieu of tips, the patrons make a donation to the donation cup in the front that said it was for the jimmy fund (the teacher pocketed most of it). Some patrons were firm that we got their tips and would tuck them into our pocket or apron while the teacher wasn’t looking. We were expected to hand it over to the teacher if that happened of course. Anyway… now that I’m getting long winded here. I see both sides of it. I both agree with you and disagree. They ARE students and it is their schooling, so your thought on it isn’t off base, but I also see the side where it’s their schooling, but they are doing all of the same things, perhaps even working harder (too hard in your case lol) that they’d be doing as an employee of the same type of establishment. They are working and not getting paid for it.

    All in all, I think walking out paying 45% gratuity is insane and I mostly agree with you.

  6. Abby - Bright Yellow World

    Tipping gives me hives. I never know what the correct amount is, and so I always over tip. And then there’s the “owner versus employee” tipping thing: do you tip the owner of a business, if they were the one who waited on you? And what about takeout? What’s an appropriate tip then???


  7. Finn

    I know that if you have your hair done or a massage at a beauty school, you should tip the student. But then again I don’t think they ask for a gratuity for a “scholarship” fund anyway.

    I have no idea what the right thing to do here is, but there’s a good chance I’d have left a 40% tip, too.

  8. Amy @ Ess Eppis

    I am surprised that these details weren’t disclosed when the reservations were made or on their website.
    Being that it was for the scholarship fund I probably would have paid the 20% on the tab… and then gave Carlos and the other kids a separate cash tip (plus I love doing that handshake/slip the cash move). I know first hand how difficult restaurant work is – I think I was the worse serve in history (I tried, just could not “get it”).
    Philly has a great restaurants!

  9. Poppy

    You could try going to NECI in Vermont. There’s no expected 20% plus a tip for your server that I remember. But the drive from NYC is 7+ hours with traffic. 🙂

  10. Amy @ Ess Eppis

    That’s def info that should have been on their website or disclosed when you make a reservations.
    Knowing how difficult restaurant work is (and I was BAD at it), I would have probably paid the 20% on the bill and then tipped the servers in cash (plus I love being able to do that handshake/pass the cash move).

  11. Bill

    I think what we all want to know is…were there any breastfeeding women there?

  12. Titanium

    What Bill said.

  13. Juli Ryan

    You wouldn’t have this problem in New Zealand. There is no tipping at restaurants. And there is meticulous bill splitting. Too bad it’s such a long expensive haul to New Zealand. (Much much more than a 45% gratuity and a rental car.)

  14. Cheryl

    As a former restaurant worker (server, hostess, busser, prep-cook and cocktail waitress), I STILL have a hard time tipping a server less than 20-25%, even when they really really sucked. Even when the meal was inedible. And I’m all about tipping in palindrome too. Yeah, yeah. I’m a nerd, even wrt tipping.

    But a 45% tip dude? Nope. That is plain ridonkulous. Ain’t no service, or meal, on earth worth that. Not even if Tony Bourdain cooked it for me personally. Naked. And promised to service me in private for hours afterward. In Tuscany. On a bed of satin pillows.


  15. Rene Foran

    Adding the voluntary 20% scholarship gratuity is a genius move…and that you have to be subjected to shame and humiliation to decline?
    Hell’s Kitchen, indeed.
    I wonder if that tactic would work in reverse?
    I wonder if I could subtract 20% of my electric bill to cover “students in need” I do, in fact, have them living under my roof.
    And if the electric company would like that 20% back… I could send my doe-eyed moppet over with her piggybank.
    and she’d have the sniffles.
    Just a thought.


  16. Lauren

    “I thought this young sommelier was an asshole.” I want this printed on a t-shirt. Perhaps in a thought bubble over the head of a drawing that resembles you Neil.

  17. headbang8

    (This is the place in Hyde Park, no?)

    In giving 20% to the scholarship fund, you actually ARE tipping the staff. The kids get the money, one way or another.

    This whole damn business of tipping in America pisses me off. Raise the prices by 20% and give the proceeds to the servers in the form of a living wage, I say.

    In most places around the world, that’s what they do. You can leave a tip for exceptional service, or out of the kindness of your heart, but it’s not frowned upon simply to pay your bill.

    Tipping as an institution encourages the sort of fawning over-service you detest so much. And it puts too much power (or obligation, if you prefer) in the customer’s hands.

    It’s kind of like having your appendix removed by a doctor. How would it be if he removed your appendix perfectly well, but you didn’t like the scar, or he was rude on pre-op? Could you reduce his fee by 20%? Or even if he was perfect, could you simply refuse to pay his wage because you felt like being an asshole, and that’s your right?

  18. Warner aka ntsc

    We have eaten there many times.

    They do not change from front of the house to the kitchen on a daily basis, but as a block of I think 3 weeks.

    The gratuity is voluntary.

    They do not want the students tipped. The menu now flatly states it is a violation of IRS rules, and the bill has no line for additional tip. Cash tips are supposed to be turned in.

    However, always check the bill as they never get it right. Our last lunch was $34 total, with my wife and I each spending $17 on appetizer and entrée. They forgot the iced tea, tax and tip and I didn’t notice until hours away.

    The building that houses the restaurant you were in is also the main class room building with a large number of teaching kitchens. I’ve taken many courses there as an enthusiast, not as a student.

    Read Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef for a description of what student life is like there.

  19. teahouseblossom

    I have been to said culinary institute you mention.

    To avoid the whole stressful dilemma, we ate at the little sandwich shop place. Pick up at the counter, sit down, scarf sandwich. Done!

  20. At Heart

    My husband is a relatively recent CIA grad. The restaurants aren’t THAT good, and they totally lie about how hard it is to get a table. That said, it can be a decent place to get a meal, but there are also many much better restaurants in the Hudson Valley.

    …And “Warner” is right about the tip; it’s too bad you didn’t know that while dining there – you tipped the scholarship fund twice. If you left cash and Carlos had taken it he would have failed the course, which is pretty serious at that school.

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