Zahav, one of the best restaurants in America according to Eater’s own Bill Addison and widely recognized for chef Michael Solomonov’s modern Israeli cooking, also offers praiseworthy service (which was nominated for a James Beard Award this year). But the name of the man responsible for this aspect of the Philadelphia restaurant’s operations isn’t as recognizable: Okan Yazici, Zahav’s general manager, started working at the restaurant in 2008, the first year it opened, as a busser. He rose through the front-of-house ranks to become GM, and last year, he added equity partner to the list of roles he’s held at Zahav.
Yazici plays an integral part in the restaurant, but says that most diners have no idea what it is that he does. Service, he says, is often an afterthought — even in Yelp reviews. Yazici lays it out: “They talk about brussels sprouts, they talk about cauliflower, but in the end, they say, ‘Oh, by the way, service was great,’ without realizing the amount of work and the people that made it happen.” And so, for all of those diners, he explains:
A GM is responsible for just about everything outside of the kitchen
As a GM, “you do a little bit of HR, a little bit of accounting, a little bit of therapy, a little bit of managing,” Yazici explains. And through it all, the stress is such that “it makes you think you’re going to die soon, especially at a restaurant this busy and successful.”
At the start of service, Yazici is charged with inspecting everything outside of the kitchen. “Literally A to Z, it’s from a pitcher, to a spoon, to a light bulb, and a faucet, to the bathroom, and to a toilet paper, and to a salt shaker. Everything is your responsibility,” he says.
People skills are essential when working the front of house
When service begins, the GM is there to put out any fires. Here, a passion for the job and genuine willingness to please is essential. “When it comes to hospitality, people want to hear your voice in a warm tone. They want to see how your sincere you are,” Yazici says. And he notes, as a front-of-house employee, if you’re just coming to work for a paycheck, you won’t rise to a managerial position. It’s these qualities Yazici looks for when hiring for front-of-house positions at the restaurant — another GM task.
Sometimes, a GM is also the staff’s therapist
Yazici also considers himself responsible for the emotions of the staff that he does take on, noting: “You need to be a therapist.” This aspect of his role now comes with an added layer of stress since the election. “I worry, even though they have work permits, did they apply? Did they pay taxes?,” Yacizi says of the immigrants on his staff.
His employees are worried too, he reports. Some are unsure if they’ll be able to work at the restaurant in a few months, despite currently having the proper legal authorization. They fear that an executive order could suddenly change their status. Plus, it’s often difficult for immigrants in the restaurant industry to get visas at all because the increasingly popular O-1 visa for extraordinary ability or achievement doesn’t apply here, as NYC chef Fabian von Hauske explained on an episode of the Eater Upsell.
Yazici, who immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey, is concerned: “[Immigrants] are the most important part of this industry. Without them, it won’t be okay.” You don’t have to be a restaurant GM to know that.