The Dabney Is Making Its Cooks and Servers Swap Jobs

It's basically the restaurant version of "The Parent Trap."

Chef Jeremiah Langhorne at The Dabney. Photograph by Scott Suchman

For the past few months, servers at the Dabney have been peeling peas and cutting lemons, while cooks are folding napkins and memorizing table numbers. It’s basically the restaurant version of The Parent Trap. (Or Trading PlacesFreaky Friday? We can’t decide.)

The “exchange program,” as chef and co-owner Jeremiah Langhorne calls it, was created so the 41-person staff will play together a little nicer.

“One of the number one problems that you face as a manager in a restaurant is this animosity that tends to build up between front of house and back of house,” Langhorne says. In some places, the kitchen crew works double the hours for half the pay. “It often creates tension and stress and problems.”

At the Dabney, Langhorne and his partner Alex Zink have tried to avoid that in-house animosity. It’s the reason why they have an open kitchen and the reason they try to pay decent wages (prep cooks start at a minimum of $13 to $14 per hour) and offer health benefits. “Our mantra from the very beginning is: no one here necessarily works harder than anyone else, you just do different jobs,” Langhorne says. And what better way to emphasize that than a role reversal?

Not everyone is switching jobs on the same day—let’s face it, that would be a disaster. Rather, once a week, one person from the kitchen and one person from the dining room trade places.

Cooks get quizzed on the training manual, which includes everything from where the silverware and glasses should be placed to the best way to address a guest when specific problems arise. Meanwhile, servers learn to mix flour or knead dough for ciabatta and brioche with the pastry team in the mornings, then chop vegetables or make pickles in the afternoon. (They observe the butchery, but Langhorne hasn’t let them loose on a whole pig.)

The swaps haven’t been without some stumbles: Servers have found some ridiculous ways to hold a knife, while cooks have struggled to grasp the table number system. But at least there’s some supervision so dinner doesn’t go totally awry. When a cook works the dining room, for example, he or she is paired with an actual server. “It works like a training shift, so no one can really mess up too much,” Langhorne says.

The experiment is limited to prep cooks, line cooks, servers, food runners, and other non-management positions. Langhorne says it would be too disruptive to swap out a sous chef or a manager. Plus, he adds, people in those positions tend to already be on board with the team mentality.

So, unfortunately, that also means Langhorne and Zink won’t be spending a day in each other’s shoes. “There might be a few wine questions I can’t answer and there might be a couple dish questions he can’t answer,” Langhorne says.

After everyone goes through the “exchange program,” the staff will be able to swap gigs again on a request basis. But Langhorne isn’t expecting anyone to ask for a more permanent change.

“Most people are like, ‘Wow, I really have a much better understanding of what you do now, but that is definitely not for me.'”

Correction: The exchange program has been going on for a few months, not “several weeks,” as was originally stated.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.