Good evening, friends and neighbors.
Honestly, so much of this week as felt like people trying to find the slowest possible way to rip off a Band-Aid.
As I write this, work at the bakery is slowly becoming more dire. Our staff AND wholesale contracts are dwindling, and it won’t be long before I receive a call that- arguably- should have been weeks ago. A call saying I should stay home for the time being, and perhaps find other work.
I wouldn’t be alone, to be sure. An enormous chunk of the current record unemployment claims are culinary and service staff, trying to figure out where to go next.
Fortunately, whether we all realize it or not, our experience in the kitchen has drilled an assortment of hard and soft skills into our minds- and those who used to look down on “burger flippers” would be wise to hire us while they can.
“A Jack of All Trades”
When people hear that phrase, they tend to finish it with “…. is a master of none.” In truth the full proverb runs:
“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but ofttimes better than a master of one.”
In other words, a person who generalizes their skills may not be “great” at anything, but is more useful more often than someone who is.
And if there’s one thing I can say my career arc is good for, it’s that I can do a LOT. If I am laid off, I’m confident I can turn my writing and mentoring skills into some form of paycheck- or I could even return to medicine. Not exactly keen to do that, though… there’s a reason I left medicine for the kitchen in the first place.
That’s me, though. Across the country, kitchen workers suddenly displaced by the pandemic are looking for a new way forward- and the kitchen may have prepared them better than they think.
Some time ago, I wrote up a two-part defense of teaching children to cook- first highlighting the health benefits of learning how to eat right and cook food for yourself, then by listing the tangential learning opportunities available in cooking. Years later, and I still stand by everything in that list.
For adults, the effect is the same. The professional kitchen is a workspace and team environment unlike any other I’ve seen, short of a military unit. Someone’s ability to handle themselves under stressful situations, navigating communication barriers, and succeed at logistical challenges where the timeline is mere minutes shouldn’t be treated lightly, and it’s time for people to recognize just what working in a kitchen trains into you.
#1. Teamwork, Team Management, and Leadership
There is literally no room for drama and childishness in a busy kitchen. Those who can’t work like an adult as part of a team get pressed out till they either get with the program or get gone. People with kitchen experience know what it means to be relied on, and to rely on others. They work with and around each other, and those who have been in command know how to size up their teammates, assign duties, see that everyone is supported, and no one is left behind.
#2. Logistics and Supply Chains
When is a delivery supposed to arrive? How much is coming when? Do we have enough people to handle today’s workload? Can we get it to all our customers on time? Ask a chef- he will know.
The nature of working on a line, overseeing wholesale production, and managing a kitchen is that of an ongoing logistical challenge. A chef oversees how his team receives their raw materials (ingredients), processes them, and delivers them to customers in such a way as to extract maximum value at every point in the chain. A restaurant lives and dies on its ability to deliver on a deadline- from supplier to tonight’s special.
#3. Financial, Time, and Materials Management
The culinary industry operates with incredible overhead costs, and consequently profits on incredibly slim margins. A cook is a master of frugality and economy, their eyes accustomed to spotting where anything- time, materials, or money- may be getting wasted and how to turn that loss into a gain.
We make magic out of food scraps, use mise en place to control our space for economy of motion and organization, and any cook who’s been responsible for ordering and purchasing will be keenly aware of EVERY way materials can be stretched or acquired on the cheap. The history of food is making the most of what’s available, and today’s cooks are masters at stretching dimes and pinching pennies.
“I need three steak, two lobster, and one Caesar salad!”
”How many burgers do we have right now?”
”Eight all day, Chef!”
Cooks may not be the best people for customer-facing rolls, if we’re being honest. There’s a reason we stay behind the scenes cooking the food and let Front of House be the face of the restaurant.
Among a team, however, we are accustomed to getting messages across quickly and clearly- homing in on the bottom line of a given situation, developing a course of action, and applying it quickly. In a strict hierarchical structure and regularly shifting priorities, we shine- able to adjust course and communicate our situation on the fly. In a corporate environment where too many mistakes occur because someone “didn’t get the memo,” “Didn’t understand,” or “TL:DR’d” a long email, having someone accustomed to delivering and receiving important information and moving on quickly can’t be taken for granted.
We all came to the kitchen for a reason. Maybe the office life isn’t our ideal, or we’ve tried it already and wanted to break free. All the same, the job market is now being flooded by people with incredible heart, dedication, work ethic, and skill sets even they might not be aware they possess.
Most of us certainly look forward to getting back into a kitchen soon, but for the time being, we need work- and you need us to do it.