Making Headway- Advancement in the Kitchen

If you had told me a year and a half ago that I’d be second-in-command in my bakery, I would have asked what the hell went wrong.

Well, obviously COVID did, but that was only part of it.

So far, my current employment has been where I could say my most “traditional” career growth has taken place. I started as a morning baker, became a shift lead, and then Production Lead- the right hand of my manager who runs the kitchen under the auspices of the owner. My usual station is Pastry Prep (previously considered the position for newcomers and students)- but in addition to my actual production work, my other responsibilities include:

  • Fielding questions to take weight off my manager.
  • Training, advising, and assisting the other bakers as necessary.
  • Troubleshooting problems with production or facilities.
  • Responding to the higher-ups when the manager is indisposed.

Not to toot my own horn, but I handle all of it quite well, and I feel that the responsibilities I have are well-placed. In the meritocratic lore of the kitchen, this is as it should be- employees develop, rise to the level of their capability and talent, and acquire new power, responsibility, and recognition each time.

What is NOT part of that lore, or mentioned in my own ascendancy, is just how many good people I worked with deserved those roles and recognition more than me, but left for a variety of reasons. How much of advancement in the kitchen is actually meritocratic, and how much is “dead man’s boots?”

Animated GIF from David Lynch's "Dune" of Paul Atreides and the Reverend Mother talking. The quote is "They tried and failed? They tried and died."
“Many men have tried.” “They tried and failed?” “They tried and died.” (from Dune)

“Just Lucky”

“Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”

Seneca

If you deal with Imposter Syndrome (like about 75% of the population,) this quote is great for bringing you back down to earth.

There have been plenty of times in my career so far when, yes, I did work hard and diligently, using what talent I had- but it wouldn’t have come to much if the stars hadn’t aligned in a particular way.

  1. My first baking job happened because I went to a gastronomy dinner with my parents, drank way too many sub-par martinis, and chatted with a casino executive. Granted my pictures of cupcakes WERE pretty cool, but that might not have landed me a job if it didn’t remind him of an idea HE’D had a few weeks earlier.
  2. After applying to work at my current bakery twice, and being turned down each time, I wasn’t about to try for a third until a friend of mine was the manager there and called me up to give me the morning baker position. He knew I could work and hustle, and needed someone he could trust.
  3. I got off the difficult morning hours because the person who’d been hired for evening shifts decided to go back to being a line cook. Since I had trained him, learned much of what he did to cover his days off, and knew the other recipes needed out of necessity, I told my manager to give me the shift instead- that way he wouldn’t need to train someone new.
  4. The departure of one of our prep people meant a lot of work fell on my new station. A new contract would quadruple it- so I was given a small prep team to train and manage on my night shift. We pulled off the new contract successfully- I was elevated to PM Shift Lead. To quote my manager at the time when he announced it “You guys already do whatever he says anyway- so now it’s official.”
  5. COVID descended, and a lot of staff was laid off- including my shift. I was moved back to mornings (though not the early mornings) and asked to pick up slack wherever I could. We all ran ourselves to exhaustion- but we handled it the best we could. Then our assistant manager- a dear friend of mine- decided to leave for the sake of her and her parents health. The manager tapped another baker and I to support him in her stead- we were the most diversely trained and knowledgeable. When my counterpart- and the manager- left, I was the last one standing under my new boss. I became Production Lead- because there was literally no one else who knew enough to do the job.
“Last man standing…”

Yes, I am a hard worker, knowledgeable in my field, and a decent teacher… but there still needed to be chances and opportunities to show it, and those don’t come along especially often- especially for some people.

The Flaw in Meritocracy

Meritocracy
mer·i·toc·ra·cy/ˌmerəˈtäkrəsē/
noun
government or the holding of power by people selected on the basis of their ability.

Oxford English Dictionary

The problem with meritocracies is that, in order for someone to be vested with power, their merit needs to be recognized. It means that opportunities to demonstrate merit have to be available- whether by creation or chance. That chance can take the form of “dead man’s boots”- where sudden departures create a vacancy that must be filled, and a clever employer will promote from within- thus demonstrating the possibility of advancement with the company and inspiring a reduction in turnover. The obvious problem is that such opportunities can’t always be predicted, and capable people may get tired of waiting.

Meanwhile, a classic example of created opportunity is a sous chef at a restaurant attaining enough talent and skill that “just” being a sous isn’t holding interest anymore, and the chef creating a new venture to give their sous a kitchen of their own (simultaneously protecting the time and effort invested in training the sous from simply leaving the company.)

Regardless, we are back to the original problem. Even if opportunities exist, merit must be recognized, and capable people who do NOT get recognized get restless. They feel ground under and exploited. Even if a given employees is not deemed “capable” or “ready” for the advancement they crave, just ignoring them can foster this feeling of frustration and lead to increased turnover as they feel that not only are they being underused, but that there is no pathway to improvement for them within the company. Several of my coworkers who departed- of varying skill levels- complained bitterly about these very issues as they left.


Finally, it needs to be sadly stated that, as much of a meritocracy as the kitchen is held to be, prejudices like sexism, racism, and bigotry can still influence how many opportunities are available and to who. I have worked with women in my career who were far more talented than I- but did not get to experience of some of the exposure and networking opportunities I did because the people making the decisions were men. If a minority, a person of color, or a woman needs to work “twice as hard for twice as long” to get the recognition that a mediocre man does, that is not a real meritocracy. That is a rigged system.

Summing Up…

As much as we all want to say that the kitchen is the “ultimate meritocracy”, a fair amount of chance, external factors, and- yes, bias- factors into the decisions of who rises in the ranks and who doesn’t. It’s not as pure as we believe it is. None of this is to say that people who DO rise in the kitchen “don’t deserve it.” Recall the quotation by Seneca- preparation and opportunity. Opportunities come along, and it’s up to the individual to seize them when possible… but we can’t pretend those opportunities come along often, or equally to everyone.

Stay Classy,

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