Mentorship: What The Apprentice Actually Learned

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

Mentoring has become a bit of a catchphrase recently, hasn’t it?
A buzzword, thrown around by people in suits at “networking” events where attendance and business cards are expensive and the beer is cheap.

What do you think of when you hear that word? Most people probably think of someone they met who’s a bit farther along in their field and gives them their number for when they get in a tight spot.

In the kitchen, “mentor” means something fundamentally different. It’s the difference between learning a business and learning a craft.

It’s one huge reason the culinary industry is still around- and it’s not straightforward or easy.

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“Vox Populi, Vox Dei”- Yelp and the Future of Food Writing

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I like going out to eat as much as the next guy. I make my decisions on a bunch of criteria-

  • What am I tasting?
  • Price point
  • Locality
  • Did I discover it and it looks interesting/ did a friend suggest it personally?

You will notice something missing on that list- I don’t really give a crap about internet reviews.

Broken iPhone

from pexels.com

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Killing Norman Rockwell

Hello, friends and neighbors.

There’s a lot to be said for (and against) going to culinary school if you want to become a cook or chef.

Most of the arguments in favor of it include a basis of skills, the amount of knowledge acquired in a short amount of time, dedicated teachers, and the connections that come with being part of a community.

The arguments against include going into debt, that school won’t teach the life skills that come with the kitchen (some of which are as necessary as technical skills), and wasted time and money for a piece of paper that, while impressive, doesn’t match up to hands-on experience in the eyes of employers.
To get a loan from a bank to start your own business, that’s arguable.

Both of these camps come from a point of emotionality and pride, and I can see the honest merit in both. I went to a local, excellent, less-expensive culinary school before I had my first cooking job, and I can tell you right now the first thing I learned there:

Norman Rockwell had to die.

Rockwell's

“And The Symbol of Welcome is Light” (1920)

Idealism Breaks Like Bad Custard

Don’t get excited. I love Norman Rockwell’s work, and I’m certain it will live forever. The man depicted the America we wish we could see out our window. The unofficial-official artist of the Boy Scouts of America, I grew up looking at his work with honest love and respect. His depictions of small-town America- the Mayberrys and Main Street, USA’s we all imagined of a “happier,” “simpler” time- are part of the national consciousness.

Even his darker, more evocative paintings had an idyllic serenity to them:
“Yes, THIS is what life should be like. THIS is how things need to be.”

My first visions of being a baker- handing over pies and cookies to mothers and their kids in my own little shop, swept clean and full of clean glass and wood shining brown like a pie crust- had that dream like quality. Like someone who wants to own a restaurant, and dreams of tasting the food, wandering through the dining room and greeting patrons- it’s the end product.
The “good bits.” Getting to that point is rarely pretty.

We got dragged into reality after the first year.

“You are in for it now. You’re not going to be Emeril. You’re not going to be Nigella. You’re not even gonna be Jamie Oliver. When you graduate, you will be someone’s b****. You will be someone’s b**** for years, and if you’re good at being their b**** you might have some little b****es of your own one day.
You may even become the biggest, best, and baddest b**** that the world ever saw- and you’ll still be someone’s b****.”

Understand, no teacher ever said ALL  these words verbatim… but it was understood.
“When and IF you graduate… you are at the BOTTOM. You will STAY there until you demonstrate the ability to crawl up.”

Rockwell's

“Daydreaming Bookkeeper (Adventure)”, 1924

The Pit

We were taught to cook and bake, of course. That was the job. Some teachers were easier than others- to varying degrees of success. We were also told some of the horror stories of the job.
We were taught to write our own.
We were given the “jail, hospital, or the morgue” mantra.

“You want to own your own bakery one day? Strap in, kid- here comes recipe costing, labor costing, suppliers, food safety, OSHA, tax law, local and state certifications…
What, you thought you’d just be baking pies all day? Hah, maybe if you’re working for someone else, and never want to do anything more.”

We got fed the reality. Convenience products. Suppliers. Cost management.
We read Down and Out in Paris and London, Kitchen Confidential, and ​The Apprentice. We mucked out trash cans,. We scrubbed dishes and cookware. The stronger guys had to carry out the stockpots heaped with 100 lbs of bones.

Because of my school’s proximity to the casinos and resorts of Atlantic City, the majority of us figured one of them would be our first gig out of school. For the most part, they didn’t need creative thinkers and dreamers. They needed warm bodies that could crank the recipes out and not mess it up.

Years later, I’d lament to a friend of mine here in Oregon that I did as well as I had at that- that I had pushed to get into some other creativity-based courses, and maybe not simply tried to gather “all the skills I could.”

My friend, who didn’t go to culinary school, disagreed. “Too many kids who graduate from schools leave trying to be artists first in everything, and craftsmen second. They wind up having issues with the menial stuff, and getting repetition and replication down. It’s AWESOME you got used to that first.”

We didn’t work ALL the time though. And some of us still dreamt. Maybe not the Norman Rockwell ideals we had… but something similar. Something NOT what we were led to accept.

Rockwell's

“The problem we all live with” (1963-64)

Rockwell Invictus

Most of us did go to the casinos, and some stayed for a while. Others built our names working for small restaurants and cafes.

Some of us started our own businesses, repainting Rockwell in our own image.

Some of us packed up our knives and began a wandering career, chasing the tides and where life might lead. We had skills, after all. Give us a kitchen and an oven, we could find work.

As I write this, I’m crashed on my couch with an absurdly snuggly black kitten. My wife is sleeping in the next room. We’re two thousand miles from anywhere we FIGURED we’d wind up. I found work in a restaurant, and when I’m not baking, I’m telling stories.

There isn’t any Rockwell hanging on my walls. Instead, I have my awards from culinary school.
A Ralph Steadman print of a man on a bicycle with baguette, wine, and a cold.
A poster from the podcast Emily and I binged on the drive from New Jersey.
Drawings by my friend Lillian, inspired by kimchi.
and an old tourism poster of Atlantic City.

I don’t think Norman Rockwell ever put any of his paintings IN his paintings either.
He painted a reality he wanted. WE made them dreams.

Rockwell's

“Relaxing in Chair”, 1923

How close to reality we can get them… that’s on us too.
That’s the tough bit.

​Stay Classy,

Contents Under Pressure- Anxiety in the Kitchen

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I’ve been described a lot of ways since I was a kid.

  • “An old soul in a young body.”
  • Erudite
  • Driven
  • Inventive
  • Conscientious

There are probably a few others- especially from folks that don’t like me, but that’s their problem.
These are the ones that seem to drive recent revelations home for me right now.

The author graduating culinary school

The day I graduated culinary school. I’d been working as a nurse’s aide in a hospital and baking cakes out of my kitchen for nearly two years then.

While perhaps it wasn’t as obvious back when I was heavier, I’ve always been a pretty outgoing and busy person. I always had some new interest to study, a new hobby, a new fascination. if I was interested in something, I’d bite into it down to the bone.

Poetry. Cooking. Baking. Writing. Comparative Theology. Psychology. Model-building. Collections. Storytelling.

I may have been heavier and slower, with maybe a bit less physical energy- but I was always GOING. 

Now that I’m physically healthier and have more energy, it’s even more obvious:

  • “I’m going to write a blog! I’ll do one entry a week. No, TWO a week! One a day!… Nevermind, one a week is good.”
  • “I’m going to write a book! Ooh, I just had an idea for the NEXT book while I’m writing this book! #inspired”
  • “I need to get these eight tasks done by the end of the night. But there’s a list of extra stuff if I have the time? Oh, Challenge Accepted, motherf***er… “
  • “Hey, I bet I can make a living doing this, WHILE I’m baking full-time! Yeah, I just need to find a…”

Even as I’m writing all that down, and knowing I’m describing myself, it sounds pretty great. That’s the kind of person you THINK about when you imagine successful, driven, hardworking people. That’s the kind of person that winds up on book lists and talk shows, or doing lecture circuits.

From personal experience, it’s also the kind of person who knows how to be a neurotic wreck quietly.

Pwhen the prep guy accidentally throws out the best bits of your roast pork...

When the prep guy accidentally throws out the best bits of your roast pork…

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

With my work life starting to stabilize, and my attempts at self-care starting to slowly bear fruit (yeah, next step is decluttering my desk), I’m finally trying to turn my attention toward my “side work.”

Finding a therapist, or really any good professional, isn’t as easy as a Google search. You tend to want someone nearby, with hours you can manage, who’s handled issues like yours before- and is either covered by your insurance or has rates your budget can accommodate. My friend Rachel- herself something of a compulsive researcher/listmaker- helped me out by shooting me a bunch of resources. I’ll include some of them down below.

Before you show up in someone’s office, though, it can be a good idea to do a little homework yourself. It takes some mindfulness and honesty- occasionally painfully.
if you’re going to a therapist though- if you want to get better- then you want to dig up those hard truths.

This doesn’t mean you should diagnose yourself. Between being the son of a doctor and getting a B.A. in Psychology, that was drilled into my head well enough:

“You’re getting a copy of the DSM IV. Read it through if you want, but DO NOT try to diagnose your friends with anything, and DEFINITELY not yourself. By the end of the semester, you will think you have every disorder in the book and be demanding commitment to an asylum.” – one of my professors

Picture

Photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash
So it all starts as the Delphic Oracle of Apollo said- “know thyself.”I knew I was a hardworker… but I could see how not working affected me. I have a tendency to link my self-worth with my productivity.
I knew I was driven and inventive… but I’d always lose steam when things got too tough or challenging.
I knew how patient I could be with everything and everyone (on a good day, anyway)… but I couldn’t reserve any of that patience for myself or my own failures.

I was energetic… but could never really relax.
I was detail-oriented… but with an all-or-nothing mentality. If it wasn’t perfect, it was garbage.
If I wasn’t perfect, I was lazy.

When I was looking for a job, I had to remind myself that I WASN’T a bum or a slouch… and I needed Emily to remind me of that too.

That’s an anxiety disorder talking.

“Oh, Do Your Research…”

PictureBased on what I’ve learned, “high-functioning anxiety” is not a clinical term. It’s more of a self-descriptor for a subset of behavior- people in whom their anxiety propels them, rather than shuts them down. The outward behaviors are extended, lifelong coping mechanisms that- to observers- seem like ordinary and desirable traits.

Imagine having noisy neighbors. To drown out their constant noise, you blast your favorite music as often as you can… and for some reason, everyone else then assumes you’re some kind of metalhead or a roadie for Slayer.

Throughout the day, a mind with anxiety doesn’t stop making noise:

  • “You’re a failure.”
  • “You’re a horrible friend and horrible person.”
  • “Can’t even do that right, can you?”
  • “You’re a hack. No one gives a crap about your writing.”
  • You saw [successful pastry chef younger than me]? THEY’RE good at their job. You? The hell are you doing?”

The “high functioning” anxious mind then decides to try to drown out these thoughts:

  • “Oh yeah? Well I just ran my fastest pace for the 5K yet!”
  • “No I’m not! See, I’m helping this lady with her groceries!”
  • “Well I got this other thing PERFECT!”
  • “Well I’m gonna keep rewriting it till it’s AWESOME!”
  • “Well I’m going to do extra stuff at work, and I’m going to join a professional group, and I’m going to…”

Repeat forever.


The Ring of Solomon- Putting Demons To Work

Let’s be real here. Doesn’t that sound like someone BORN for the kitchen?
A devoted, loyal, driven hard worker. They’re passionate, curious, made of 100% raw, uncut Hustle. New dishes? “Yes chef!” Need this crate of potatoes diced? “On it, Chef!”
Eager to do their best, eager to show off their skills, always laughing and joking. Eager to please.

They seem like they were born for this work. They love it. They’re emotionally invested in doing a good job.

Be honest… that’s the kind of person we ALL want working for us.

After a lifetime of quietly living with negative voices in their mind, these people have become VERY good at putting on a brave face and stomping out those voices with achievement and accolades. They are the Zen Masters of “fake it till you make it.” Without even being aware, they take Tyrion Lannister’s advice. They take their weaknesses and flaws and wear them like armor so nothing can hurt them.

Nothing except themselves, that is. The brain and body are not meant to have that kind of tireless, explosive energy forever… and these people burn energy at an incredible rate. Mentally, they are trying to marshal their thoughts to do what they want, and physically they exhaust themselves so the demons will fall asleep.

It doesn’t last, though.
Eventually, they run out of energy. They are physically and mentally burned out.
Maybe it takes a moment of intense external stress that causes a “snap,” or it’s a slow degradation, but the smiling and joking stops.
They lash out in anger and frustration, at others and themselves.
The work they love feels more like a burden, and they can’t help but express a lack of excitement for their tasks.
They make simple, silly mistakes… which frustrates them even more.

The demons wake up.
The stereo blows out, and they can hear the neighbors again, but now they’re screaming:

You want to help others, but you can’t even help yourself.”

It’s a lie… but they are too tired to fight it anymore. The perfect worker becomes a perfect mess.

graffiti wall painting of a screaming man

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

The Demon Hunter

The worst thing about this scenario is the fact that, well… it seems like so much good comes out of it. The person points to their demonstrated functionality and achievement and goes “Oh come on… yeah, I’m a little high strung, but a mental disorder?! I’m not a loonie, look at all I’ve done!”

Alternatively, if they ARE aware of it and they know something’s wrong, they might say, “Okay, I have some issues, but I don’t need help. I’m not THAT bad. Therapy and meds are for people who can’t function.” Worse, they might avoid getting help because they think it’s the SOURCE of their talent, like an addicted artist afraid to get clean. “Look at everything I’ve done… does this make me a fraud? What if I DO get better… people like me because I’m a hard worker! They keep me AROUND because of it.”

“I’m all about my work ethic… what am I WITHOUT it?”

I’d like to say that I have a perfect answer for this. A nice bright bow to tie up the entry with… but the fact is, I don’t. This is the point I find MYSELF at now.

The research I’ve done has made suggestions that, beyond therapy and possible medication, other answers include things like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness training, improving sleep habits and decreasing caffeine intake.

I’ll let you know how I manage to work those into kitchen life, and what happens next.

In the meantime, though, at least I know my demons have a face and a name- and that’s the first step to handling them.

Despite the macho-posturing and auteur myths we were all raised with, success does not require suffering.

There are more options than “lose the work you love” and “live in fear of yourself.”

Stay Classy,


Mental Health Resources
 (Thank you, Rachel!)

Finding a Therapist:

  • ​​Psychology Today:  The main search bar for finding a therapist in the US, from a heavy-hitter in the world of psychology academia. You can search by speciality, insurance, or method- but this is just a directory. Make sure you follow up with individual practitioners to make sure they are accepting patients, take your insurance, etc.
  • BetterHelp and TalkSpace: Generally affordable online-only counseling for a bit cheaper than an office visit.

Self-Care:

  • If you have a smartphone, there are apps like Aloe Bud (helps you remember to look after yourself) and Plant Nanny (reminds you to drink water) that can help you build and maintain health habits. Other apps like Daylio include journaling, personal organization for the scatterbrained, and such.

Peer-to-peer Help:

  • There are a number of groups on social media where you can simply talk with others who have issues and find community- Facebook and Reddit I know have them, I belong to a few myself. But I’m going to include a warning here, in Rachel’s own words because frankly they are excellent:

“It probably goes without saying, but just a note of caution when you dip your toes into the peer-to-peer arena: it’s easy to devote entirely too much of yourself to trying to help people who are not doing a great job of helping themselves. Put on your own life jacket before assisting others, and if you need to step back from the shared experiences in order to continue on your own path, then do so. Related to that, and something I’ve learned over time: everyone’s stories are equally valid and deserve space. There is no Mental Health Olympics, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to win any medal it’d offer. Even if imposter syndrome is telling you that there’s no way your story is as important as that one person’s story who’s spent months in their local psych hospital. Your story is allowed to take up the space it takes up. “

Media:
If you have some room in your day to listen to podcasts, Rachel recommends “The Hilarious World of Depression” and “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I can’t speak for these myself, since my own podcast choices are generally fictional/relaxing/escapist, but they are worth a listen at the very least.

Evolving Priorities

Good morning, friends and neighbors.
It had been a trying few days.
Emily and I were living in our first apartment here in Oregon. We’d barely been here a year.
My first shot at going into business for myself wasn’t doing so well, and I was back on the job hunt again.  

Emily’s job was feeling somewhat bumpy at the time. Her first performance review hadn’t been great, and her teaching hours were temporarily cut. The apartment we’d chosen- though convenient for Em’s job- was expensive. We’d picked it out in the same hurry that precipitated the move itself.

We were living off of our dwindling savings and the distant charity of our parents.

On top of all of that, winter was coming. It was going to be a rainy season, in a part of the city we still don’t like hanging around in too much. Not because it’s dangerous or anything- far from it. It’s very… suburban. It reminded us of all the things and places we DIDN’T like spending time in on the East Coast. Strip malls, highways, nothing decent in walking distance, and barely anywhere to walk anyway.

As we were doing laundry, Emily started crying.
She didn’t like this place. This wasn’t working out. She was stressed out and unhappy. She knew I was struggling. She knew I was essentially trying to start my career from scratch, without any of the connections that had helped me previously.

She was scared that I’d given up my dream of Vienna for her, and she couldn’t abide that.

​A little context here:

The Me That Was

I’ve spoken before about the person I was before culinary school- physically, emotionally, and such.
In short, I really wasn’t a happy guy.
After my first year in culinary school, I had an idea of what this career would demand of me- and I was okay with it.

Then.

Matt Back Then was overweight, sad, lonely, and generally felt unloved and unlovable.
So… what the hell, right?

Long work days meant more money for ME.
Never see loved ones? WHAT loved ones- I don’t have a girlfriend, and couldn’t really see a grand future for myself beyond some romantic dreams.
No holidays? Well, I’d call my family, but I figured I’d never have ANYONE to rush home to.

My life was mine and mine alone, and I was going to give it over to baking and the restaurant life- I simply never imagined I’d be sharing it with anything or anyone else, and all my decisions, for better or worse, would be on me to deal with.

Starting off, I didn’t especially have a goal I wanted to bend my career toward either. I knew I wanted to bake, and I wanted to travel and learn. After a few rewatches of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” I figured that Vienna would be an amazing place to live and work for a while.

Vienna- historically famous for being a crossroads of East and West, for music and composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and for viennoiseriea specific sort of a pastry work- as well as it’s chocolatiers.
I decided that would be my goal- somehow, someway, I’d live abroad in Vienna for at least a few months, work at a bakery, and learn viennoiserie from the masters.

“Change is the Only Constant”

Humans are not static, though. We change. We evolve and we grow, and our priorities and dreams shift.
I’m sure it sounds inspirational when someone claims to have had the exact same goal in life since they were a child and never wavered. It sounds wonderful… but to me, it’s also very suspicious.

When I was a child, I dreamt of being:

  • A doctor
  • An engineer
  • A rabbi
  • Indiana Jones
  • He-Man
  • A chef
  • A baker

and a few others I’ve probably forgotten.

Life has a way of doing that- it changes your priorities, and your goals can change too.

Emily and I on our 4th date

Sometimes it’s people too

It’s not weakness of will or character for a person to stop and say, “Why am I still here?”

“Do I still want this?”
Do I still care?”

It can be hard. It can be terrifying, even- especially if you’ve already invested so much of your life into that thing, or achieving that goal, just to find that- eh… you’re just not feeling it anymore.

Matt Back Then was pleased to work long days, no holidays, sweat his bones out, and come home each night wired out the a** on caffeine and whiskey because what the hell- it was his life.

Now, Matt just wants good pay to work a 40 hour week. I want a job that I can feel good about doing, and that will give me time and space to NOT do it, and where I can spend time with like-minded people who don’t wanna just black out each night after work- they go out and live.

I can honestly say I want that now because I know there is someone in my life that loves me.
She wants to see me happy with my work. She wants me to come home alive each night, and wake up next to me each morning.
She wants me to look out for myself, and demand the things I need to make my life and energy worth it.
She makes me want to be a better person than I was.

I have responsibilities and priorities now that I never thought I’d be lucky enough to have.

“Well, That Didn’t Go As Planned…”- catchphrase of young professionals everywhere

So yes… plans changed a lot. I have no idea how I’ll get to Vienna, what I need to do to get there, or who I need to talk to. I haven’t forgotten it, nor can I say I’ve given up.

It’s simply not a priority right now.

My priority now is giving Emily and Cleo a life worth living.
It means keeping back enough of myself at work so I still have something to give them when I come home.

In a way, yes- I did drop my dream of getting to Vienna for Emily… for starting a life with her, I had to direct energy from other places in my life.

I’ll tell you this, though- if someone were to take me back in time, and show me every thing and task I’d have to complete to make that dream come true- every letter to write, every hand to shake- and tell me I could have it all, but I’d lose the life I have here with Emily in Oregon, and maybe never have Emily in my life at all?

I’d tell them to f*** off out of my bakery and let me get back to work.

I’ve never exactly done things the easy way anyway.
I’ll get to Vienna somehow.

And Emily is gonna be there with me.

Life is not always an either/or game. You have to make choices, yes-
but if you don’t like the choices offered, no one said you couldn’t create your own.

Animated GIF of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones demanding trial by combat

Like this… I will seriously roshambo someone for a plane ticket.
Stay Classy,

Origins

 Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

Today is gonna be a little different, and it’s gonna be a long one- because it’s going to be my story.

I tend to drop a lot of little tidbits about my life and experience throughout the blog, especially as the subject matter calls for. It makes a good story- good stories are easier to remember, and that’s why the lessons in them stick.

It’s why I love stories. It’s why I memorize them, and retell them, and share my own- because knowledge is something that, so long as you remember it, can never be taken from you.

Words have power. Stories magnify that power.

Here’s mine:

A Love Of Letters

Picture

 My love of words and stories began very young. Both of my parents were avid readers, as were my sisters, of whom I’m the middle child. My dad once told me about the semester of college where he read the entirety of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit cover-to-cover in the space of a few months… and consequently nearly flunked out. When my little sister was in high school, my mother got a degree in Library Science and became a children’s librarian.

Seriously, read for yourself, and read to your kids. It will do them (and you) no end of good. You always have time.

My first books were Dr. Suess and a series of abridged, slightly sanitized renditions of classic literature called the “Great Illustrated Classics.” A few of my favorites were “Treasure Island,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “The Count of Monte Cristo”, and other high adventure, swashbuckling stories.
I got picked on a lot in school, of course- I was heavyset, had glasses, braces, and a speech impediment. Stories took me out of that world, and put me in new ones. It wasn’t long before I decided to start trying to create a few of my own.

After all, pens don’t stutter.

By the time I was in high school I was writing short fiction stories, but mostly poetry. In high school, I had a number of English teachers, but the best was a man by the name of Peter Murphy. He pulled no punches when it came to our work, and would give us strict rules to follow:

Tell a secret.”
“Tell a lie.”
“Pretend you have to pay your reader a quarter for every word you write.”
“If a word feels useless, it is. Get rid of it.”

 


I remember one particular class where we were going over the work of an older poet whose name I’ve forgotten. All I remember is that the rest of the class, when asked, praised the work and discussed what they liked about it- and to me it all felt utterly flacid. It was not compelling or enjoyable, it sounded like it was written by a stereotypical pre-teen going through a phase.

When my turn came to speak, I said so. “What the hell are you all reading? This is absolute garbage. If this shit can get published, anyone can.” The class argued, howled, and waved it off until the bell rang. As I packed up to leave, Mr. Murphy called me to his desk. “Great… here it comes.” I thought.

Mr. Murphy looked at me a moment, then got up and opened up his lunchbox. He took out a box of apple juice and handed it to me.

You’re too young for me to buy you a drink, Matt. Good work.”

Words have power. When you write, when you speak, and when you read, you interact with that power. Literacy is a way of watching that power work. You can pick words that seem to mean the same thing, but conjure up different imagery. Reading a news article, you can get past “the story” and find the story that the writer is trying to tell- or convince you of.

Words reveal intention.
Words reveal agenda.
Words build your reality, based on who is telling the story.

They inspire, they hurt, they rally, and they poison.

Fun facts: The famous “magic” word “Abracadabra” is supposedly derived from a Hebrew phrase meaning “I create what I speak,” and numerous faiths have beliefs or superstitions involving the power of one’s name, varying from the ability to curse a person, control them, or render them immortal.

Really makes you think a bit when someone gets your name wrong at the coffee shop, doesn’t it?

A Love Of Food

 I was always a pretty fat kid.

Besides being bookish, my family were always gourmands. Regular family dinner was a thing, and entertaining at the house was always an occasion. My mother did her best to get us to eat healthier- she was always conscious of that sort of thing, and my father loved grilling and stick-to-your-ribs, meat-and-potatoes classics.
They were members of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, as my grandfather had been, and enjoyed going out to eat as much as they cooked. Holidays and special occasions centered on it, particularly around my grandmother’s giant dining room table.

Food for me was therefore always a source of comfort. It meant home, family, and warm fuzzies. A bookish, bullied kid that didn’t get out much and needed a lot of comfort? That’s a classic recipe for an overweight kid.

Similarly, surrounded as I was by such a love of food, I was bound to pick cooking up myself. Whether it was learning how to make a perfectly fluffy microwave egg from my dad (the trick was melting the butter in the bowl first. Cracking the cold eggs directly in hardened the butter, careful whisking meant the bowl would stay non-stick), or my very first time baking, making hamantaschen with my mother at 6 years old, the kitchen just always felt like the most comfortable place to be. Years later, I’d be talking with my friend Karen in the casino bakeshop after a frustrating morning.

I like the kitchen because, unlike other places, everything in the kitchen makes sense. Everything has a use, there’s rules to follow, and a list of tasks every day. You do your job, you do it right, and follow the rules, you ‘win.’”

Over my life, my relationship with food changed as I did- especially in terms of my age, my tastes, and my health. In the quest to lose weight, I found that I no longer craved the saccharine-sweet things I used to enjoy without thinking. I wanted things fresh and green more, rather than slipped into a sandwich somewhere beneath a pile of meat and cheese.
One friend of mine even commented that, prior to me losing weight, he hated my baking because it was too sweet to even be enjoyable. Now that my tastes had changed, everything I made was so much better and much more natural.

the author holding a plate of passover cookies

Apparently this was a picture that got my future wife’s attention. Behold the power of a trim, healthy man with cookies.

I became more selective about the food I ate as well- if I was going to have to exercise later, I wasn’t going to waste that effort on mediocre crap. I was going to eat the food I LOVED, and that tasted REALLY FREAKING GOOD. As the old Yiddish saying says, “If you’re going to eat pork, eat the really expensive kind and get it all over your beard.” Unfortunately, “food guilt” and “food regret” also tended to run in my family. It took a full-on lifestyle shift to break it, but it happened.

My attending culinary school happened as a natural extension of all this too- feeding the people on my rescue squad, the support of others, and the right words at the right time. Sometimes that’s all you need to make a big decision seem simple.

Food is just food, and it’s also never just food.
It is sustenance, and it is history.
If the saying is “you are what you eat,” then the inverse is true too- “You eat what you are.”

When we cook, a part of us always slips into what we are making- even if it’s not our recipe.

Food is communication, and cooking is one more way we tell our story.

A Love of Service

There’s no glossing over this one, and no real way to make it sound less cheesy or sappy. I’ve tried. So here’s the truth of it-

I love helping other people.

I insist that it is possible to enjoy being of service without be servile or abasing oneself. When I was growing up, I was in the Boy Scouts. They have caught quite a bit of flack in recent years- and some of it rightly so in my opinion- but the basis of the program as communicated in the Scout Oath and Law is something that I think should be available to everyone.

 “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my Country, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” – The Scout Oath

“A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.” -The Scout Law

​I do believe that serving and helping others IS humbling, but perhaps not in the way most people think. It is humbling in that, by recognizing others, you recognize your own smallness in the world- and if you do it right, your own greatness. By keeping your eyes and ears open, you can see just how much impact a simple act of kindness and service can have.

All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.

The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.”
Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching, Ch. 66” trans. Stephen Mitchell

Eventually, even if you accomplish every single goal you set for yourself and achieve all your hopes and desires- you will always need something greater to aspire to, or to be apart of. If working in kitchens, feeding others, and helping out others has taught me anything, it is that achieving my goals and helping others is not mutually exclusive.
By recognizing yourself as part of the world, you join with it, aid it, and become attached to something even greater. “No man is an island,” as the poem says- imagine being able to see yourself as part of all the islands scattered in the sea. No less unique or important, but part of something greater.

So, Why Did I Write All This?

Picture

​A number of reasons really. It could have just been storytime in my head, or I might have just wanted to get this all straight for myself.

Really though, I think I wanted to set out my thesis and mission for why I write this blog.

In a lot of ways, this blog is a combination of three things I love- Cooking, Writing, and Service. Cooking and Writing are rather obvious- I DO write primarily about food, cooking, and the culinary life.

That last one, however- Service- is what really gives this blog meaning, and why I keep writing it.
Since I started writing and trying to document my thoughts and ideas about living the life of a professional cook, I knew I was wandering through very well-explored territory. There is no shortage of books that discuss the life I live or why from a number of different points of view. All the same, however, I felt that I could offer something a little different and hopefully useful.

See, most of the writers who discuss their lives in the kitchen that I’ve read give it an air of “noble toil” and “a labor of love.” Some, including a few of my heroes, point to a life of failed relationships, substance abuse, or other unhealthy habits as “sacrifice” and “the price of doing what you love.”

I say, “BULLSHIT.”

I think it is possible to have a happy and successful life in the kitchen without giving way to poor health and bad behavior. I think it’s possible to treasure your relationship with food without letting it dominate every part of your world.
I’m determined to be proof-positive, to document that proof here, and to find other like-minded culinarians who feel the same.

The ones who want the macho, scar-comparing, bro culture to die.
The ones who treasure themselves and other cooks as artists and athletes in service to the greater world.
The ones who know that pushing our field forward involves keeping our eyes on the present, and learning from the past.

For those culinarians and professionals out there, I want them to know that they aren’t alone, and it’s not impossible.

For just the casual readers and food-lovers out there, I want to share a new world with them. The kind they might not get elsewhere, especially not from television shows and movies that present the professional kitchen as a hellscape. I want them to hear the stories of the people who serve them. I want to change and improve their relationship with food, with dining, and with themselves.
I want them to see that there is something to this work that can improve their own lives.

That’s what this blog is for- to tell that story.

It’s a good thing I’m a storyteller.

I’ve got some crazy shit to tell you.

Stay Classy,


Making Yourself A Priority

Good evening, friends and neighbors! I apologize for the silence on here as of late, and for the lightness of this evening’s post.

Over the last two weeks or so, I’ve been reorganizing and tidying up this blog, and it’s kinda gotten in the way of researching and writing. Between that and working on the upcoming book, most of my creative energies have been pulled away.

The good news, however, is that not only will this blog be a bit easier and more enjoyable to read, it will also be better to write. Here’s why:

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