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.
I have long since accepted that the only folks who can really appreciate the difference between kitchen work and other careers (or even other service industry careers) is people who have worked them.
There are a number of factors at work in a professional kitchen setting that “traditional” career advice simply does not apply easily to.
“If this job isn’t working out, why don’t you just quit?”
“Why can’t you move to another part of the kitchen?”
“[Staffing problem] isn’t your concern- don’t worry about it.”
In addition, the rate of turnover in service industry jobs is historically higher. Whereas an ordinary white-collar position can expect a shelf-life of about two years on a given employee, kitchens regularly see a given position get filled again after anywhere between 6 and 18 months.
Depending on your goals in the industry, a series of short stints can either be seen as expected or career suicide- no one wants to hire someone with an admitted track-record of being a short-timer. In the kitchen, a series of two-year stints is nearly “Unicorn” level of rare and desirable.
This being said, if someone quits a position in the kitchen, they aren’t doing it randomly.ESPECIALLY if only after a few months.
Jay was a troubled kid. He was eager to please and seemed interested in the work. That’s what got my boss to hire him on to be my new assistant. He’d been a food runner and dishwasher since his teens, but never really had a cooking position. As far as baking went, “Well, sometimes I used to help my folks.”
He’d had some trouble with the law, and his living situation was not the best, but he didn’t like bringing that up at work. Jay was there to work, to learn, and to get the job done. I took him on, taught him as much as I could, and gave him all the support possible.
Within a month, I was looking for another assistant.
I’m in the “office” corner of my house- a corner that has gotten messier in recent memory. I’ll do some tidying after I finish writing this, I promise- right now, its staring me in the face, wondering how long I’m going to let those piles of books and random CDs just sit there, and if I’ll ever get rid of those old boxes of business cards and just buy new, correct ones that don’t have expired business names or abandoned web addresses on them.
In the other room, my wife and cat are watching a review video on YouTube. The single lamp in the room- besides our holiday decor- paints everything a pale gold as Em listens the review. It’s almost white noise as she boops at an iPhone game.
I’ve spent the evening relaxing, knitting, reading library books, and buying up Chanukah socks for my friends. Now it’s time to sip some scotch, and write my last blog post of 2019.
This morning, I had the great fortune of getting contacted by an old teacher of mine from culinary school. Chef Joe Sheridan was appearing on WOND, a local New Jersey radio station, discussing culinary education, the industry, and seeking the voices of alumni. I was having a slow morning and agreed to call in.
After catching up a bit on the show and brief introductions (including plugging this blog and my book. #shamelessselfpromoter) Chef Joe asked me an interesting question.
“Matt, I’ve recently been reading this book “Burn The Ice” by Kevin Alexander and- well, to stereotype your entire city, we came from an era of white table cloths and pressed napkins. Now we have chefs with tattoo sleeves, in black T-shirt’s with hats on backward, serving in dining rooms with bare tables and distressed walls. It’s all different!”
Now, I gotta own that since coming to Portland, I’ve gotten a couple food tattoos. I haven’t worn a proper white chef’s toque since I graduate culinary school (I hated them anyway. The paper ones tore and had a habit of knocking things off overhead racks, directly onto my neck.) There’s no denying that the Pacific Northwest spawned a reckoning in how fine dining was treated in America.
While I have yet to read Kevin Alexander’s “Burn the Ice” on the subject (I just bought it on Kindle a few minutes ago. It’s officially on The Pile,) the sharp cultural difference between living on the West Coast and training on the East is something I’ve mulled over plenty.