Who’s In Your Corner?

Some people pick new projects to work on with care. They weigh their existing time and energy, the effectiveness of their efforts at any given moment, and choose their next task efficiently.

I, on the other hand, seem to pick my projects by going “Fuck it,” buying a new 1-subject notebook and a green pen, and burying myself in the internet.

Just because I start researching projects like that though doesn’t mean I jump in haphazardly. I’ve already learned the consequences of that. I know to try and cover all my bases, get the best insight and information I can, and of course get the guidance of pros.

The best thing about being in the food business is that when you decide you’re gonna try something out, there’s tons of people who’ve done it before you and not all of them sucked at it.

Less “magic sword,” more “how to not crash another business.”

Guides and Teachers, NOT Cheerleaders

No mistake, everyone needs a cheer squad- folks who love you, support you, and will remind you of everything you have going for you that will help you succeed- but it’s even better when you have people that you know support you but will grab you by the collar to smack some sense into you.

The ones that will call you out on cutting corners, letting things slide, and acting outside your values. They’ll point out how you are messing up, not mince words, and help you find new ways forward.

You know, mentors.

As an interesting fact, did you know that the Japanese word for teacher- 先生 (sensei) literally translates as “one who as gone before?” In other words, someone who’s done this before and knows the way.

It’s easy to imagine the best mentors as being like the favorite Wise Old Teachers of our stories and media- Gandalf, Uncle Iroh, Obi Wan Kenobi. Folks like that might exist, but most of us aren’t lucky (or plot-armored) enough for them to find us. We need to seek them out.

That alone is a challenge because there are plenty of people who might have gone before you, but not all of them were successful, or successful the same way you want to be. Part of being a student is being able to learn from everyone, but not FOLLOW everyone.

Everyone Has Something To Teach

My bakery is currently hiring for bakers and servers. After a friend of one of our employees (who left restaurants because of mistreatment, shitty conditions, and general abuse) hemmed and hawed about sending in her application, the employee asked me “Hey, do you mind if I just grab her and bring her over here to meet you? She’s stressing about her resume, her experience… everything!”

I told her she could- that it wasn’t even a real interview, she didn’t have to bring anything, and that she could tour the space, see our work and meet me. Then she could make a better decision.

The friend came by and she seemed nervous at first, but after seeing the chef just standing next to an oven quietly peeling potatoes for Shepards pie and getting a tour of the space, she sent in her application. My assistant later said “Finally! I mean, yeah, we ALL came from shit restaurant jobs- but you’re really cool to work with, I’m okay I think, and her friend is here and having a good time! This is a good place- she doesn’t need to worry so much.”

Regardless of how long I stay with my current kitchen, that fact and statement are what I’m proudest of. More than recipes, more than sales and figures, more than prestige- the fact that I ran a kitchen where my staff felt appreciated, respected, safe, and happy will stay on my resume until the day I die.

I learned to make it that way by paying attention to what I needed in their position, learning from the people who provided it- and learning from the people who didn’t. After all, “if you can’t be a glowing example, be a terrible warning.”

I’ve had bosses and been in business that made me miserable. I wanted to quit the industry all together. At one point, I wanted to end my life. I learned as much from them as I did from the better ones. Instead of “classically” learning to bring up cooks “the way I did,” I learned to do it different.

To teach, not scream.
Support, not belittle.
Offer dignity and grace, not derision.
Express my love of the craft more than my exhaustion.

As a result, my cooks WANT to push themselves. They WANT to learn more, and feel encouraged to do so rather than threatened into perfection. I wouldn’t have realized quite how to communicate and offer that if I hadn’t learned from people who didn’t, or couldn’t.

We can learn from others without choosing to emulate them. For some of our teachers, their best lessons can be “don’t be like me.”

I will forever love and miss Tony, but one of the best lessons he taught me is to not wind up in his shoes.

We can learn from everyone, but remember to be picky about who’s in your corner.

Stay Classy,

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In Memoriam of What We Were

You cannot change how your story started, you can always change how your story ends.”

For plenty of people, those are wonderful and hopeful words of wisdom. It is hard, and we often need help to do it, but it is possible to rise above our pasts towards a future we want. That is an empowering, terrifying, and beautiful thing. A hallmark of our intelligence as sentiment creatures is the ability to internalize what we’ve experienced and use it to make decisions in the future.

This can be both a blessing and curse. We learn from traumatic experiences as well, and healing from that is as much a (re)learning process as a spiritual/emotional practice. When things happen that really and truly shake you to your core, you can’t always just dust yourself off and go again. If you think you can, I congratulate you on your compartmentalization and/or sociopathy.

The truth is that, even if you think you’ve recovered from a difficult experience, there is no returning to the person you were before. It’s a “what is known cannot be unknown” sort of thing. Before, you didn’t know you could be hurt like that. You didn’t know you could fail that hard. You didn’t know whatever it was could hurt so much. It’s the price we pay for being thinking, feeling, loving creatures- but it’s a price we never consciously think we must pay until it happens.

When it does, we learn. We learn to wake up the next morning and keep trying. We recover, we hope, and we carry on. We also need to mourn the people that we were- because that is never coming back, and it’s something I’ve been wrestling with a lot recently.

A young woman sits cross legged with a hand to the side of her face in sad introspection
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Don’t Work Toward What You Don’t Want

I try not to miss weeks in writing this blog. If I am an Actual Professional Writer©, then that means showing up when I agree I will, putting out the words I’ve decided I will, and not making excuses about it. I think it was Ursula K. LeGuin who said she knew was a professional writer the first time she sat down to write something without really feeling like it and having no ideas.

In my case, I missed last week because I literally had no energy to do anything after a 60-hour week in the bakery. I wanted to write, I had ideas of what to write about… but the tank was on “E” and I was running on fumes for the downtime I had.

It’s a fairly common situation for folks in my industry right now- the Covid Culinary Brain/Talent Drain has hit everyone, and people are flocking to jobs where the pay is better, benefits more secure, and pockets are deep enough to possibly take care of them through the next crisis. That means that applicants for small Portland pie shops are few and far between, and it’s up to the folks who are there to keep the wheels turning.

I don’t blame anyone for wanting to get out of a field that is effectively lying in the bed of intransigence it made and now dealing with its legendary well of desperate labor suddenly running dry. A lot of my older friends and colleagues are staring down this situation and realizing that “the free market,” capitalism, and truthfully any economic structure looks great until you find yourself on the underside of it.

So why am I not part of this grand exodus? With my skills and experience, I could march into nearly any job fair run by one of those hospitality giants, lay down my resume, and conduct a bidding war for my services. More money, more benefits, fewer responsibilities (at least to start), and a clear career trajectory for rising in their company. Sounds like a no-brainer, so why not go for it?

Because I refuse to waste time working toward what I don’t want.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com
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“Finding the Others” and The Life-Changing Magic of Talking to Strangers

If you grew up in the late 80s and 90s like I did (and probably before,) your parents warned you not to talk to strangers. Strangers were strangers. They could be anything or anyone. They could hurt you, or steal from you. They could follow you home.

Then we grew up, and we quickly found that strangers are friends you haven’t met yet. They can also lead you toward your next great steps in life.

The author in a green face mask waiting for his sandwich at House of Banh Mi
Waiting for the best Banh Mi I’ve ever had.
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Food Philosophy in the Moment

The walk up Mount Tabor has become a familiar old friend, and like an old friend it has its own moods. Normally, when I go walking through the park, it’s with an audiobook in my ears. The walk is for the fresh air and exercise, the book for entertainment and distraction- especially if I’m in a foul mood and need to clear my mind.

That was the case this afternoon as I decided I needed to get out of the house and write this blog, but not go to a bar or cafe. Money has been tight lately, so I need to find other spaces to be creative in. The weather is perfect if a bit chilly, and the park is free. Walking up to the top of a little hill near the summit, I have an Earthsea book in my ears. The breeze was blowing, kindly cooling me under the heat of the sun.

In my meditation lately, I’ve been trying to build on focus and mindfulness- being in each moment and appreciating where I am and what I’m doing. As I walked, I pulled the headphones from my ears.

A deep breath. A quiet moment between heartbeats. The smell of warm cedar, and someone practicing a bamboo flute nearby. Distant traffic. Bird song.

I kick aside a few fir cones, lay down my blanket, and start to feel everything.

“Life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen.”
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
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