Learning to let go is one of those skills that no really thinks of “mastering” until it occurs to them that they need to.
Depending on the circumstances, people can let go of things very easily. When whatever we are dwelling on feels inconsequential or already impermanent, we probably don’t care that much when we lose it or let it slip.
Other stuff, though- the important stuff, the intangible things- can keep us hung up for years as we learn that they were just as impermanent as everything else. Maybe we know that “this too shall pass,” but were hoping to get lucky in a macabre way- thinking we’d never get to see their end and thus it can feel eternal.
All things end, though. It’s the price we pay for getting to experience them at all, and it gives them their worth and rarity. Learning to let go with compassionand grace is vital to emotional wellbeing– and that can include letting go of goals and dreams as well. Giving up on an old dream can set you free to find a new one.
One of the best compliments I have ever received in my life is that I am a good teacher. Between that and being told I have a comforting presence and an “old soul,” I hope I’m well on my way to transforming into Uncle Iroh (Combination teahouse/pie shop/stout-heavy Shire-inspired taproom, anyone? Get at me investors.)
In all seriousness, I do take those kinds of compliments seriously and earnestly. Teaching is not easy- I’ve had both great and terrible teachers in my life, and I know how stressful it can be to make sure you are doing the job well (I’m married to one, after all.)
This applies even more to crafts and professions like cooking and baking, where mentorship is the lifeblood of passing on knowledge. Translating the skills, finesse, mentality, and spirituality of a craft is more than can be contained in a mess of cookbooks and videos. At some point, everyone will need someone to stand beside them, hold their hands and say “This is what it needs to feel like. This is how you tell it’s ready. This is what ‘done’ looks like.”
You can get pretty far teaching yourself if you have the will, love, and knack for it- but not nearly as far as you can by learning from those who went before you.
There’s No Getting Out of Experience
Let me tell you a story about two bakery owners who want to have profitable, flourishing businesses but see the same obstacle in the way- the people doing the baking.
Both are recognizing that it’s a job seekers market right now. In the wake of the pandemic, restaurant workers are feeling their power and demanding more from their management than ever in history. Better pay, benefits, better hours, better working conditions- the things whose very absence made the restaurant world even remotely profitable for generations. Cooks, servers, and chefs are sick of loving an industry that historically has survived by wringing the blood from them, and they are in a position to demand change.
Both bakery owners have decided that this is untenable for them. They either cannot or will not pay what the market now demands for experienced labor and do not feel that investing in people is the best way forward. They both come to the same conclusion- “If I can’t afford to get experienced and capable people, I will get inexperienced people and remove the need for experience.”
Rise(?) of the Machines
One bakery owner decides to get rid of the need for skills with automation. They throw a bunch of money into getting machines to do as many production tasks as possible and giant freezers to store everything. That way big batches can be made all at once and kept instead of making fresh pastries each morning. Yes, they know the quality goes down a bit, but the customers won’t.
The machines are expensive though. They also need to be assembled, programmed, and tested. The existing recipes (the ones the bakery had been making by hand for years) don’t come out right from the machines. Test after test, trial after trial, ingredients and time going in the trash until- finally- the machine makes something that will “work.”
The quality is paltry compared to the originals. The curd is gummy and filled with gelatin and the pastry is tasteless- but the customers probably won’t notice, and now they don’t have to pay someone who knows how to make those things well.
Even simple tasks like filling pastries with almond cream! Who knows how much money they were losing when employees might overfill by a couple grams? Now they have an extruder and hopper so that, instead of having someone who can handle a piping bag, all they need is someone who can pull a trigger on a gun to release the exact amount they want. That is, it will– once they get it to work. They’ve had to remodel their restaurant and get rid of half their dining room to make space for all the new tech they’ve bought. It’s not all working yet, but eventually…
The other owner has a different idea. They think people are still necessary, but that the work itself isn’t so hard that the right person can’t teach themselves to do it well with the right systems.
The owner had a capable pastry chef in the kitchen, and that chef had a team of people they had personally trained to do their jobs well. Together they understood the flow of the kitchen- the chef taught anyone on the team anything they needed to know and went over it patiently until they got it right. The chef invested in the team- time, effort, faith- and was generally rewarded for it by a team with the knowledge and confidence to operate without them.
One by one, though, the team left. They loved the job, the work, and everything they were learning on the way… but they needed better pay and benefits. It was getting to the point that even the chef’s assistant had to quit because they simply couldn’t afford to keep working at the bakery anymore. Finally, the chef went to the owner and said the same thing.
For the owner, the answer was simple- have the chef make videos and document everything. Write down all of the changes they’d made and the processes they’d created, and make instructional videos so that future staff could watch and learn. The owner believed in systems and data- they didn’t like that the chef was taking time to teach the staff personally and wanted to make videos so that the chef could do other things instead and let new staff learn on their own.“Ideally,” the owner said, “anyone off the street should be able to come in, watch these videos, and be able to do your job capably if not proficiently.”
The chef shrugged and agreed. They liked teaching others and didn’t want to burn bridges with their soon-to-be-former boss. It was fun making the videos too. They thought it was a little galling that the owner seemed to think years of experience in a craft could be handed down in a manual and a couple video clips, but that wasn’t going to be their problem much longer. They’d do their best regardless, but quietly hoped that the owner would find a replacement for them quickly. This is a craft after all, and some things don’t translate well to video.
No One Does It All By Themselves
There is something to be said about being an autodidact (self-taught person.) In a lot of ways, autodidacts are the very best kind of amateur you could hope to find. They (hopefully) have the love, attention, motivation, and self-direction to dive into a craft of their own will and (hopefully again) have the capacity to seek resources when they don’t know something and learn from their mistakes.
At the same time, there is no substitute for actual experience. I have taken several cracks at teaching through this blog, writing down recipes, and making videos, but I know there is no substitute for the training and insight that comes from directed practice and mentorship. I may be thrilled that a new baker loves baking at home, baked with their mom growing up, has a library of cookbooks, and binged every cooking video on YouTube and TikTok- that kind of passion is laudable. If they come in and say that that makes them ready to be a pastry chef though, I would have to disappoint them.
I’m glad all those videos and resources and services exist. I honestly am. It’s getting people excited about cooking at home again. It’s exposing them to new worlds and cuisines they might not have tried otherwise, and even the videos of people reacting to god-awful recipes can be hilarious and act as a horrible warning. Hell, I’ve even picked up a couple new techniques and ideas from those videos.
It’s not experience, though. It’s not training. It’s not mentorship– and it will only take you so far.
Early in my culinary career, I wrote a lot about learning to stay in “the eye of the storm.”
While the frenetic choreography of a working kitchen spun around them, I admired the chefs I saw on TV who seemed to be standing at the center. Iron-spined, stoic, even serenely directing the motion about them to lead their teams through a successful service. I admired the ones who didn’t scream or berate their staff (even then, I knew it was impossible to manage others if you couldn’t manage yourself.)
At the time, I described it as a lot of things. I called it wei wu wei, dignity, patience, and simply confidence in themselves and their team. Years later, I learned with was all those things, and it was something one could learn and train themselves in– equanimity.
I remember when my father, fresh off of some new training and then reconfirmed in team management training of my own, told me the Three Requirements for Change. They rang true enough in my own life and observations that I put them in my first book:
1. The need for change must be recognized. (I.e. “I can’t keep going on like this. Something has to change.”)
2. The nature of that change must be known. (“I need to ____”)
3. The idea of changing must be less terrifying than the consequences of not changing. (“Changing will be hard, but it’s gotta be better than if I keep going like I am.”)
I find myself in a position once again where change is needed. The third requirement is usually the toughest one to establish for change- people will often accept familiar misery over the unknown chance for happiness. In my case, however, it’s the second requirement that’s tripping me up. Where to from here?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
We can learn from everyone, but remember to be picky about who’s in your corner.