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