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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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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What To Do (and NOT Do) At A Working Interview

The working interview is a hallmark of the culinary industry for no other reason than the fact that, simply put, people can say anything they like on a resume and BS their way through interview after interview- but they can’t fake practical skills.

A cook can claim to have worked for years and learned from the greatest cooks of a generation (and thus demand greater pay or authority,) but if that talk doesn’t translate to skills and elan in the kitchen, they will find themselves out with the green potatoes- and blackballed as a liar to boot.

That’s why after an interview or two, promising candidates for a kitchen job will be brought in to work a shift or just a couple of hours with the rest of the team. They might be given a timed challenge, a list of tasks to complete or just asked to help out and keep up while they are observed. This labor is usually unpaid or done in exchange for a shift meal (the ethics and legality of which are regularly disputed,) but ultimately it’s still an interview and thus a two-way street. The restaurant gets to assess the candidate’s demeanor and skills, and the cook gets to see how the kitchen works and decide if they are a good fit.

So short of not being a liar and not injuring yourself and others, what can you do to ace a working interview?

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The Psychological Pitfalls of Servant Leadership

It had already been an exhausting morning when my boss walked in. A new employee needed to be trained. There were concerns about the production schedule. Orders hadn’t come through, ingredients were misplaced, an extremely impatient and entitled customer… and all of it needed my personal attention when I wasn’t getting my own production done.

When my boss came in and saw all the activity- busy, but not quite chaotic- she asked if there was anything she could do to help. “It’s great that your training the new girl today, but maybe just have her shadow you today instead of giving her tasks? That way you don’t have to be distracted all the time answering questions.”

I refused partly because she was asking good questions and learning well, but mostly because by handing off simpler, smaller tasks for her to learn on, I could focus on the tasks that needed a managers touch- like the lady that thought an incomplete order behind the counter was hers and tried to walk away with it.

It was busy that morning, and it felt like chaos, but it wasn’t. Everything got done, well and on time. What made it feel like chaos and created stress was answering questions that didn’t need answers and handling problems that had already been handled.
I’m a big believer in servant leadership, but there’s a serious difference between that and learned helplessness.

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Life After the Line- When Chefs Change Careers

My friend Renee has- like most of our industry- had a rough couple of months.

Renee is a sommelier back east. She has enough skill that positions in her niche are scarce. She also has lifestyle demands that make the job pool even shallower- and enough contacts and familiarity with a particular scene on the East Coast that discretion is required. As we sip coffees and tea at a rainy cafe in Astoria, Renee spins a saga of staffing and management issues, attending the needs of VIPs, and protecting the restaurants reputation. It all culminates in a storm of uppity underlings, COVID protocols, and curiously nebulous budgets that lead to her (relieved but frustrated) resignation.

“I’m not even fond of wine,” she admits with a short snort. “I’m good at being a somme, but I honestly like cocktails more.” She didn’t even really enjoy the fine dining restaurant life. She was fine with the formality and artifice of high society. The social waters she navigates with ease gives me the willies just thinking about. Managing the wine at a restaurant, though, was “just a box that had to be checked on the way.”

“I think I’m going to pivot to distribution.” she muses as we finish our coffee. “That’ll keep my toes in the world. People keep suggesting I teach, so there’s that too.”

I recount my own experiences at the bakery (I’m almost afraid they’ll bore her- my own worries have been no less frustrating, but far less flashy) and we share a rueful laugh. The tragedy of it all is that none of this is new. “That’s the industry.” We’re both tired, both burned out- and wondering if we haven’t had enough.

It’s a question that a lot of chefs ask themselves. This foul year of Our Lord 2020, however, has stepped up a lot of professional timelines. With every successful night’s service, every broken freezer, every balancing of the books- chefs everywhere ask themselves “How much longer can I keep this up?

What will come next?”

Youtube https://youtu.be/pYLjHhSOE7s

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