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.
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?
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.
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? ”
I had been in a depressive slump for a few days. Life for me was less a series of deeds and events than a monochrome shamble from one checkpoint to another. But when I got home to a quiet house with my wife taking an afternoon nap, I knew the fog was lifting- because I wanted to make some pie.
I weighed out the flour and cut the butter. A small measure of iced tea was poured for the liquid. Regardless of my state of mind, my hands still had the skills. The ancient wisdom still flowed through them, and they knew without my correction how to create something good. It was the quiet, meditative serenity of letting my hands move while my mind watched and convalesced- shaking off the lead cloak Depression had thrown over it.
Reconnecting to something simple, delicate, and pure. This is the space where I think people show their true skills.