It’s the people that can make or break a job for someone.
We’re social creatures, and if we must spend a third of our days and half our waking hours in the same place, doing the same (or similar) activities with the same people- especially if that place is cramped, hot, and busy- we prefereither to be around people we like, or left alone.
Working with and around people you like and respect can help you hang on, even in a miserable job- and a great job won’t be enough to keep you around if there’s people making it a living hell.
If you’re lucky enough to have a team of people you like and admire personally as well as professionally, there’s no reason you shouldn’t want to go out and have fun with them! If you do though, it’s best to remember to leave work at work.
In retrospect, my therapist wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. That’s really the role of a therapist or psychologist- unpacking and untangling what’s in you, and organizing it so you can figure your own mind out.
As I spoke, though, my therapist cast it in a new light:
“Yeah, that WOULD be really irresponsible, but you did that before- when you moved out to Oregon. You got a new job way sooner this time too… why the drastic reaction?”
”I think it’s because you enjoyed this job so much. You loved the kitchen and felt at home. The kitchen has always been your safe space, and losing it regressed you- to the scared, overweight kid bullied on the schoolyard. All your work and self-improvement felt like nothing.”
It’s been a while, but I feel like I’m finally reclaiming the kitchen in my life. Here’s how.
Missing What Was Lost
As far back as I can remember, the kitchen was where I was always happiest.
As a kid, my parents cooked, and family dinners were mandatory. Holidays meant gathering around my grandmother’s big knobbly-legged dinner table, and a regular visit involved sitting in the kitchen over matzah ball soup.
Living on my own, visiting friends meant puttering around the kitchen fixing drinks and food. I always loved the idea of the kitchen being visible to the dining/sitting area simply because- while I wouldn’t always want help- company and conversation while I worked was always welcome. That’s the way my apartment is set up now.
When visiting friends, I always gravitate toward the kitchen. It’s where the beer is coldest, where I can feel useful, and where the best conversation is- normally because it involves food.
And as a professional baker, my kitchen- draining, exhausting, and work though it is- is where I feel in control. Everything makes sense. I know where I need to be and what I need to do, and I have an answer to everything. Whatever’s going on beyond the door can get bent- there has always been a feeling of “this is my domain.”
That’s really it, I suppose. That feeling of control. Cooking is “the art of control” after all, and I love knowing where everyone and everything is in my kitchen, where I can make things work to my will.
The job I left had robbed me of that- turning a place and activity I loved, already under stress due to being how I make a living, into a place I dreaded, and activity that exhausted me with no reward.
So I left. I left the environment I called “home”, with no prospects, because the potential pain of leaving was welcome compared to the pain of staying.
Rebuilding and Refocusing
After another misadventure in another kitchen, I landed at my current spot. After a year and change, I’ve earned a promotion and a small team to lead.
Even though I’m writing a book on mentoring and leadership in the kitchen, it’s hard to put into words (convincingly, anyway) how I train and motivate even a small team and get them excited about their (admittedly boring and repetitive) work.
I encourage my team. I give them guidance, critique, and advice. Best by far, though, I try to give them interest and love. I try to help them make the kitchen their sanctuary too. Most of the time, it’s already there. They wouldn’t have tried making a job out of this work if they didn’t love it on some level- or at least been the kind to cook at Super Bowl parties and poke their head out of the kitchen door for commercials.
Love of the craft will carry a team when practicalities will not- but only so far. I’ll teach them to tell when a tart crust is ready. I’ll demonstrate the fastest way to fill an almond croissant. I’ll show them how, when a quiche is finished, it jiggles like my old chef Victoria would say “a nicely toned ass.” It’s up to them to find the rest of that love in themselves.
Much like I’ve had to do these last few weeks.
“Chop Wood, Carry Water.”
Very recently, in my quest to read more, I finished an excellent adventure novel titled “Cinnamon and Gunpowder.”
I won’t go into deep detail (I’d rather you read the book and got what YOU needed out of it), but the book can be summarized thus. In the early 1800s, a British chef is kidnapped by pirates after they murder his boss, and he is forced to prepare an elegant meal for the captain of the ship once a week, or else he gets killed/thrown overboard. The book is told through his journal entries, and he documents the crew, their voyages and adventures across the globe, and his numerous attempts to escape.
What he ALSO documents, however, is what (and HOW) he manages to cook for the captain in the barely-equipped ships galley and using the unusual provisions (notoriously lacking in things like fresh vegetables and meat, butter, eggs, etc.) It includes:
Bribing a sailor to provide him with fresh fish.
Using coconut water and a dried fig to make a yeast starter (kept warm by his body heat)
Sealing lard and shortening in a waterproof jar and towing it behind the ship on a long rope to chill it in the depths of the sea… so he can make tart crust, rolled out with a cannonball.
Along the way, the chef is forced to “return to basics,” learn about new ingredients he finds, get creative with methods, and- most importantly- find comfort in (and refine his philosophy of) the work he had done his entire life.
I am not kidnapped, or on board a ship skittering across the globe. No one is threatening to cut my throat if those quiche aren’t PERFECT, but I do still suffer from the same problem that strikes almost every other creative that tries to make a living out of what they love- staying in love with it.
More often than not, the answer comes from forcing myself to bake on my off-days.
“Forcing myself” is an odd way to put it. You don’t really think of “forcing” yourself to do something you supposedly love. At the same time, work is work. It’s tiring. “I bake every day. I don’t want to spend my few days off each week in the kitchen too!”
I need to remind myself though that when I bake at home, it’s for me. It’s my opportunity to “chop wood and carry water-“ get back to the roots of this craft, and remind myself just why I love it so much. It’s my opportunity to, much like the protagonist in Cinnamon and Gunpowder, focus less on the “job” aspect and more on the craft.
“Food and cheer and song…”
I don’t entertain at my apartment nearly as much as I’d like to. My wife and I are both busy people, and the apartment is usually in some state of disarray.
So when I met a friend who was apartment hunting and invited them in to relax before heading home, it felt good on a number of levels. Not just because I knew they wouldn’t care so much if my apartment was a wreck, but because I got to look after someone for a bit. I got to offer them snacks and tea. They sat under my roof, played with my cat, and enjoyed my company.
That is why I do what I do. I love looking after others.
As I speak, there is rugelach dough warming on my counter, waiting for me to roll and fill it to bake tomorrow morning. It’s a cookie I used to make at my old job- the one I left. My boss was of two minds about me making rugelach every week. It did pull sales away from simpler, more profitable fare… but there was also a group of people who showed up every week looking for it.
I’m gonna make it for my friends this week. Just because I can, and because even though it’s literally my job to bake every day, this is still how I show my friends I love them.
No job, no string of jobs, no career can take that from me. They can only make me forget for a while- but I always remember eventually.
I have long since accepted that the only folks who can really appreciate the difference between kitchen work and other careers (or even other service industry careers) is people who have worked them.
There are a number of factors at work in a professional kitchen setting that “traditional” career advice simply does not apply easily to.
“If this job isn’t working out, why don’t you just quit?”
“Why can’t you move to another part of the kitchen?”
“[Staffing problem] isn’t your concern- don’t worry about it.”
In addition, the rate of turnover in service industry jobs is historically higher. Whereas an ordinary white-collar position can expect a shelf-life of about two years on a given employee, kitchens regularly see a given position get filled again after anywhere between 6 and 18 months.
Depending on your goals in the industry, a series of short stints can either be seen as expected or career suicide- no one wants to hire someone with an admitted track-record of being a short-timer. In the kitchen, a series of two-year stints is nearly “Unicorn” level of rare and desirable.
This being said, if someone quits a position in the kitchen, they aren’t doing it randomly.ESPECIALLY if only after a few months.
Now that The Black Hat Baker has launched, I want to get back to making this a weekly- or even a semi-weekly- blog. I’ve had a lot on my plate, and quite a bit fell by the wayside, but that’s no excuse.
People are passionate, and they have passions. Besides your day job, you probably have at least a few things that you love doing in you’re spare time, right? Things that take your mind off your work and troubles. Crafts and hobbies that give you the creative outlet you might not get at work. They might even earn you a little side money (hey- have you checked out my sister’s writing business Say it Simply? She’s pretty awesome.) or it might be something you keep to yourself, or just trot out for competitions in your spare time. (I’ve got two meads ready for entry in the next Oregon State Fair!)
Bigfoot here is waiting for his turn…
Even though people have these passions- the ones that fill them with light and happiness- so many people find reasons NOT to work on them. Why?
Sometimes there are financial constraints, sure- I can’t let myself go and get more honey for mead if I’m concerned about getting groceries for the week. Other times there are constraints on resources- it might be difficult to get the materials you need.
For the most part, though, the reasons people choose not to pursue their passions are almost tragically mundane: “I don’t have the time.” “I have too many obligations- it’s not the right time.” “I’m just an amateur- it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s a waste of time.”
Let’s take a look at these one at a time, and maybe we give you the license you need/want to do what you love- something you should never need a reason to do.
1. “I don’t have the time.”
Everyone’s busy. You, me, the whole world- if we all ran around as much as we feel like we do, there would be no obesity in this country, and the energy crises would be solved by installing treadmills everywhere.
I want to see someone do the Tour de France on one of these.
If you’ve used this as a reason to not do what makes you happy, don’t be embarrassed- you’re not alone. In fact, I’m more used to hearing it from people who don’t do something they NEED to do- exercise.
In response, I’ll say the same thing here that I say to any/everyone else-
“YOU ALWAYS HAVE TIME FOR WHAT YOU MAKE TIME FOR.”
Really, that’s what it comes down to. Every time you put off on doing something you love to do something else, you are making a value judgement. You are watching TV instead of learning a new language like you’ve wanted to? In practical terms, you are saying “Watching this tv show is more important to me than learning a new language.”
What makes it worse is when you PROMISE yourself you’ll do it. You promise yourself you’ll make time for practicing, for exercising, for whatever- and then you don’t. Have you ever had someone break a promise they made to you? Doesn’t it suck? It sucks when you do it to yourself too- so you stop trusting yourself, and you don’t make yourself anymore promises… and you do nothing.
In Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books, one of his characters- Sam Vimes- would remind himself every time he was tempted to let reading to his infant son at 6 pm every night slide- “If you break a promise for a good reason, you’ll break it for a bad one.” Get your priorities right, and put what’s important to you first- or it’s not important.
You might bluster at that, but facts are facts. If you want to do something that you love, start making the time to do it. Game of Thrones can wait.
2. “I have too many obligations- it’s not the right time.”
This one I admit to being guilty of. It’s kind of the inverse of the last excuse- you simply have too much on your plate, and all of it is (or seems) important. People who use this excuse might dream of an escape- a utopian world where you can have all the time and space you need to finally create something wonderful. The writer and poet Charles Bukowski had a couple thoughts on this:
AIR AND LIGHT AND TIME AND SPACE
”– you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to create.”
no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
you’re going to create blind
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.
baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
In the end, Bukowski is right. If you really want to create something, you feel find ANY time, ANY reason, ANY excuse to at least do SOMETHING towards it. Time and space and freedom make creating more CONVENIENT, but they certainly don’t guarantee it. The timing will NEVER be perfect- so why not start now?
3.“I’m just an amateur- it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s a waste of time.”
This one KILLS me when I hear it. People like doing something, but then some jackass comes along and tells them (or they tell themselves) they’re no good, so they should just quit.
You will never find a more pure-spirited, undiluted artist or creator than an amateur- and real professionals KNOW this. They may offer critique, or even brutally honesty. They may encourage more training, or more experience before attempting something particularly if it’s dangerous,but they will NEVER- EVER- dismiss an amateurs efforts or tell them to give up.
All artists and craftsmen know that more people, more work, more effort, raises everyone’s boat. It’s how a craft advances and improves. New blood and new ideas fuels the evolution of an industry- anyone who says different is a liar, or was beaten down too often in their own lives- or they’re actually nice people but know that douchebaggery sells on TV.
The last bit is the bit that REALLY gets me. “It’s a waste of time.”
This is self-condemnation in the extreme. Whenever I hear someone put down what they love and grumble “it’s a waste of time,” I just want to grab them and shake them. “Oh really? A waste of time? What OTHER plans did you have, might I ask? You already work like a dog, you already devote so much of your life to the things you feel like you NEED to do- please tell me, of the fraction of your life that you have left, WHAT is more important than doing the things that fill that tiny little corner of your world with light and joy? What great plans did you have for those moment, besides breathing and slipping slowly closer to the grave and calling it ‘living?‘”
Maybe it sounds a bit preachy and dark, but it’s the truth. We all have so much to do, and you have no reason not to take that little piece of your life and fill it with what will actually satisfy you and make you happy.
It doesn’t need to make you money- though it can.
It doesn’t need to win you glory- though it can if you work on it and share it.