GIVING THANKS FOR A LIFE IN THE KITCHEN

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Like many in our industry, my first job was washing dishes at a diner. I was fifteen years old and eager to earn a paycheck, regardless of the job. Fifty years later, I am still actively involved in the food industry and proud to say so. Certainly, there were times when I gave fleeting thought to doing something different, but for the most part this has been a true labor of love. How many people can say that about the career that they chose or that chose them?

So what is it about this business that people write about, read about, lust over, admire and sometimes hate, aspire to as a mid-life crisis career change, and make tragically inaccurate reality shows about? Is it the total commitment that has been the standard expected of all who walk through those kitchen doors, or maybe the well-documented family sacrifices that chefs have made since the position was formalized during the days of Escoffier and Pointe? Maybe, those who made it their life centric focus need to justify these sacrifices, or maybe those on the outside looking in find this commitment so crazy and intriguing that writing about these abnormal people is easy and exciting. Whatever the reason, my circle of friends and acquaintances seem to gush about this choice of career.

My take on it is strictly personal. I can’t completely speak for others, although I can relay some interesting takes based on a lifetime of conversations, observations, and side-by-side work experiences. So, here it is – why I (and many others) give thanks for a life in the kitchen (“They” refers to those who I worked for, and those with whom I worked):

[]         THEY HIRED ME

There is something magical about that first job. The opportunity to learn a skill, feel needed by others, interact with the wonderful and crazy people who work in a kitchen, and earn a paycheck is one of those major steps in a person’s life. I won’t say that I loved washing dishes and diving for pearls, but I did thoroughly enjoy working in the kitchen environment and have always respected those who washed dishes in every kitchen I worked.

[]         THEY TAUGHT ME ABOUT DEPENDABILITY

One of my many obsessions, as a result of my life in the kitchen, is my insistence on being where I need to be and arriving very early. Whether it is work, meetings, family gatherings, or a pending airline connection, you can depend on me being there.

[]         THEY TAUGHT ME HOW TO WORK HARD

If you are not tired from work at the end of the day then you haven’t put forth enough effort. Working hard is a given in kitchen operations.

[]         THEY TAUGHT ME HOW TO CREATE

Where else does an individual have an opportunity to create something tangible every day and receive immediate feedback from those who consume his or her efforts?

[]         THEY DEMONSTRATED THAT WE ARE ALL EQUAL

When everyone has a task which impacts on the performance of everyone else it becomes necessary to put aside any pre-conceived ideas about people and learn how to appreciate their contribution. Bias and inequality have never had a place in the kitchen (although the period of orientation and informal probation for new members of the team can be brutal).

[]         THEY TAUGHT ME ABOUT RESPECT

I learned to respect the chain of command (essential in every functional kitchen), respect the equipment that I worked with (especially the dangers associated with that equipment when not handled properly), respect the ingredients that I work with (know how hard the farmer, fisherman, and cattle rancher works to provide you with great raw materials), respect the people I work with (mutual respect equates to a system designed to achieve results), and respect the customer (the person who pays our salary and keeps the restaurant moving forward).

[]         THEY OPENED THE DOOR TO POSSIBILITIES

I discovered that the only thing that could get in the way of my professional vision was an unwillingness to give it a shot. I became a chef, a manager, was privileged to enter and do quite well in culinary competitions, worked with extraordinary cooks and chefs, took on important roles with the American Culinary Federation, earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree, traveled to many parts of the world, and even authored books about life in the kitchen. Without that first job as a dishwasher, none of this would have occurred.

[]         THEY DEMONSTRATED THAT ENTREPRENEURSHIP CAN HAPPEN      WITHOUT OWNING ANYTHING

Every restaurant where I have worked felt like my restaurant, I still consider every kitchen where I served as chef to be my kitchen, and every culinary school where I have been employed was treated as if my family reputation was connected, I have been an entrepreneur with sweat equity and no financial investment.

[]         THEY SHOWED ME HOW TO WORK AS A TEAM

The joys of knowing that “All for one and one for all” is the rule of the kitchen can never be over valued. It may have felt like my kitchen, but it also felt like everyone else’ as well.

[]         THEY DEMONSTRATED THE RIGHT WAY TO DO THINGS

I continue to pride myself in knowing and sticking to many of the foundations of cooking and kitchen operation that have been proven to work over decades. There is always room to customize and put a chef’s signature on a dish or a kitchen, but in the background every chef knows that there is a right way to do so many things in a kitchen.

[]         THEY SHOWED ME THAT ORGANIZATION IS CRITICAL IN             EVERYTHING THAT I DO

Some may view this as an example of OCD, but the habits formed in a kitchen carry over to every day life. I still fold towels; load a dishwasher a certain way, and type a list of tasks for the day whether in the kitchen, or at home.

[]         THEY TAUGHT ME A GREAT DEAL ABOUT PEOPLE

If there were one aspect of kitchen life that I am most grateful for, it would be the chance to meet and interact with some of the most interesting, dedicated, hard working, fun loving people imaginable. I learned how to read them and appreciate their differences.

[]         THEY SHOWED ME HOW TO HAVE FUN AT WORK

Cooks and chefs work hard and play hard. They can be extremely serious one moment and break into uncontrollable laughter the next.

[]         THEY EXPECTED ME TO SIGN MY WORK

One of the questions that I always pose to myself and in turn to others is, “Would you sign your work?” Regardless of what you are working on, in the kitchen or elsewhere, there is always room to do it right. This is your signature – take pride in what you do.

[]         THEY INTRODUCED ME TO THE BROTHERHOOD AND SISTERHOOD OF THE PROFESSIONAL COOK

Every cook or chef that I know is part of that unofficial club that means an open door, a nod of agreement, and a welcoming smile. What a great club to belong to.

[]         THEY EXPANDED MY PALATE

I love food and drink and because I have been privileged to work in kitchens, I can claim a fairly diverse and open-minded palate. There are very few foods that I will not try.

[]         THEY PROVIDED A FOCUS FOR WHAT I READ, WHERE I TRAVEL, AND HOW FOOD CONNECTS EVERYTHING

I am anxious to learn more and read, travel, and interact with food people and places where food is at the core of existence. My bucket list is quite extensive.

[]         THEY HELPED TO BUILD MY PHILOSOPHICAL APPROACH TOWARDS EVERYTHING

I am an advocate for the farmer, the integrity of the food supply, the importance of breaking bread, the impact of nutrition on a healthy body, the significance of cooking at home to every family, and the role that restaurants play in civilization.

[]        THEY HELPED ME TO REALIZE THAT WHAT I DO IS MEANINGFUL AND IMPORTANT

I raise my head high when people ask me what I do for a living. Those of us in the food business help people to stay healthy, we make them smile, reward them, and provide opportunities for them to clink glasses and share the experiences that only food can provide.

I feel very fortunate.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

 

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