We work – this is what people were meant to do, this is what helps to give us purpose, this is what shapes, to a large degree, the person that we are. How we approach this work, the type of work that we choose or that chooses us, and the level of satisfaction that we gain from what we do is very much dependent on how seriously we take the process of making a career choice. Some may say that choosing what we do is the exception to the rule, that to many people work is work – a means to an end, a necessary process that allows us all to survive – to get by. I would respectfully disagree and choose to take the more optimistic approach and say that everyone can make a choice, a choice that will allow an individual to survive financially, but even more importantly – to find a purpose. Is this a bit altruistic? Maybe so, but it is how I choose to look at life. Where there is a will there is a way – every person (I believe) has a role to play, a direction that allows he or she to feel fulfilled and significant.
From my experience, keeping the aforementioned approach to life close at hand, there are four types of cooks working in restaurants today. Everyone fits into one of these categories and I believe that they are there by choice. I would suggest that if you are currently working in a professional kitchen that you ask yourself the question – in which category do I fit? It is an exercise that will help you to answer many questions, set aside some concerns, and build a case for where you go next.
 CATEGORY #1: I SHOW UP
I am not portraying these cooks in a negative way. There is a need and a place for employees who show up physically, do what they are told to do, avoid making decisions on their own, do not question what is needed, arrive at the exact start of their shift and leave physically and mentally the moment their shift is over. The critical distinction here is that they show up. If you are a chef or an owner you know how valuable this trait is.
“Showing up is 80% of life.”
 CATEGORY #2: IT’S A LIVING
This category continues to baffle me. I am sure that individuals working to make a living are common in most professions, but I fail to understand how anyone can thrive under these conditions. “Making a living” is hard to swallow for those who are seeking to find purpose and as such fails to set the stage for personal motivation. Those cooks who view their kitchen job as “making a living” typically miss the big picture enthusiasm for food, an appreciation for how food is grown, the joy of preparing a perfectly balanced dish, and the pride in being creative. Certainly making enough money to live comfortably is and should be a goal for anyone, but on its own, this is a shallow approach towards a life of fulfillment.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Cooks who have found their purpose in kitchen life know that the joy of cooking is the joy of giving through personal expression, the joy of giving to those who consume the products they make, and the joy of participating in kitchen team dynamics in the process of serving the public.
 CATEGORY #3: THIS IS WHAT I ENJOY
Yes, these are the cooks who thoroughly enjoy their time in the kitchen and the type of work that they do. They find real pleasure in working with the intense, and sometimes-borderline crazy people who deliver, prepare, and serve the food that makes a restaurant truly hum. They may or may not be immersed in the culture of food, the need to understand the why of cooking or even the source of ingredients, but they do get pumped up over the adrenaline of working in the kitchen pressure cooker. To these cooks, working is fun and their time in the kitchen goes way beyond making a living – they are anxious to participate in the lifestyle. These are the individuals (sometimes pirates) who are bouncing on their toes in anticipation of the flood of tickets streaming off the kitchen printer, they give high fives when they exceed projected covers on a shift, and carry on their celebration of accomplishment after hours with their friends who share the same intense passion for the heat of the kitchen. The chef knows that these individuals will be there tomorrow and every day afterward – they thrive on the adrenaline.
 CATEGORY #4: THIS IS MY CALLING
Cooks who have determined that the kitchen is their purpose in life are in a category all to themselves. They are totally immersed in everything about the process of cooking, the ingredients that they work with, the history of the profession, the process of building a sophisticated palate, and the pride of an honored profession. These cooks live to be in the kitchen, spend many extra hours on the job and off the clock, invest their hard earned money in tools, books, and saving for an extraordinary meal at one of those “bucket list” restaurants, refuse to take a real vacation unless it involves spending time in another kitchen, a farm, or a vineyard, and take those extra minutes every day to make sure that their uniform is pristine and representative of the great chefs who came before them. These cooks are serious about what they do and view their jobs as an extension of their personal identity. Every kitchen needs at least one, although too many of them can drive everyone else to drink. These are the cooks who know full well that they will be a chef some day, command an important kitchen, and/or own their personal restaurant with their name on the marquee. We read about them in culinary magazines, purchase their coffee table cookbooks, salivate about one day dining in their restaurant(s), and know their bios by heart.
So, which type of cook are you? Each cook has a place in today’s kitchen; each represents a different mindset and chooses the path they are on. Some will stay in the business while others will always be looking for a way out. A few will inspire others to take the path of a kitchen career while others will inadvertently turn young people away. They are the industry that we are a part of and they make it what it is. Each to his or her own, they are the person that they are either because of or in spite of the kitchen where they punch in and tie on an apron.
**The picture is of my team at the Mirror Lake Inn – Lake Placid, NY – in 2006. A great group that I still consider an honor to have worked with.
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