OVER THE HILL – A CHEF’S PERSPECTIVE

over-the-hill

Still one of my favorite and sobering quotes comes from the band “Little Feat” when they proclaimed: “You know – that you’re over the hill when you mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill.” It would be false to claim that the aging process doesn’t take a toll. We steadily lose many of the physical attributes of youth as we age – this is the natural course, and although with exercise, good nutrition, and a health maintenance plan you can slow down the impact of aging – the changes that come are inevitable.

Chefs live on the edge for a significant part of their lives. They work excessive hours, stand on their feet all day long, pick up things that are too heavy, work in conditions of extreme heat and noise, eat poorly, feel the constant stress from every direction, and cut and burn themselves on a regular basis (oh, and when we are young we add in a fair amount of hefty play time). This steady, intentional battering intensifies the impact of aging – physically, mentally, and emotionally. So when a person claims that a chef or cook is over the hill – there is good reason to believe that this is likely the case.

On the other hand, this change is very individual and need not impact at all on a chef’s importance to an organization; in fact, when managed correctly, an aging chef may very well be increasingly valuable to an organization. So – what do we lose and what do we gain?

I have often stated that cooking on the line is a young person’s game. I hold true to this observation and can quickly site why this statement is true:

WHAT WE LOSE:

[]         PHYSICAL STAMINA

Standing on your feet for 10-12 hours a shift, working under excessive heat, moving constantly to stay ahead of the game, lifting 50-pound sacks of onions, flour, potatoes, and carrots, and lugging around 20 quart pots of stock and sauce, is reserved for those with strong backs, fresh knees, and shoulders that have yet to show the sag of decades of abuse.

[]         CONSCIOUS MIND STAMINA

The amount of “in-progress” cooking that a line cook must keep floating around in his or her conscious mind is far beyond a typical 50 year-olds ability. A line cooks mind is pummeled with relentless orders and plate organization every night. Keeping in mind that we naturally lose rapid-fire ability and front and center capacity to remember these things, it is easy to understand why young minds are better- acclimated to this work.

[]         RECOVERY TIME

I know that in many respects I can still work as hard, and nearly as fast as many cooks who are less than half my age. The problem is that it takes me two days to recover from one 12-14 hour shift in the kitchen.

[]         SHORT-TERM MEMORY

Younger cooks have the ability to listen, collect, assimilate, and use information that comes to them throughout a shift with relative ease. You know you are starting to feel the impact of age when you ask the expeditor every 5 minutes for an “all day” review of the orders impacting your station.

[]         A DETERIORATING PALATE

As we age many of our taste buds and olfactory sensors start to slip in to atrophy. When younger, these sensors do replace themselves, but somewhere between age 50 and 60, we lose them at a faster rate and their recovery is negligible.

Now, this is all very true, and only in rare cases will you see a line cook or chef work a busy line when they are over 40, let alone later in their career. Again, there are ways to work at improving and lengthening a cook’s abilities in these areas, but the change will still come at some point. Chefs simply need to accept this and move on with a new strategy – a strategy that takes full advantage of a new set of skills that come with age, and rarely before.

SKILLS THAT IMPROVE WITH AGE:

[]         WISDOM

Being smart and being wise are quite different. As we age and acquire more experience we tend to look at and use the knowledge that we have accumulated in a more profound manner. A young culinary school graduate may have an extensive base of knowledge about cooking, but lacks the wisdom to use it properly and draw full advantage from it. Those with maturity in the position are able to appreciate what they are able to do and understand their own shortcomings. When they have shortcomings – chefs may seek the advice of others where a young cook may choose to drive ahead with reckless abandon. Knowing the difference is wisdom.

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” 

Lao Tzu

“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

-Madeleine L’Engle

[]         NEW FOUND PATIENCE

One characteristic of cooks and young chefs is a universal lack of patience with people and situations. This leads to the all too commonplace friction in kitchens that occasionally accelerates into some pretty intense encounters. As we age it is fairly common to find that we discover that patience truly is a virtue that reaps countless benefits. Pulling people along rather than kicking them in the ass is typically a much better motivational tool.

[]         THE EXPERIENCE OF MISTAKES

It would be very difficult to problem solve unless you have gone through the experience of screwing up. Everyone else in a restaurant looks to the chef to have the experience and wisdom to pull them out of a problem situation and make the right decisions. Although it is always best to avoid mistakes, some of the best decisions are drawn from those that we make.

[]         REASON

“Do it because I said so” is a response from the inexperienced. Time is a great stage setter for being able to know and apply the “why” to a decision. In rare cases the young may have this ability, but for the most part – age is a great contributor to the ability to reason.

[]         NO SHORTAGE OF IDEAS, BUT THE ABILITY TO PRIORITIZE THEM

Chefs are able to make sense of the great ideas that float around in their heads as well as those of their staff members – front and back of the house. This ability to prioritize as doable immediately, in time with some effort, and far fetched, but great to dream, is directly related to experience in the role and maturity as a kitchen professional.

[]         A BIT MORE COMMON SENSE

Common sense is not so common and if it does exist, chances are, common sense comes from a series of failures that allowed chefs to apply the experience to problem solving.

[]         CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Mature chefs are never shy with a dusting of optimism, but as they age, and with the right experiences, chefs are able to temper their enthusiasm with touches of reality. This will help to minimize poor decision making that comes from a naïve outlook on what will work and what won’t.

[]         A BIG PICTURE APPROACH

Age allows chefs to separate the emotion from a systematic approach towards decision-making. Chefs must look at the financial implications, impact on staff performance and morale, how the decision marries with the operation’s brand, and how the public will view a decision. Rash decisions can quickly turn a restaurant in the wrong direction.

[]         A FLAVOR MEMORY BANK

Although a cooks taste buds may falter with age, a seasoned chef (no pun intended) can still visualize how a dish should and will taste based on quality of ingredients, cooking methods used, and how it is seasoned.

[]         THE ABILITY TO SAY NO AND THE UNDERSTANDING TO SAY YES

The normal inclination of a cook or chef, and the training that we all go through points to only one answer: “yes”. Although this may be the right method in a service economy – a chef will factor in the ability of the operation to deliver an exceptional product, other demands on the kitchen at that time, the cost/benefit relationship of the decision, and how an event or product fits with the brand and philosophy of the restaurant. Occasionally, the best decision is to say “no”. Only age and experience will allow this to happen.

[]         AN UNDERSTANDING OF, AND WILLINGNESS TO ADMIT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

Age sets the stage for chefs to stand up and say: “This does not fit in my (our) wheelhouse. Once this statement is part of the consideration then a chef can either decide to say “no”, or find the necessary talent and skills to attempt a new task.

[]         AN EXPANSIVE NETWORK OF INFLUENCE

Age and time allows the chef to build a support mechanism of advisors who can help with any and all business decisions. This network takes many years to develop.

[]         WILLPOWER THAT MATCHES THE PHYSCIAL STAMINA DRAIN

All of that desire to “play as hearty as you work” is tempered by professionalism and the knowledge that chefs need to separate work and play and be the rule and positive example rather than the exception.

[]         ENOUGH TIME IN THE TRENCHES TO LEAD AND AN APPRECIATION FOR THOSE WHO ARE STILL ON THE FRONT LINES

The further a professional chef moves from the trenches, the more he or she learns to appreciate those who do the real work of cooking and serving. A chef can’t manage a person unless he or she has done their job at the highest level. Age is the differentiator.

[]         AN APPRECIATION FOR TRYING AND ZERO TOLERANCE FOR THOSE WHO DON’T

Chefs know that even if a cook fails to meet the standards of excellence for the property – if they have the right attitude and give it their all – then the rest can be taught. If the attitude is not there, then there is little hope that the individual will be successful. This understanding only comes when a chef spends enough quality time with staff, and years of experience.

[]         AN INNATE ABILITY TO PICK THE RIGHT EMPLOYEES

Mature chefs have seen it all. They know what is required of staff members – above and beyond the talent to cook. Mature chefs have an uncanny ability to select team members with the professional chemistry to become an asset rather than a liability.

[]         A DESIRE TO TRAIN AND MENTOR ENTHUSIASTIC COOKS

As a chef ages, he or she begins to realize that his or her real responsibility is to teach, train, mentor, and celebrate the success of others.

“The fun thing about getting older is finding younger people to mentor.”

-Mike May

As I turned 66 this week, the whole challenge of aging was quite prominent in my thinking. Although I am not enamored with the aches, pains, and physical limitations of aging, I am still thrilled to point to what age has provided.   I could not do what I do today if it had not been for the time I had in the trenches, the joy of winning and the agony of defeat, the challenges of trying to find balance and the time now to realize it, the cuts and burns, swollen feat and hands, trips to the chiropractor, headaches and stress induced meltdowns that accompany being a cook and becoming a chef. We need to take the bad with the good and know that the positive column is far more robust. As my doctor once told me when I was moaning about some aches and pains and stated to him that getting old kind of “sucks” – he said: “The alternative to getting older is not so good.”

Am I “over the hill?” – not quite yet, but I do have the wisdom to pick my hills with considerable thought. Sometimes a nice, flat hike is just as rewarding.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Over the hill is a state of mind

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

**Photo taken with the Prisma app.  With my good friend Kevin at the Three Penny Taproom.  We’re not over the hill yet.

  4 comments for “OVER THE HILL – A CHEF’S PERSPECTIVE

  1. Dewar
    December 30, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    Lowell was correct and so are you! Thanks for another good read. While I have a little less than a decade on yourself, I am confident my work/play pendulum had a greater range. 😉 Cheers.

  2. December 30, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Your killing me with all this, and I cannot agree more with you as well. I’ll be 68 on my next big day, no lines for me, teach, prep & schedule that is plenty!
    Happy New Year Paul!

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