“There’s nothing worse than a feeling of being lost.”
-Chef Daniel Boulud
These are such important words from a chef and restaurateur whom many consider one of the worlds finest at his craft. They gave me a moment of pause as I reflected on my life in the kitchen, realizing like many others, that it was (is) the kitchen that gave me direction, a professional purpose in life.
I would dare say that most young people, and some not so young, have faced that very perplexing question: “What is my purpose? Why am I here and what can I contribute that will be fulfilling and important?”
We all have a desire, and to varying degrees, the ability to create. This desire and ability manifests in a sense of pride and a feeling of accomplishment. From the earliest age people are inquisitive and anxious to create something that makes them feel a sense of satisfaction and draws praise from others. This must be something innate, or something in our genetic makeup that needs to be fueled and allowed to grow. When an environment of support for this creativity exists – great things are sure to follow.
There are few environments more supportive of this creativity than the kitchen. I have seen countless individuals find their purpose in front of the range. There is something magical in the transformation that takes place when these individuals rekindle their desire and need to be creative, to make something that has meaning, to work hard at becoming very good at what they do. The focus, the determination, the organization along with the freedom, the sense of urgency along with the intent on always doing it right, and the melding of flavors all combine to create an environment of purpose, of no longer being lost. This is where a cook was meant to be, this is what he or she was meant to do.
What makes the kitchen and this sense of purpose flourish? Here are a few important notes:
 PROGRESSIVE LEARNING:
There is a sequential order to cooking, to learning the craft. This step-by-step process that allows a cook to see daily progress is incredibly gratifying. Holding a knife for the first time and learning to respect how in a conditioned hand this beautiful piece of steel can transform ingredients into hundreds, if not thousands, of different items. To feel the power of the knife and learn to respect how to control it is one of the first steps in this progressive education of the kitchen. Learning about ingredients, staking control of a flame, becoming one with cooking methods, building speed and dexterity, having the confidence of a palate that grows every day, and creating a cook’s signature for plate layout all come together in the gratification of pushing a perfect plate of food through the pass.
For freedom to take its rightful place in a kitchen there must first be some structure that allows this to happen. It is this structure that oftentimes first draws people to the life of a cook. Individuals need structure and a sense of “fit” in a system – this is a position of comfort, of trust that allows individuals to be at peace and feel comfortable adding their creative twist to how things might work within that structure. The kitchen always provides both structure and freedom.
 FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION:
Just as the innocence of youth provides many vehicles for self-expression, the kitchen – once a cook finds his or her place within the structure, provides ample opportunity to be unique, to sign the plate in his or her own unique way. It might take some time to convince the chef that this expression is right for the restaurant, but once this happens this signature will become the calling card for a cook.
 BEING PART OF SOMETHING BIGGER THAN YOU:
There is purpose in being needed. That your unique skill set is critical to the success of the restaurant and to the integrity of the line. Whether it is perfectly marking steaks and chops and cooking them to the right degree of doneness, knowing how to properly sauté that veal dish, caramelize diver scallops, baste a fillet of Dover sole, or finish the sauce – monte au beurre, for a braised lamb shank, or timing those pommes frites just right so that they are crisp, hot, tender on the inside and perfectly salted, each person in the kitchen has an important job to do, a job that at this moment they are perfectly qualified to accomplish. Knowing that the entire line and the dining room depend on your consistent performance is deeply gratifying.
 THE INTENSITY:
There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction in being involved in the dynamics of a busy kitchen. The intensity to many would be hard to imagine, yet to a cook it demonstrates everything that he or she has prepared for. The ability to think and work through that intensity and produce exceptional food is quite an accomplishment.
 SENSE OF URGENCY:
A close neighbor to the intensity is the urgency that accompanies every task. Success is measured in seconds and minutes. Most preparations on the line are measured as a’la minute (in the minute). Even though a cook’s mise en place is well designed and individual ingredients are ready in waiting as they should be, the actual cooking of most dishes, building flavors, and finishing each menu item as the operation has designed is done on demand. Timing is essential and each member of the line team must work together under the umbrella of this sense of urgency to ensure that all dishes come out as planned, at the same time, awaiting those finishing touches and a wipe of the plate rim by the expeditor in the pass.
 THE ORGANIZATION:
Every ingredient must be just right, in the correct amount, stationed where it must be so that the cook doesn’t even need to think about where to reach – this is mise en place. Mise is something that gets a cook excited. Knowing that he or she is ready for whatever might come is another point of purpose. “Bring it on” is not a dare, it is a statement of confidence, a rally around purpose. This cook is not lost – he or she is always on point with a clear sense of direction.
 EXECUTING A STRATEGY:
Walking into a kitchen those last 60 minutes before service would lead an outsider to believe that panic is the rule of thumb. Every hand is busy, every cook is focused, no one is straying from the appointed tasks, and the chef is looming over the team making sure that the “t’s” are crossed. There is always the danger that they won’t pull it off, but underneath they know that they always will. With moments to spare before the first orders tick off the printer, the calm starts to set in. This seemingly panicked situation leading up to service is actually part of a well-established strategy – a means to an end. The cooks themselves turn it up during crunch time to make sure that they are not only physically ready, but also mentally and emotionally prepared for service. This same strategy is evident in restaurants from coast to coast. This is kitchen life.
 THE PRODUCT:
When that perfectly prepared scallop, steak, chop, lamb shank, roasted chicken, or burger and pommes frites lands on the plate, is adjusted for the best visual impact, garnished as part of the flavor profile, and spun for presentation in the pass awaiting the expeditor’s approval, there is a real sense of accomplishment, of pride that builds on the face of every cook. After all, it is the product that defines the culmination of a cook’s talent and brings the guest through the restaurant door. The cook can think to him or herself: “I made this perfect dish”.
 THE SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT:
There it is, at the end of a shift there were many opportunities for success or failure, but this team of cooks made it happen. Guests were pleased, the chef was satisfied, the food looked fantastic, flavors were on point, and the line team functioned like a well-oiled machine. Now the smiles comes, the high fives and fist bumps are offered, and maybe a thumbs up from the chef and servers define what it means to be a cook, a cook with a sense of purpose.
Everyone has a place, a purpose, a career and life that best suit his or her innate abilities, passion, and demeanor. Sometimes they methodically plan out this choice and sometimes it seems to choose them. I have enjoyed working with many young cooks who find comfort in the kitchen. They view this as their place, a place where they can make a difference, a place where they can offer something special of themselves.
BE SOMETHING SPECIAL – BE A CHEF!
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures
Restaurant Consulting and Training
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