Looking back is not always the best rule of thumb – it is much more realistic to be in the moment and look toward the future. There are always lessons to be learned from the way it was, but we should never insist on living there when the world around us is changing.
There are many examples of how the restaurant business has evolved in a positive way, yet many of the problems that plagued those who worked in kitchens during the 60’s and 70’s still exist. Looking briefly back is always nostalgic and in some ways comforting, but future thinking that is built on understanding how we must change is far more productive. We should, however, always hang on to those aspects of the past that still apply and still help us reach our goals.
Time is a tough thing to understand and manage. My stories of experiences at the Statler Hilton are real, but time has a habit of making the details a bit cloudy. I write about what happened to the best of my recollection, but admit that some of the details might not be 100 percent accurate, but they are pretty damn close.
I enjoyed my path and the time that I spent in kitchens during the tumultuous 60’s, but in many cases would not want to repeat some of those times. The chef that I became, the educator that I evolved into, and the person that I am today was formulated during those years in the kitchen – for that I am grateful. Not everyone had the same experiences nor can I confidently state that others will experience the same today, but I am able, as a result of my own experience, to offer the following observations:
 I WOULD ENCOURAGE EVERY YOUNG COOK TO WORK IN HOTELS, RESORTS, OR CLUBS
My experience with the Statler Hilton in Buffalo was only the beginning of time in hotels and resorts. I found that no other type of operation provided the breadth of experience and thus the opportunity to build a solid resume like hotels, resorts, or clubs. With the right attitude a young culinarian can work in garde manger, all hot line stations, a butcher shop (rarely found in free standing restaurants), the pastry shop, breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service, and loads of diverse banquets. I worked with grand buffet platters, ice carving, pastry assembly, breakdown of primal cuts of beef, veal, and pork, and numerous unique events from 20 to 2,000. Where else will a cook be exposed to this? The confidence that a chef displays to others will always be a result of working in every conceivable part of a kitchen and trouble shooting problems that inevitably arise.
 I WOULD ENCOURAGE EVERYONE TO THINK BEFORE THEY SPEAK
That time when a sizable maitre’d gave serious thought to pummeling me against a wall made me realize that stressful situations can lead to speaking before you think about what you might say. More often than not it is the stress that is finding an outlet and not the real intent of the individual. I learned an important lesson to pause and think about the impact of words before you give them a home. It was Escoffier who had a well-documented temper, but knew through experience that it was best to take a walk and clear his head before verbalizing his initial thoughts. We can all learn from this example.
 DO NOT LIMIT YOUR FOOD EXPERIENCES – BREADTH OF KNOWLEDGE BUILDS BETTER CHEFS
First rule of thumb with cooking is that you can never learn to prepare a dish properly unless you have a vivid memory of how it should taste and look at various stages during preparation. The best chefs have immense food memories and even though they may not personally like every type of food they understand that real understanding comes from first-hand experiences. Take every opportunity to taste, understand, document, and file those experiences in your food memory.
 RELISH IN DIVERSITY – APPRECIATING EVERYONE IS THE FOUNDATION OF LEADERSHIP
I feel very fortunate to have worked with a wide range of people from different cultures, races, beliefs, gender, geographic areas, socio-economic levels, and lifestyle preferences. The best leaders look at everyone in the kitchen as integral to the success of the operation, equal in stature, and worthy of respect. If a cook does not come from these experiences it will be difficult to transition to a leadership position in the future.
 INVEST IN YOURSELF
Take responsibility for your own base of knowledge, your own skills, and your own professional growth. Never relinquish the responsibility for this development to anyone else. Take every opportunity to learn and build your skills as a cook and as a future leader even if those experiences might be off the clock. The payback will be there if you believe in yourself and invest in this growth.
 TAKE IT ALL IN – BE A SPONGE
Seek out the opportunity to learn something new every day. There are new experiences everywhere and those experiences will be your ticket to the future. Invest in your brand.
 MEASURE TWICE – CUT ONCE
The steak experience that Chef Rocky dealt with was only one example of the painful mistakes that I have made as a cook and chef. Those negative experiences are valuable if you look at them as teachable moments and determine what is needed to ensure that the same mistakes are not made again. There is plenty of room for new mistakes don’t crowd the field with repeat offenses: measure twice – cut one.
 SHARING WHAT YOU KNOW IS A SIGN OF STRENGTH
Protecting your skills as if they were great secrets is a waste of time. The best cooks and chefs share what they know and accept new ideas from others with skills that they might lack. The kitchen should be an open book. The saucier that refused to share his techniques never had the joy of seeing someone else “get it”. Every cook and chef should eventually become a teacher.
 KEEP A JOURNAL – IT HELPS TO VALIDATE YOUR MEMORIES
Write it down and treasure what you have seen and learned. Your experiences will become invaluable references for you and others in the future. Your experiences can become the book of your professional life.
 REMEMBER THOSE WHO HELPED TO BUILD YOU INTO THE PERSON YOU ARE TODAY
Every person you are exposed to has something to offer. The chef that you will become will be made of hundreds of little experiences that accumulate over many years in the kitchen. Make note of who turned on the light for you and what part of your brand can be credited to their sharing. Successful people are always thankful to those who set the stage.
 KNOW THAT EVERY EXPERIENCE THAT YOU HAVE IN THE KITCHEN WILL COME INTO PLAY AT SOME POINT IN TIME – EVERY EXPERIENCE (Good, bad and ugly) HAS VALUE
The longer I work the more life examples are imbedded in my subconscious mind. It always amazes me how situations arise where a little prod brings those experiences into play and help to resolve an issue. There is no such thing as a wasted experience- good, bad, or indifferent, the things that you are exposed to have value. Relish those opportunities to add to your personal data bank.
Looking backward is not always the right approach to anything, but the experience that you gain from what came before will always serve as a springboard for new ideas and lots of solutions. Even the worst disasters provide a platform for learning and growth. I would encourage every cook to approach his or her career by choosing to work where he or she can learn the most and be exposed to opportunities that are challenging and rewarding at the same time.
***What are your experiences from the past and how have they helped to shape the cook or chef that you are today? Please feel free to share them as an addendum to this article and this four part series.
**PHOTO: by Chef Curtiss Hemm of Pink Ribbon Cooking & The Carriage House Cooking School.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
**Are you interested in more stories of the kitchen? Order your copy of: The Event that Changed Everything, by clicking on the following amazon link: