There is never any shortage of rhetoric regarding the chefs who are destined to be admired and emulated. They are oftentimes the chefs who are pushing the envelope with technique, amassing an empire of restaurant concepts, winning awards, or pioneering a philosophy that others know they should adopt. But, I think the true hero’s are the ones that have such a deep seeded passion for food and the process of cooking, such a desire to be in the kitchen and work with others who share that passion, that they are able to overcome what others might consider – insurmountable odds. These hero’s rarely get the recognition they deserve and for the most part have no real need to seek that recognition. The only thing on the minds of these real hero’s is a need to practice the craft.
Some may earn acclaim for their work, but often shed the desire for accolades associated with the obstacles that they looked squarely in the eye and proclaimed: “You won’t slow me down.” These are the cooks and chefs who understand this one powerful reality:
“Cooks who say they can’t really mean they won’t put forth the effort.”
In many cases these cooks and chefs could easily state that they “can’t”, but demonstrate that “can’t” is never part of their vocabulary. When this level of passion and commitment is displayed it should serve as a wake up call and inspiration to everyone else who ties on an apron.
I have been honored to work with and in some cases teach individuals with this level of character and determination and I carry their strength with me always. Others may receive a passing notation from the press on what they continue to overcome, but rarely a focus on how inspirational their efforts truly are. To see such a desire to engage in kitchen work that has little to do with monetary reward and everything to do with a desire to create and to work with every ounce of physical, mental, and emotional talent they can muster is hard to describe but so easy to feel.
Here are some examples of hero’s in the kitchen:
I have worked with, and in some cases taught, individuals who are legally blind, but have such a strong sense of process, aroma, and flavor that they somehow figure out how to function in an environment with danger around every corner. For some unknown reason they are able to work around the threat of burns, cuts, spills, and falls and become superbly productive in the kitchen. I can recall one culinary student who in an admissions interview sat across from me explaining how much she wanted to be a chef. If she had not told me that day that she was legally blind I would have never known. She graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average and went on to become a restaurant sous chef and eventually a cooking teacher for others with the same physical challenge. Incredible!
I have worked with numerous individuals who were profoundly deaf, but who put aside their physical disadvantage and worked to create ways to overcome and thrive. One became a very successful artisan bread baker who’s enhanced sense of touch and smell became an advantage with this craft. Amazing!
I remember a student who started in the culinary program with advanced Cerebral Palsy. He could barely hold a knife and his erratic movements due to the disease made it nearly impossible for him to perform safely. His determination and passion for the business eventually pushed him in the direction of accounting where he was truly gifted. He went on to keep his passion for the restaurant business alive by working in the accounting department for a Las Vegas hotel’s restaurants. He would never accept his physical disability as a roadblock. Inspiring!
I worked with a talented sous chef early in my career that had lost three fingers on one hand as a result of a kitchen accident. He went on to run an immense food service operation at a 1,200 hotel even after he had to retrain his body to hold a knife with the opposite hand. Incredible!
I have worked with individuals who overcame debilitating disease by using the kitchen as their motivation to carry on and fight something that should have signaled the end of a career. Likely the most famous is Grant Achatz who fought through mouth cancer that could have destroyed his sense of taste. He fought through the destructive phases of chemo and radiation and never let the fight keep him away from the kitchen he loves. His fame is focused on the amazing, innovative food that he produces, but his real impact (from my perspective) is the inspiration that he instills through his determination to never give up.
Grant Achatz – A Man of Taste:
Stacey Wohl, owner of Cause Café has created a work environment for people with Autism. She states:
“Just because they have a disability doesn’t mean they can’t do the same things we do,” Wohl, 49, told TODAY. “They want to be productive, they want to be happy, they want to feel fulfilled, they want to be in society and feel good about themselves.”
Stacey is a restaurant hero who paves the way for other hero’s to work and demonstrate the power of their commitment to “Yes I can”, rather than “No I can’t”. Truly inspiring!
I have been honored to work with people who have overcome addiction, those who are too small, too tall, too heavy, lacking in physical strength and hardly able to lift a pot, plagued by emotional demons, intelligent but lacking in common sense, street wise but missing any real finesse, extroverts and introverts, veterans returning from war and unsure of how they fit in society anymore, those lacking in self-confidence and those who were over-confident without the skills to back it up – in so many of those cases they either ignored their disadvantage or worked extremely hard to learn how to compensate. These are the hero’s of the kitchen and these are the people who keep me inspired.
These unsung hero’s may never receive the recognition that Grant Achatz receives, they may never write a cookbook or receive a Michelin star, they may not be on the receiving end of a six figure paycheck or open a restaurant with their name on the front door, but they are doing what they love, what they feel they were destined to do with their lives. These are the people who never say “I can’t” – they always find a way to make it work.
For those who are looking for a role model, a cook or chef to view as inspiring – a benchmark for his or her own career, I would encourage you to look at those who never say never and simply look at problems as opportunities to find a solution. These are the real hero’s of the kitchen.
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