It’s hard to believe that time can be such a tease; when looking back is far more consuming than looking forward. Where did the time go? It wasn’t too long ago that the future seemed endless – an exciting enigma without any real long-term plan. There would be adventures, forks in the road, lots of gratification, and certainly a heavy dose of disappointment and sorrow, but a mystery just the same.
I’m sure there are some who planned it all out early on, and even some who realized that plan, but for most of us there was little wait for that curve ball to come across our plate. What did we really think that first day of kindergarten? Our nerves were on edge, wearing that new outfit and bright white sneakers, walking through that classroom door into the unknown – this was as far into the future as we could possibly think. What would today bring, who will be my friend, will I find that “best friend”, and what will I learn today that will impress mom and dad. In a flash we are walking across that stage as a high school graduate. A hug and a high five from the best friend that stood by your side since those early days is soon followed by goodbyes as he or she moves on to college in another town, another state.
That first date, a first crush, a girlfriend or boyfriend to share time and experiences with is now a memory as that special person is off in another direction. We will stay in touch – this is the claim – there will always be vacations and maybe a visit at some point, but in your heart you know that this is just another one of those moments that wasn’t fully planned – a fork in the road.
During those early school days everything seemed to gain speed. We learned to ride a two-wheel bike, to throw a baseball, catch a football, or sink a 3-point shot from outside the key. We became readers and some would find a wonderful opportunity to escape in the pages of a book, while others would view the process as a necessary evil. We struggled with math while a few others found their passion in numbers, formulas, and differential equations. We took on newspaper routes, joined the track team, signed on for working papers as soon as we could, picked up a guitar, drums, trumpet, saxophone, or piano and maybe took as few lessons. Those first dreams of becoming a rock star began to feed our dreams, at least until reality struck and we discovered that high school meant thinking about college, and planning a career for the rest of our lives.
Many of us picked up that first summer job between our sophomore and junior year of high school and did so in an effort to discover a hint of independence. We passed our drivers test and beamed with pride as we pulled out of the driveway in mom or dad’s borrowed car. That job gave us a few bucks for gas and a little bit of entertainment, maybe the beginnings of savings for our future, and a hint of everything to come – just around the corner.
To some, that first job might have been in a restaurant. It could have been a fast food operation, corner diner, family style operation, or for a few lucky ones – a white tablecloth restaurant. More than likely, you were washing dishes, busing tables, or working the counter – but it was a job, and an introduction to this crazy business of food. A couple summers of this and then off to college, or maybe in my time – off to the military. The draft was one of those great equalizers during the Vietnam era. Basic training, advanced infantry training, and then off to war – not a fork in the road that you had any inkling about that first day of kindergarten. You may have found yourself halfway around the world, in a very foreign land, in loaded fatigues and jump boots, carrying an M-16, wondering: “how did this happen”. Hopefully, you made it back in one piece – some did not. Fortunately, your specialty was cooking (that first job in the kitchen was a good thing), so combat was not in the cards for you. You came back after serving your time and took that first step towards starting over again.
Now it was your turn for college – thanks to Uncle Sam. What will you do with your life? What did school and your time in the military prepare you for? What was that dream again that developed from Kindergarten through those early teenage years? Rock star didn’t seem as likely or as attractive anymore, becoming the next F. Scott Fitzgerald was probably a stretch, and mathematician was never in the cards for you but the restaurant business – now that had potential. After all, you already had experience and some tangible skills.
Here you were – twenty-one years old and not much of a clue where you were headed, but time was on your side. Your whole life was in front of you and the choices were in your hands. Gone were the carefree days of running with your pack of friends, playing a pick-up game of baseball or a competitive game of HORSE on your neighbors quarter court driveway basketball venue, drinking from the hose, riding bikes, and watching cartoons on a Saturday morning. It was the point at which you needed to get serious, but there was still plenty of time to procrastinate and drag your feet. No – this was the moment to make that life plan. College was the right first-step and why not stick with what you knew – why not choose something to do with food and hospitality.
The college years probably flew by with loads of adventures, close calls, good and bad decisions, life long friendships, and maybe a relationship or two, but here you were grabbing that degree from the college president as parents and friends looked on. This was the real moment when reality hit hard. Now you are truly on your own – no parent home where the big things are taken care of, no Uncle Sam to be that foster parent while you take a leap into unknown danger, no college advisor to point you in the right direction – now is the time when independence takes on a whole new meaning. All of the big decisions are now on your shoulders.
You put on your cooks whites, sharpen your knives, set up your workstation, and take a look at the prep list in front of you. Even with your experience and college degree – that first full-time kitchen job is working a prep shift. Cutting and blanching vegetables, browning bones for stock, filleting fish, shucking clams, cutting steaks, and preparing 109 ribs for the oven – this is your daily routine. You comfort level is high after that initial week of being stressed in a new setting. You master the job early on and quickly move to line cook where each station becomes your home for a period of time. When you master the fry station, you move on to grill, and from grill to sauté. Soon you are an accomplished rounds cook and expeditor and in the wink of an eye (actually two years) you receive that promotion to sous chef. Time to stand tall, take inventory of what has taken place in a short period of time, reflect back on your master plan, and check off a few boxes. You will get to that chefs job – time is after all, on your side.
You were too tough at first – thinking that being hard on people who worked with and for you was a sign of good leadership. That didn’t work in the long run and you learned to add empathy, understanding, mentorship and teaching to your repertoire. Authority is a privilege earned, responsibility is the price you pay for that privilege. The results were rewarding – investment in people is time well spent.
There was little time for anything but work. Relationships were hard back then because you worked when anyone outside of the business was done for the day. But, somehow, out of some strange bit of luck, you found someone. She was special, understanding, kind, and overall wonderful. Whenever you could squeeze in a moment or two – you spent it with her. She was the one and at 23 years old, the time was now.
Twenty years later and you find yourself working just as hard, still in the business of food, married with three fantastic children (one already in college), a house, two cars and a collection of family memories tucked away in a handful of photo albums. You made it to executive chef, and went back to school to finish a masters’ degree so that new career doors might open up. Maybe you are a restaurant manager, or chef/owner at this point, or you could have transitioned into product development, teaching, or sales, but you are still doing what you set out to do in your early twenties. Your spouse’ career is very solid – she is a professional in another segment of the food business. It was this career decision for her that allowed your own career to work. She understands what you need to do, and you understand hers as well. There are things that you had not done together, outside of work – but, after all, there is still plenty of time to fit that in later.
Twenty-five more years pass with so many wonderful memories, loads of curve balls, and a few disappointments and sorrows. The major curve balls are behind us: Kennedy assassinations, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, 9/11, Shock and Awe, hurricanes, forest fires, and earthquakes, while the amazing accomplishments of mankind still inspire us: landing on the moon, organ transplants, advances in technology, and even the Red Sox winning a World Series. All the kids are grown and have families of their own. The grandkids are fantastic and every moment spent with them is incredible. The house is paid for, as are the two cars (how many cars have you bought and sold over the years). More and more photo memory books fill the shelves with snapshots of those family trips and vacations, business encounters, births, graduations, weddings, pets come and gone, restaurant menus, food competitions, recognitions and milestone accomplishments – its all good. Mom and Dad are no longer with you, and some of your closest friends have passed as well – how could that be? I guess this is the baggage that time carries with it.
Time to start slowing down – the goals of that 21 year old are no longer on the radar, many have already been accomplished, while others just aren’t that important any more. Time together, family, friends, a special glass of wine, and a good book – this is what you crave. There will be more adventures, more memories to come, and probably a handful of additional unplanned curveballs. Time is still there, although it continues to move faster than you like. The muscles ache a little more and the bones creak when you stand. Your daily routine now includes counting unwanted calories and checking your blood pressure. You are still in the food business, but most of it is in memory only. Your friends are even more important than they were in the past, but when you get together you rarely talk about the future, but rely mostly on reliving the past – those times of pick-up baseball, drinking from the hose, riding your bikes, drinking beer way before you were legal to do so, that first rock concert, the time when you almost made it to Woodstock, college days, and an occasional lapse into discussions about politics and how kitchen life isn’t what it use to be. Time, it seems is no longer on your side.
You close your eyes, take a deep breath, feel a smile spread across your face, and rock a few times in that old chair on your porch. You turn another page in the book you are reading – there are dozens more on your shelves that are waiting for your embrace – this is one of your new goals. There are still more memories to come but you wonder how it is that everything moved so fast.
Where did the time go?
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Enjoy the moment
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