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Working very hard is not unique to foodservice – there are many careers that require extra-human effort, but very few that absolutely require individuals to be “all in”. By “all in” I am referring to total commitment, building your life around the demands of the job, and most significantly to do so while being oblivious to the impact that this commitment has on other aspect of one’s life.

It goes beyond the job description: hiring, training, menu planning, quality control, cost control, representation, leadership, purchasing, image building and so on. “All in” refers to a physiological, mental, emotional, and even spiritual connection to the work, to the operation, and to the greater culture of culinary arts. Some refer to this in terms of personality traits – Type A’s vs. Type B’s, but I think it goes beyond the desire to work hard, a resistance to saying no, and being obsessive about outcomes. A chef struggles with feeling as though the career is a calling and sensing that they are trapped in a cycle of existence without the ability to break away.

The more that a chef delves into the job, the more the job demands of them. Ironically, the “right chef” is rarely told what to do or how much to work, but this “all in” attitude is just expected. Owners and operators expect it, peers expect it, staff demand it, and customers just have a feeling that the chef is always present.

As much as the position is always a goal for serious cooks, no one could ever understand it until they have stepped into the culinary matrix. It’s like a riptide – if you put your foot into the water it will coax you in at first, then wrap its grip around you and pull you under without much warning. Picture this scenario – one that many of us have experienced or observed:

Jake had spent seven years in quality restaurant operations from line cook to sous chef and had proudly built his skill level along the way. He always gave the job his all, spent time studying and practicing the techniques that gave him confidence, following the lead of the executive chef, and wearing his uniform with pride. Now his day had come. When the executive chef had announced six weeks ago that he was moving on, the opportunity to take on the lead position was offered to him – he deserved the move up. Without thinking any further he said: “yes” with great enthusiasm. He felt that he had a pretty good idea of what the job entailed, and the chef agreed to spend the time to transition Jake into the position.

Now that Jake had made it through his first month as executive chef, there were already signs of the position taking its toll. There were things about the position that he had not anticipated – there were aspects of the position that even the previous chef could not prepare him for. As a sous chef – Jake had worked excessive hours, and had significant responsibility when he was on the job, but he was always able to put the position aside when he finally made it home. Now, things were different. There were often sleepless nights worrying about everything from fluctuating food cost, staffing issues, kitchen morale, and any inconsistency in the quality of food that left the kitchen. He woke every morning with that knot in his stomach that was an early warning of unpredictable problems that might arise once he walked through those kitchen doors. It seemed as if he was constantly fighting a gnawing tension headache and a new level of stress was beginning to creep into his life.

The meetings, the budget management, planning menus for special events, dealing with vendors, scheduling staff, and staying on top of the quality of food that carried his name was not the problem – it was how his body, mind, and soul was impacted by those tasks. It didn’t take long for Jake to realize how much more difficult it was going to be to carry the title of executive chef. He now knew what “all in” meant.

Jake would often reflect on a quote from Steve Jobs – the founder of Apple, as a guiding light for his future, but now he realized what this ideal really cost:

“People judge you on your performance, so focus on the outcome. Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

-Steve Jobs

What Jake was seeing, in this first month carrying the title, was that although others might want to do a good job, they did not, nor would they ever, live up to his expectation of excellence. He could feel his frustration with this reality building up inside. This is what was keeping him up at night. He felt that only he, as executive chef, could bring about excellence, but knew that it was impossible for him to do it alone. This inability to reach excellence through others was what made the job so difficult – this is what likely drove the previous chef to move on.

What was likely the icing on the cake was a realization of how others would view the title he carried. Suddenly Jake was “all out”. This meant that everything, and I mean everything, that had to do with the kitchen carried his name – his brand. Each plate of food that left the kitchen, even though he may not have even touched any of its preparations – carried his name. Every interaction between employees – carried Jake’s name. Every vendor invoice that was not paid on time carried Jake’s name and brand. Every health inspection was a reflection of his brand. Every budget goal not met was Jake’s responsibility, and every poor Trip Advisor comment pointed directly or indirectly to Jake in his role as executive chef. It was as if his business card and contact information were passed out with every plate of food, every social media post, and every vendor terms of payment contract. Jake was suddenly “all out there”. He could look to his left and look to his right and try and pass responsibility on to others, but it always boomeranged back to him.

Jake thought about other professions that lived under this realization of being “all out”. Maybe professional athletes, artists, writers, doctors, politicians – these were individuals who lived under the microscope every day, but how many of them, through their work, were subject to immediate critique? How many of these other professions appealed to all the human senses, and all of the human emotions? The role of the chef was something that was underestimated in his eyes; the real challenges were never really discussed, never addressed in culinary school, and never thought of by those who demanded this accountability. Damn this job was going to be hard.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle.”

-Steve Jobs

Jake did love kitchen life, he loved to cook, he loved assembling a plate of food for a guest, and he truly loved working with kitchen people, but he was beginning to see the dark cloud that accompanies this passion and threatens a chef’s faith in the work. As much as this Steve Jobs quote was inspiring, Jake knew from others accounts, that Jobs was rarely satisfied with his work or that of others. He wondered how he would prevail and how he would feel about the job in a year or two. Would he eventually take the same road as his predecessor?

To be an effective executive chef, Jake would need to have an answer to this question.


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