There is a world of difference in how we view people whether from the outside looking in or the inside looking out. We walk on dangerous ground when we rely on first impressions or unverified perceptions (outside looking in) to assess others and stand a much better chance of understanding the type of person they are when we stand beside them, experience their daily interactions, inquire about their background and influences, feel their pain and share in their joy.
I have enjoyed the privilege of working with, standing beside, listening to the stories, and building an understanding of the people who work in kitchens. These people, once a baseline level of trust is realized, tend to bare their souls to each other. To build an effective kitchen team is to learn what is in each individuals heart, what has brought them to this point in time, how they feel about their own position in time, and their feeling of self-worth. Once you share this information with another person you are suddenly in a position to appreciate who they are and how you might connect in work and in life. It is a wonderful feeling to reach that point and have that experience, an experience that would be hard to replicate anywhere else but in a kitchen.
This is what I have found once you put aside the thick layers of crust, once you dig past the exterior and move away from any preconceived ideas about who a person is, then the real person rises to the surface. Let’s face it, many cooks have loads of layers of crust that seem impenetrable at times, layers that have taken decades to create and will take time to break through. I have found that the vast majority of cooks, chefs, bakers, and dishwashers are salt of the earth individuals. They may come from different socio-economic backgrounds: some have college degrees, while others never made it through high school; some come from strong family backgrounds while others have non-existent or even tragic relationships with their families; some are well read while others never pick up a book; some have an untarnished relationship with the law while many others have a rap sheet of offenses that will stay with them for life; and some have strong relationships with others while many are loners who find no-one to share their life with outside of work. I have invested time with kitchen workers from Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Poland, Greece, Portugal, France, Germany, the UK, Ireland, China, Japan, Ecuador, Africa, Russia, Jamaica, and Italy; from the poorest communities of the U.S. South, to affluent urban centers on both coasts – in their heart they are almost always the same – they are the salt of the earth.
I frequently reflect on the lyrics from the Rolling Stones “Salt of the Earth”:
Let’s drink to the hard working people
Let’s drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his backbreaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth
These cooks, chefs, bakers, and dishwashers that I have shared space with in kitchens are all foot soldiers for the craft – members of a community that work physically, mentally, and emotionally hard – every day. They put aside their differences, push away from the outside challenges in their lives, and embrace this common bond – “do the work, do it well, do it with passion, and always support the person working next to you.”
It is the work that helps to bridge all of those differences, it is the work that pulls them in and gives them purpose, it is the work that helps to define them as special.
As I continue to struggle with the impact that our current crisis has on nearly everything in our lives, I can’t help but wonder how detrimental this time is to these “salt of the earth” foot soldiers. If it is the work that gives them purpose, that unifies their spirit, and that allows them to look past the challenges in their lives – what happens as that work is taken away?
I felt a pain of disappointment the other day when I read articles that chastised some foodservice workers who seemed reluctant to go back to work because they were making more on enhanced unemployment than they would if they were to sweat over a blazing range. The inference was that they must be lazy and that the government was a soft parent for rewarding their laziness. I think that we are missing the point – these are my salt of the earth people, these are the same people who would rather work when they were in pain than disappoint their co-workers, these are the individuals who would consistently spend 10-12 hours a day on their feet in a very challenging, and sometimes dangerous work environment because it was the right thing to do. Maybe, just maybe, it is finally time for us to realize that these employees are worth more and that what they are paid is far too often insufficient for them to survive. Make no mistake – the vast majority would rather work, but for this brief period of time they are able to pay their bills. Let’s start to reflect on value and fair treatment as we transition back into business.
I continue to think about these fantastic people with whom I have spent my entire career and know that as we bring life back to our kitchens we will have a considerable amount of acclimation to deal with. Skills can atrophy when not in use and this period of months when our warrior kitchen staff has been idle, when those bonds that were built among their team members, and when those life stories were shared and accepted, there will be much that has atrophied. They won’t be as trusting when they return, they won’t share as much as they had when their life was entwined with others, and many of those technical skills that were once fine tuned will suffer from idle rust. It will be like a favorite sauté pan that has lost its season – it just won’t work well until is has been fired, rubbed with salt, used and abused until it is slick and polished – that point where it never fails the cook and nothing sticks. All of those “salt of the earth” employees will need some time to polish their skills, to let down their barriers, and to remove a few layers of that crust.
This time of idleness is dangerous for a cook, it is a time when there is too little to do and not enough release for those environmental factors that make them interesting yet vulnerable. Chefs and operators need to keep this in mind as they struggle with the when and how to bring their operations back on line. Communicate with those team members and give them something to chew on so that when the time arrives they will be able to fire up their engines, brush off the dust from their shoulders, and perform their magic once again.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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