Let’s put aside, at least for a short time, the antagonistic, woe is me, hard-nosed dialogue about the problems with staffing, the generation that doesn’t want to work anymore, the cheap employers that don’t want to pay a fair wage, and customers who refuse to respect us and let’s focus on what we do. Let’s focus on the passion associated with creating and what the results can be when we tap into that passion. Many of us entered the kitchen as an inexperienced person with a lack of direction in life, and as a result of the work, the people, maybe a solid mentor, and the rush of adrenaline when things went well – came out the other end as an enthusiastic cook. So, what was it about the kitchen that built pride and energy, that allowed us to find purpose, that helped us to jump out of bed in the morning and look forward to another day (yes, too many hours; yes, too little pay) even though there were aspects of the job that we would like to change?
To me, it always came down to two things: creativity with food, and the people we had (have) the pleasure to work with. The ability to build a portfolio of skills, to transfer a vision to a plate, to discover and then control flavor profiles, to experience the joy of replicating your art on a plate even on a very busy night, and the connections made with like-minded cooks was (is) invigorating and incredibly rewarding. It is all about the WOW associated with those experiences. So, let’s take a break from complaining and focus on the WOW again. The challenges of working in restaurants are there and will, eventually, change – but during the process of change, let’s not forget what brought us to tie on an apron and sweat the details.
Walt Disney – the consummate showman, dedicated perfectionist, and super talented storyteller once said:
“Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”
This is what turns work into something altogether different. This is what allows work to evolve into a passion and a calling. This is why those young, inexperienced, first-job dishwashers stick it out and learn the trade from the ground up. The satisfaction of doing anything really well, of having the skills that allow that to occur, and work in an operation where “painting on the plate” is the mantra that everyone follows – is hard to beat.
Don’t you remember those days in the kitchen when it all started to make sense? It wasn’t creativity first – it was foundations and understanding first. Don’t you remember that initial frustration when you couldn’t take that idea and make it work, but then that moment when your understanding of cooking and development of your palate brought everything in focus? Wasn’t that an incredible feeling of satisfaction and a light bulb moment when you realized: “I can do this”? This was a WOW moment for you – wasn’t it? We need to remember those moments, relish what they mean to each cook who reaches for those moments and eventually grabs hold and runs with them. This is why we cook, and this is what life in the kitchen is all about. We want to earn a good living, we need those benefits, and we desire a reasonable amount of work/life balance, but we also need those WOW moments and a sense of accomplishment that great work brings.
Do you remember when the chef that you admired turned to you for the first time and said: “Come up with a feature for tonight’s menu”? What he or she was really saying was: “I trust in your skills, I know you have the creative touch, and I have seen how dedicated you are to doing everything with excellence in mind – now, go ahead and show the guests in our dining room what you can do.” What an incredible WOW moment – the chef is allowing me to represent his or her reputation and that of the restaurant and put my work out there. Remember how you felt?
From that first painting that you did in kindergarten – you remember, the one that mom or dad proudly displayed on the refrigerator door, or when your teacher mounted it on a hallway bulletin board – this is what you craved: a chance to show everyone what you could do, what you were good at – a real, honest to goodness -WOW moment.
When that feature item that you created was introduced at the dining room table to restaurant guests by a server who had the job of creating positive experiences, stated: “And our chef’s feature tonight is a local poached asparagus salad with citrus supremes, caramelized cippolini onions, bacon dust, and a Valencia orange vinaigrette”, you secretly beamed with pride. When you peeked out the window to see that first order arrive at a guest’s table and the person who ordered YOUR DISH took out a camera and snapped a picture of your creation – a smile from ear-to-ear graced your face. And when that plate came back after the course was cleared and there was not a crumb left – you knew, without any doubt, that you had what it takes to create WOW experiences for the guest. Remember that?
It wasn’t easy, it took time. That simple salad required that you knew how to select, peel, and properly poach those asparagus spears, how to wield a sharp knife to remove those citrus supremes from their membrane, how to peel and caramelize those cippolini onions, and how to work all the ingredients to make a perfectly balanced vinaigrette. Moreover, you had to understand how all of those flavors and textures worked together. You knew, before ever putting the dish together that it would work – you had it all figured out in your head and you had little doubt that it would work. This took time and experience, it required a sophisticated palate, and it required a bunch of acquired skills. This was a real WOW moment for you as a cook. Does this bring back memories?
Maybe, just maybe, a few more times like this led to that same chef pulling you aside and saying: “You have built some really great features over the past few months. I am working on our next menu change and think that it’s time for you to develop a couple dishes that we can put in print. I want you to take a week and develop two items that you think would complement our menu concept and stand out as another reason for guests to choose us for their dinner.” Ok, hold on a minute – did the chef just ask me to be part of the bigger picture? Did I just take a big leap from sticking my toe in the water to jumping in for a swim? Remember that moment? What a rush, what a WOW! How much time did you take to dive into cookbooks, test different flavor combinations, and push your skill level up a few notches? Remember that feeling, the positive stress that made you sweat and smile at the same time? Remember the results of a defined dish that was ready to join the menu?
Or, how about that time when one of those dishes, you know the really creative one that was a real killer. Incredible, unique flavors and textures, and game changing presentation came together strong enough that the chef added it to one of those exclusive seven-course dinners for VIP’s. Now that was a moment of pride – wasn’t it? Do you remember standing back and directing your fellow cooks on how to assemble that dish for the greatest positive impact? Do you remember how others in the kitchen patted you on the back and took pictures of the dish for their own archives? WOW!
So, now here you are. The pandemic is showing signs of loosening its grip on everything that we do. Sure, there are issues that the industry must face, changes that must be made, but…..this is what you were meant to do and above all else you want to embrace the ability to get back to what you are destined to be a part of. This is the time to remember all of those WOW moments and get back to constantly enhancing your skills and doing what you love to do. Don’t forget just how important the WOW experience is for the guest, you, and your team of passionate cooks. This is your calling. Bring back the WOW!
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Bring back the WOW
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFÉ Talks Podcast (don’t miss an episode)
Daniel M. Pliska said:
Couldn’t agree more! I tell my students all the time- We are in the WOW business. Making others say “wow that is the best dish I ever had” or “wow that looks great” or “wow how did you do that”. Wow from guests, fellow staff members, the boss, other chefs in the community or people on social media. If we can bring that feeling of elated gratification to our staff or students for attaining a wow then we will increase the passion in our field. Thanks for the great post chef!
I have often said that I am in the business of temptation; after all I have been in this business for more than half my nearly 40 years. The plate should look and smell amazing. The description alone should inspire a gustatory response. And it should be done with a sense of love and pride.