Alex Honnold may very well be the greatest climber of all time.  Although he has climbed many of the most serious mountains in the world, he is best known for his free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  This 3,000-foot granite icon stretches strain up and is considered the most radical climb to be found anywhere in the world.  The Captain is on the bucket list of any serious climber, but few have ever attempted it without ropes or assist (free solo).  In most cases, the climb (even with ropes and assist) is something that can take 2-3 days, but Alex not only succeeded in climbing this monster “free solo”, but he accomplished it in three hours and fifty-six minutes!  The confidence and competence that he displayed is unparalleled.  The adrenaline rush must have been through the roof.

Now, it will seem a stretch to compare what he did with the work of a professional cook, but that un-nerving, sometimes euphoric rush of adrenaline is still there.  The first few times that a line cook works “free solo”, that experience of being fully responsible for a busy station without a guide is just as intense in the moment (without the fear of sudden death).

Working free of support, in any profession, requires dedication, practice, understanding, a healthy dose of fear, confidence through trial and error, and a willingness to go for it.  Through the fear there is always a sense that you can do it.  Jumping in without a reasonable amount of fear mixed with the confidence that comes from competence would be the equivalent of attacking a mountain with an uncontrolled fear of heights.

If you are a professional cook or a chef, you remember that first free solo flight on the line.  It had been some time in the making – maybe starting off as a young dishwasher, that first job.  You started by helping the breakfast cook work pans of bacon in the oven, setting up plates with garnishes, and flipping a few orders of pancakes.  Then you learned how to hold a knife, build an edge on a wet stone, and cut perfect dice, julienne, and oblique vegetables.  Team members drilled in the importance of sanitation and properly setting your workstation – working clean and staying organized.  Then one day you had your chance to work the fry station – guided by the cook next to you – learning timing, the flow, listening to orders, and getting that proper doneness on items that hit that 375-degree oil.  After a few weeks you were good at it and needed little guidance, but you always knew it was there – right next to you.

All along the way you were paying attention, learning the terminology, watching the steps that each cook had mastered, tasting everything, and building your palate, studying methods of cooking, and watching how plates were assembled for proper eye appeal.  Every now and then, the sauté cook would let you jump in and prepare a dish start to finish – nothing too crazy, just a single dish when it wasn’t too busy.  When sauté mise en place was running short – you jumped in to cut, mince, clarify, or portion – things were beginning to come together. 

Then, one day, it happened without warning.  The sauté cook called out sick.  There was no time to bring in a replacement – the chef turned to you:

 “Time to see what you are made of.  You have been watching and learning for quite some time.  Tonight, the station is yours.  We are here to jump in if you need help, but it’s time for you to swing for the fences.”

Gulp – you felt that knot in your stomach, the tingling in your fingertips, the dryness in your throat, and deep, down FEAR.  You knew the station set-up, you had practiced the methods, your palate was still young, but you had a decent understanding of the flavors of each dish, and you had plated every item from that station enough times.  Beads of sweat formed on your forehead, and there was a slight tremor in your hands.  The chef looked at you and said:

“Are you ready?”

You returned his stare, straightened your back, took control and responded:

“Yes chef”!

Tonight, you were flying free solo on that sauté station.

It has been that way throughout your career: from sauté to broiler, roundsman to sous chef, sous chef to working chef, and on to executive chef if your career has advanced that far.  Each time there was or will be a “free solo” moment.  A time when your metal is tested, a moment when competence transitions into confidence.  If you prepare yourself properly, and if the next step is always in your sights, then when the time comes you will be ready.  That knot in the stomach never ceases to arrive, the dry throat, sweaty palms, tingling fingers and light tremors that accompany an adrenaline rush, but in a short moment all of that turns into a smile and a determination to conquer another peak, to jump through another hoop, and move past the fear.

You know what I am talking about – you have been there and will be again.


Conquer those peaks and learn to fly free solo

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