I would assume that many chefs who read this article – at least the ones from my generation have reflected on where they are, what they have done, and what they are still able to do.  I also assume that, like me, you have entertained lofty ideas of your ability to “do it all over again” with the same energy as you did a few decades earlier.  There is something about aging that we all want to resist – at least mentally.

We read the articles and listen to chefs and restaurateurs desperate to fill positions of line cook, sous chef, chef, manager, etc. and quietly think to ourselves: “I could do that again.”  After many years of working in kitchens, leading operations, managing departments, problem-solving, planning, directing, and listening we know that we have the skills – so maybe it would make sense to jump back in the game.  Whenever these feelings rise to the surface, I try to think about the lyrics from an old song by the group Little Feat:

“You know that you’re over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill”

How true it is.  The often-used belief that working in a professional kitchen is a “young person’s game” is very true.  There are many aspects of the work that require the physical strength and stamina, the speed, and the capacity to challenge adrenaline, that are hard to come by after your 50’s or 60’s. 

You watch those young line cooks stepping quickly from one task to another, bouncing on their feet while managing multiple sauté pans or a char grill filled with steaks and chops moving towards different degrees of doneness, clicking their tongs in anticipation of the next wave of orders from the expeditor, and able to differentiate multiple methods of cooking and unique flavor profiles for hours on end and you shake your head with a feeling of respect.  Sure, you know all of those preparations, probably better than any line cook; you have a palate that may be as or even more sophisticated than his or hers, and you have certainly put thousands more hours behind the range than they have, but that physical stamina and mental quickness are not what they once were.  You breathe out and shake your head again knowing that as much as you try to convince yourself, those jobs are not part of your portfolio anymore.

Like me, you want to jump in and help that restaurant solve their challenges.  You want to personally address the dilemma of not enough people to do the work and show everyone how it is done, but alas, that will not come to pass – this is not how you can help.

OK, so don’t feel depressed, this is not the time to sit in a rocking chair and wait for the end of time to knock on your door.  Push aside what you are no longer able to do and realize what you are able to do at a level that only those decades of experience can bring about.  That line cook may be able to work faster, organize multiple tasks better, and tap into that adrenaline far better than you, but they still lack the experience to plan, create, coach, and problem-solve like you.  You have been there, done that and as a result have ample good, bad, and ugly experiences to know what needs to be done.  You have the ability to anticipate and make adjustments before a challenge becomes a problem and as such far better prepared to adapt.

Age is a funny thing; it is unforgiving in many respects and comforting in others.  For a chef it simply means that we must modify what we do, how we do it, and how we promote our professional value.  Stop for just a moment and reflect on your experiences, how much your base of knowledge has grown over the years, how your approach towards challenges has matured, and how others view what you have to offer.  William Holden said it very succinctly:

“Aging is an inevitable process.  I surely wouldn’t want to grow younger.  The older you become, the more you know; your bank account of knowledge is much richer.”

Aging becomes a problem for chefs when they continue to think that their value is the same as it was 20 or 30 years prior.  The problem for employers of aging chefs is that they often try to view the role of that person in the same way they did during the early days of their career.  It’s time for both parties to re-think what age and experience can bring to the table.  Age is only a deterrent if you believe that it is.

So, what does a senior chef, even one who is retired, bring to the table?  Where does their value lie and how can they help a struggling industry right now?  Here are a few thoughts:

[]       THE TEACHING STORYTELLER:

Whether it is a classroom or on the job – true teachers are storytellers and storytelling prowess comes from a lifetime of experience.  People remember stories far better than facts or directives.  It is those priceless stories that come from “been there, done that” that help young cooks understand the “why”.

[]       THE REFLECTIVE, CONFIDENT PROBLEM SOLVER:

Whatever the challenge is – experience can come to the rescue.  Food cost is way too high – the senior chef has faced that problem numerous times.  He or she knows where to look, where the source of the problem may lie.  An employee is constantly late or lacks the personal motivation to do a consistently good job – the senior chef will likely seek the cause rather than simply lash out or give up on a person.  The line is getting overwhelmed with orders from the dining room and the system is about to collapse – the senior chef knows how to calm the players and help reason to take the place of reaction.

[]       THE STRATEGIC RISK TAKER:

An owner is faced with the need for drastic change or is contemplating expansion into a new market – the young chef is oftentimes quick to say, “go for it”, while the senior chef will take the time to research, analyze risk, and find an approach that is more comfortable for all involved.  Risk is fine as long as there is a greater chance of success than failure – something that experience brings to the table.

[]       THE TRAINER AND COACH:

The younger chef is sometimes quick to show frustration when the team seems unable to meet his or her expectations – the senior chef knows that the team will only function at its potential if there is a plan and an effective training program in place to help everyone get on the same page.  Senior chefs are less likely to assume and more adept at guiding a process and the people involved in that process.

[]       THE ROLE MODEL AND CONFIDANT:

Every kitchen thrives when the chef is a role model of professionalism, a steady ship’s captain who sets very high standards, teaches and trains, shows empathy along the way, praises and equitably uses constructive critique, and looks and acts the part of a leader.  Senior chefs (not all of them, but many) have made enough mistakes in this regard to understand how to avoid those same mistakes in the future.

[]       THE MENTOR AND AMBASSADOR:

Younger chefs are very busy and quite driven.  As a result, they are oftentimes impatient – expecting everyone to excel and focus on his or her vision.  Senior chefs can bring a different perspective to the table – as a mentor the senior chef seeks to build up young cooks, show them the way, share experiences, and shape those cooks for a long future in the business.  As a result, the senior chef is an ambassador for the business as one that invests in people.

[]       THE PATIENT VOICE OF REASON:

With age comes a different level of patience.  There is no shortage of triggers that can set a chef off in reactionary mode, but the senior chef is able to temper those reactions by listening, reflecting, inquiring, and acting rather than reacting.  This patience can save an operation from designation as a hostile work environment or an unstable kitchen that is not a place where cooks want to work.

Yes, we are a bit slower on the draw, less able to stand on our feet for 12-hours a day, and hard put to give up a balanced life for the constant demands of a typical kitchen, but we can offer so much more than our younger selves, we have depth through experience.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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