Something became even more apparent to me today, something that I have felt for decades, but suddenly it became vividly clear. I had a call out of the blue from a former culinary student and co-worker at a four-diamond restaurant. He just wanted to catch up and share what was going on in his life. He followed up with a number of terrific pictures of his beautiful four-month-old daughter. I have known him as student, employee, and friend for many years, I even attended his wedding. After the call I began to think back over the past five decades of involvement in the business of food and realized that there have been a number of these calls and shared moments. In fact, the majority of weddings that I have had the pleasure to attend have been for former students, employees, and food related friends.
Over the years we have met at conferences, workshops, trade shows, a stop in for dinner at a restaurant where they worked, or during the pandemic – on zoom. We are Facebook friends, Linkedin associates, and members of chat groups. We share phone numbers and email addresses and congratulations for job promotions, graduations, births, marriages, and other major accomplishments in life. We remember those days prepping an impossible amount of food for service, working a hot line with sweat rolling down our backs, flames looking for every opportunity to burn the hair off your arms, the relentless ticking of the POS printer, a board filled with dupes, and your mise en place getting dangerously low. There are vivid memories of catering events from hell, lines of people waiting for their char-grilled hamburgers or racks of slow cooked BBQ ribs. It is impossible to forget those times in a culinary classroom when a student just couldn’t seem to get hold of a process and their frustration level was beginning to peak. Visions of time together as a team competing in a culinary event, testing our skills against the scoring panel and hundreds of other teams vying for recognition. There are profound memories of exceeding our own expectations and showing our peers what we were made of. We talk about clean plates coming back from the dining room – a sure sign that we did our job well. It all comes back as we talk, reminisce, laugh, and even shed an occasional tear.
There have been moments I treasure when the phone rings or a text appears asking for advice, recommendations, a recipe, or my thoughts on a new menu they are developing or a challenging employee they are not sure how to deal with. We may not stop to think about it enough, but there is a special bond that exists between those who have jumped into the profession of food. If you have worked together in a kitchen, there is a special understanding. There is respect, camaraderie, appreciation, and sympathy that would be hard to find otherwise. A real sense of connection is in play, similar to being part of a sporting team or military unit. There is a bond for life that is significant.
It is hard to describe unless you have been part of this club without membership dues. Maybe it’s the creative part of the work, or maybe it’s the crisis situations that you have worked through together. It could be that mixed feeling of relief and fulfillment experienced after pushing through an incredibly busy service on the line, bringing an exceptionally difficult event to fruition, or simply working together through times when confidence was not that high, but together you persevered.
Anthony Bourdain was once asked who he would call first if he were in any kind of trouble and without pause, he said: “My sous chef.” Not a family member, not a high school or college friend – his sous chef. Why is this the case with so many of us?
We help each other out, we are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we learn to accept our co-worker’s faults and know when to jump in and help or when to back off and let things take their course. We have seen each other at our best and seen each other at our worst. We know that acceptance, understanding, support, and sometimes a little tough love is what is always needed. These are the foundations of friendship – friendship that is uniquely solid for those who have shared space on a hot line and have fallen so deep in the weeds it seems impossible to work your way out, but then you rose up with strength when one of those friends jumped in to pull you up by the apron strings and found how to get through it.
Over many years we develop an understanding of the importance of honest critique that ALWAYS involves working together to correct weaknesses. We know that criticism is vile, but critique with the right amount of help is magical. There have been ample times when we screwed up, burned ourselves, gashed a finger with a sharp chef knife, lost focus, messed up a batch of sauce, or just couldn’t seem to put out a steak done to the correct temperature on a shift. If you’re like me, you relish the memories of the people who stepped in to help, never criticized you in the moment, pulled you out of hell and never asked for anything in return. They did it because that’s what restaurant people do and if that’s not how they work then eventually those individuals find there isn’t a place for them in that kitchen. We stick together.
Yes, we stick together, we support each other, we help without any expectation of something in return, we truly care about each other. This is probably why I have been to so many weddings of those with whom I have worked. This is probably why I receive calls when they earn a promotion or witness the birth of a child and simply want to share it with me. This is why we (those kitchen warriors that I am referring to) make sure the first thing we do each day is check on social media to see who is celebrating a birthday and take a moment to wish each other well.
This is why, even at my age, I get excited when there is an opportunity to work a special event, in my whites, helping a former employee or student in their kitchen, or when I have a chance to sit in their dining room as a guest and relish just how talented they have become.
It’s hard to describe, this bond that we share. It is not something that we think about, it just happens – it makes sense. When I look back on a long and rewarding career, I know those good memories were because of the incredible people who work in this business. These are the people who are part of my life experiences and at some level I am part of theirs. The bond doesn’t weaken over time, it only gets stronger. When a chance arises for us to reunite or call, we are able to pick things up right where we left off. That common bond is always there – cooking is the common denominator, that thread of friendship that is as strong as steel.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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