Whenever we (chefs) look back on our time in the kitchen, we’re able to categorize experiences in one of three silos: a learning experience, mission accomplished, or inspiration. Each experience is a moment in time, something that we might want to replicate or forget, but something that will never appear in the exact same manner again. It is just one of those flashes of inspiration or disappointment occurring for a reason, a reason that changed your approach even just a little bit, something added to your portfolio, a portfolio that defines the person, the cook that you are or will become. The reasons are usually easy to define after-the-fact: improper planning, not paying attention, stepping away from your standards, poor mise en place, lack of teamwork, or just the opposite for those experiences that result in mission accomplished or inspiration. Sure, luck can be involved, but luck is rarely something to depend on or take credit for.
The important thing about those moments in time is their value as a reference. The ones that resulted in disappointment provide an opportunity to learn and grow, to make adjustments, to reflect and regroup, and to find a way to store the “ouch” of the experience as a reminder. “I never want to be in that position again, so what have I learned?” We all have those moments and man do they sting. Running out of prep on a busy night, losing your grip on multiple preparations, the burns and cuts during battle, a team member who falls apart and starts that cascade of problems as a result, a slip on the floor, plates crashing and muscles strained, a fire breaks out on the char grill because you failed to keep an eye on it, that forgotten pan of bacon in the oven, or a roast that somehow slipped your mind and went an hour too long…..The list goes on and on. We have all been there – RIGHT?
On the other hand, there are those moments when you and everyone else is in the zone. Everything works as it should. Every plate is perfectly executed, no returns or re-fires, the roast is a perfect medium rare, the grill marks are well-defined, that fish fillet is caramelized beautifully, and you never run out of prep. The rhythm between front and back of the house is seamless, tempers are in check, and the night ends with everyone sharing fist bumps and high fives. We have all been there as well – it is what brings us back to try again for excellence.
Moments in time are the basis for the stories that allow us to gain strength and share what inspire us. This is how we learn. The stories of those moments are what make us interesting and good at what we do. Without the moments, without the stories, we would be boring as hell and never able to stand tall and show what time has created – an accomplished cook, a seasoned chef, a teammate or a mentor and leader.
It is the moments in time that allow us to be good at what we do and help us find a way to succeed, even on those nights when there are many indicators that we won’t. Somehow, we pull it off and in the back of our mind we knew we would. We don’t crumble in the corner accepting failure, no, that is never an option. We turn back to those moments in time and think: “I’ve been here before, this is what I (we) did, and this is how that moment was turned around, or this is how the moment rose to the level of inspiring. Nothing can take the place of those moments – they are the real teacher. These are the elements of your education that can only be gained by being there. You can’t prepare for them initially you must simply accept them and rely on your instinct or the instinct of those around you to soldier through. You can, however, prepare for them when they occur again. Without these moments an average line cook will never become a great line cook and a great line cook will never become a successful chef. This is what greatness is made of – not a chapter in a book – a moment in time.
You know all of this if you spent any amount of time in a kitchen. I know there were (are) times when the look in your eyes spoke volumes. Looking to your teammate or expeditor, sous chef, or mentor – those eyes signaled:
“help, I’m in trouble, I don’t have those moments to draw inspiration or answers from. Tell me what to do so that I can just make it through this moment, learn, grow, and store another reminder of what or what not to do next time. Just bail me out now before it all goes sideways.”
Ugh, what a feeling, but you make it through and next time the answers will come, next time you’ll be ready, next time will be different.
Many, over the years, have asked me what’s the difference between a cook and a chef. My answer is simple: moments in time. The more you fill your silos with moments, the easier it is to find answers. This is what your cooks look to you for. The difference is not just your sophisticated palate, or the repertoire of dishes that you are able to prepare from memory. The difference is not how fast you are with a knife, or skilled you are at filleting fish, or piping decorations on a birthday cake. The difference lies in the experiences you bring to the table and the answers you are able to find in the moment.
Don’t ever push aside the opportunity to have those moments, to build those silos, to celebrate the wins, and learn from the disappointment. This is your education, your real education. This is what separates the good from the great and the cook from the chef.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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