The past year has been quite disconcerting for those of us who have dedicated our careers to the kitchen. To some it may simply seem like the squeaky wheel syndrome (a handful of people with loud voices) as dialogue about exodus from the restaurant business continues to raise eyebrows. I hear enough comments from cooks (new and well-seasoned) who say they had enough, the business is horrible, lacking in any form of empathy, poorly managed, uncaring abusers of hard workers, proponents of sadistic work environments, and not worthy of anyone’s consideration for a career. At first it was a minority, but the voices keep getting louder. We (those of us in the industry by choice) can no longer pass it off as the grumbling of a few, it is much more than that.
To some degree it is a result of perceptions left unchecked, but not in every case. There are, unfortunately some restaurants who fit the accusations. Those bad apples are having a terrible impact on the bushel. When those with legitimate complaints raise their voice and find a soapbox for that voice, then others naturally listen. A perception is born by those who, through experience, agree but also those without experience who tend to follow. A few voices grow past perception and evolve into a belief. In this case, a belief that working in a restaurant is not a good choice for people seeking a career. To those operators who do things right, who care for their employees, who seek their input and value it, and who work hard to pay a fair wage, show empathy, and understand that the happy employee is the key to success – these perceptions and beliefs are a real dis-service.
There are plenty of examples of lackluster pay, poor work conditions, hostile environments, and schedules that offer no consideration for balance of work/life, but there are even more that are just the opposite. When we allow perceptions to rule, when we fail to counteract the generalizations, and when we turn our backs on those who have legitimate complaints and concerns, then we are complicit in the creation of erroneous beliefs.
If I were the outlier who simply was fortunate (or plain lucky) then I would be remiss in writing this article. However, I know hundreds of cooks and chefs who would agree with me when I proclaim that this is a wonderful business with limitless opportunities. At the same time, if I chose to ignore or admonish those who have legitimate complaints and restaurateurs and managers who contribute to the malaise at best and outright anger over work conditions in the extreme, then I would fail to make a difference or combat “painting with the same brush”.
When I write of the joy that has accompanied my journey in the kitchen it is not to whitewash the problems that exist, or to push aside the feelings of those who have been less fortunate with their careers; it is because I can only fully relate to those experiences that I had, and I have worked to create. Never have I allowed myself to feel trapped in a job, working for someone who does not appreciate what I am able to offer. Just like those hundreds of other cooks and chefs that I know who feel the same, I had a plan, I worked at improving my skills, I found others to associate with who were just as determined to find the best of restaurant life, and I promised myself to always try and create an atmosphere for others that reflected the same. If I felt caught in a kitchen that did not allow for this, I simply sought a new environment. Why waste time working in an environment that is less than supportive? I could have spent time pointing out the negative attributes of a less than stellar operation and an operator who didn’t “get it”, but as my brother-in-law told me many times: “A leopard doesn’t change its spots.” No matter what I said or did, it was highly unlikely that the operator would change – so it was up to me to move on to something better.
Those chefs whom I admire, the ones that I either worked for, with, or dreamt of working alongside, understand that nothing great will ever occur without a team that is unified, focused, and happy to be there. Their operations, and hopefully ones that I was responsible for, functioned with this in mind. Whenever I reached a wall in my career I simply re-assessed and found out what was lacking in my portfolio of skills. There is always a way to add to what you know and, in the process, open doors for the next step in a career. The opportunity and the responsibility rest squarely on your shoulders. Don’t waste any more time pointing fingers and blaming others – work on making yourself invaluable, focus on becoming great, and then find a place where you can shine.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that nearly every restaurant in the country is looking for great employees. Surely if you play your cards right you can find a home in a property that respects, supports, engages, embraces, and pays people for what they can bring to the table. No one should feel trapped, and no cook should ever feel like their opportunities are lacking. Right now, you can go anywhere you want, and work for or with whomever you would like, if you are willing to invest in yourself and embrace what it takes to be great.
Nearly every person with whom I have worked started the same as I did: washing dishes. When I caught the excitement of the business, I built a plan on how to make this my forever career. You could do the same if you shared that initial excitement that kitchen life unveiled. Don’t let others limit you and don’t limit yourself. If you reach a point where you sense that this work is not for you, that’s fine. Move on, find your passion, find what makes you happy, invest in it and become all that you want to be, but don’t attack an industry with one brush and portray the restaurant business as universally flawed.
To all the chefs and operators out there who are or want to do things right, then we share a responsibility to get this message out. We need to listen to those who are distraught, stay willing to change and improve, support those who are building their career in front of a range, and applaud an industry that employs millions of Americans, services the lifestyle of those who live from coast to coast, and celebrate an industry that has been great for so many. It is our example that can intercept those perceptions before they become beliefs.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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