There are many reasons why I am so grateful for the decades I spent in front of a range. I could not think of a career more rewarding than being a cook and a chef. Those who are despondent or downright angry with the industry, and I know there are many, may not understand or appreciate my words, but I stand by them.
One fact about the restaurant business stands out to me – something I have always appreciated: the kitchen is the great equalizer. I have worked with so many incredible people who bring a multitude of backgrounds, unique competencies, and yes, in some cases, baggage to the work of a restaurant. In the end, the only things that matter are dependability, how hard they work and how supportive they are of teammates. So, no matter what their journey has been like; no matter their heritage, race, gender, education level, or portfolio of beliefs – this is a business of unity in purpose.
I have had the pleasure to work with cooks from Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Australia, Somalia, Ecuador, France, Germany, Austria, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Canada, Ireland, Russia, and every part of the U.S. Throughout my time in the kitchen I have stood beside seasoned veterans, novice entry-level cooks, Cajuns and Creoles, Southern Blacks, professionals and vagabond pirates; those who are tall, short, big and small, straight, gay, male, and female, liberals and conservatives, those with Master’s degrees and those without a high school diploma, and career cooks as well as those who are simply looking for a paycheck. In all cases – I have learned something from them. They are the people I am most comfortable around – people with whom I share something important – preparing food.
There are many war stories of battles in the kitchen when we stood together on the precipice of defeat, only to find a way out because we share a unique bond. I have discovered more about their culture and beliefs than could ever be found in a textbook and have found a way to smile and laugh together as well as occasionally shed a tear. These are incredible people, people with a story to be told – a story worth listening to.
I have been amazed at the level of skill, speed, and the nonchalant approach towards amazing work that comes from competence and confidence, and I have spent hundreds of hours showing new cooks how to properly hold a knife or sanitize a work surface.
There are times when a nod, closed eyes, and smile signified just how delicious a nightly special was – a dish prepared by a cook, from his or her heart. I have seen pride in the eyes of a line cook who finished plating a beautiful menu item as it was presented in the pass, and the look of appreciation when the team of dishwashers was offered a special employee meal – a meal that said: “We couldn’t do it without you.” And, I have witnessed the apologies and hugs between front and back of the house that said: “Sorry I may have been abrupt, it was the heat of the moment, and you know I truly care about you.”
What is it about the kitchen that breaks down superficial barriers and helps people see each other as equal? Why is the kitchen so attractive to people who are looking for purpose and a haven from the anger, hate, and misunderstanding that is so prevalent today? I think it is a common purpose, the feeling of respect for the skill of a cook, the sense of accomplishment when a competed plate is slide into the pass, and the interdependence of team members. Any individual success in the kitchen is dependent on so many others doing their job properly. There is a determination to not let your team members down.
There is banter, and some of it is inappropriate and must be controlled, but it is thought to be harmless – there is rarely ill intent. There are so many times in each shift when high fives, fist bumps, and a thumbs up are exchanged as the team clicks or an individual shines. Through the pain of standing on your feet for10-hours or more, heat and sweat streaming down your back, cuts and burns tattooed on hands and arms, sore backs and cramped hands commonplace, relentless orders streaming off the printer, and in-the-moment barks between the front and back of the house that raise the level of tension – we all stand united in making, presenting, and serving delicious, beautiful food.
Celebration is common in the kitchen. We relish the days when a busy dining room is served, mistakes are non-existent, and plates come back clean from tables of very satisfied guests. We get that warm, fuzzy feeling when the chef gives us a smile or a nod of appreciation or simply says: “Great Job”. At the end of the night when we are sore, tired, hot, and spent of energy, there is always room for a smile and a feeling of accomplishment. Adrenaline flows freely, the orchestration of the line becomes mesmerizing and beautiful, and the symmetry is hard to describe when cooks are “in the zone”.
I “know” these people, these cooks, these interesting representatives of America. They are real, transparent, honest in their own way, and safe to be themselves when they tie on an apron. There are more stories than words to write, more memorable moments and instances when I simply shrugged knowing that this kitchen is a special place.
So, yes, I feel honored to have spent a career in the kitchen and to get to know these fascinating people. I have been blessed to work in an area where teamwork is more closely aligned with family. Where, no matter what a person’s misconceived ideas of another might be before tying on an apron, they melt once you hear the tapping of French knives on a cutting board, the searing of meat in a super-heated pan, the clinking of plates being stacked in the dish pit, or the friendly call from the expeditor: “Ordering”.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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