One thing is for sure – we will be back. We don’t know exactly when, or what it might look like, but we will be back. A year has gone by and most cooks have now forgotten what it was like to have a full dining room, to feel the anxiety of the wait for those first tickets, of feeling that you don’t know how things will turn out. It has been a long year of uncertainty that has pulled you away from what you do best; a year that maybe even made you question whether or not this “cooking thing” is what you want to do any more.
It was the exercising of your skills, relying on your competence and confidence, of getting ready for battle and conquering the beast that made you want to crawl out of bed in the morning and face another day of craziness. With all of it’s speed bumps, curve balls, and relentlessness – this job is something that you were good at, something that brought excitement along with a touch of fear, a job that made you feel alive and pushed you to your limits. It has been far too long since you felt all of these emotions.
One day it will all return. One day customers will fill those restaurant seats, look at your menu with anticipation, test your abilities and sometimes your patience, and give you reason to click those tongs with anxious anticipation. I don’t know if it will come this summer or fall, but I do know that the day will come and I hope that you will be ready.
Consider this to be the off-season for cooks, a time to relax a bit and shed some of the stress, but also a time to get into a new rhythm of conditioning. This is the time to build your physical strength, hone your technical skills, exercise your mental acuity, and dig into more of the “why” that you cook a certain way. This is not a time to forget and lose a step, this is a time to get ready for the real season to come, and it will come.
I am certain of this because people need us, our communities need us, the economy needs us, growers and producers need us, and we need to do what we do best – it is our calling to cook. People crave the opportunity to gather again, to laugh and cheer, to break bread and tell stories, to raise a glass and toast to today and tomorrow. This is human nature and it cannot be denied forever – restaurants will rise again as soon as they are able. The time is getting near; if we all work to contain this virus and stand ready to receive the vaccine – the time will come soon.
So here are a few reminders for cooks immersed in the off-season – we are about to enter spring training camp – a time when we put aside what we have lost and bring ourselves into competitive condition.
 PHYSICAL STRENGTH
You remember – don’t you? Pulling a 10-12 hour shift off is physically demanding. You will be on your feet for most of that time, always lots of movement – turning, lifting, bending, stretching to reach, using your shoulders and back, and gripping and flipping filled sauté pans allowing the food to dance with the syncopation of orders coming and going. You will need to be ready for this. You will perform best if you are in condition. This is the time to immerse in a physical exercise regiment. Walking, running, weight lifting, sit-ups, push ups, chin ups, hand exercises, stretching and good nutrition will be the keys. Keep that weight down and hone your diet to that of one most aligned with an athlete. GREAT LINE COOKS REALLY ARE ATHLETES!
 MENTAL ACUITY
Being able to think clearly is essential if you are to win the battles on the line. Remember – those orders will come at you with relentless rapidity. The expeditor will challenge your retention skills, the steps in cooking that differ from dish to dish will test your memory, your flavor memory will be your friend once again as you taste-season-taste, and your ability to problem-solve when things go sideways will be your saving grace more times than you can imagine right now. Take time every day to walk through those steps in cooking that made you superb at your job; run through all of those problem scenarios that came your way in the past and jot down how you solved (or failed to solve) the problem, and push yourself to multi-task in your current environment – fill your head with too much to do and try like crazy to work your way through the list.
 SKILL TUNING
It will be the foundations again that save the day, that will make you valuable to an employer, that will separate you from those who don’t quite have what it takes. Knife skills, mise en place, sanitation, and speed and dexterity are all part of your bag of tricks. Practice them at home or work even when business volume doesn’t demand it. Keep your knives sharp, organize yourself every day, and keep your lists of things to do (even if not related to cooking) – all of this will pay off when that day arrives.
Read professional cookbooks, study the cuisine that you are focused on, and make a list of those processes that you followed in the kitchen – “because that’s the way you were taught” – and commit to finding out “why” those processes are important. Commit to being more knowledgeable when business returns – the more you know the more confident you will become.
 TEAM BUILDING
I know it’s hard to work on team skills when the team is not together, but what you can do is to mentally walk through scenarios in the past that can help to drive your “team savvy” approach in the future. Think about those actions of yours or others that drove a wedge between team members and think through ways of avoiding that in the future. Write down those “team defeating” actions that drove you crazy in the past and commit to working through them in a more positive way in the future. Think about “why” things might have gone sideways in the past and how honest sharing with the team can help to work through those events in the future. Don’t let correctible problems raise up their ugly head in the future and put a damper on the effectiveness of a team.
 RE-COMMIT TO YOUR COMMITMENT
Most importantly, this is a time to ask yourself a very important question: “Now that I have been forced to step back or step away from the life of a cook – do I want to jump back in when the opportunity arises? Am I willing and able to re-commit what it takes to be GREAT at what I do?” If the answer is “no or I’m not sure” – then this is a perfect time to start thinking about your next career choice. If the answer is “yes” then roll up your sleeves and get to work on your conditioning. The time WILL come when restaurants are back in full swing.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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