When I grow up…

…I want to be a (doctor, firefighter, librarian, princess, the President, scientist) CHEF!

When we are kids we go through a myriad of options before we settle on what we really want to be.  It took me longer than most to really figure it out: I got a bachelor of science degree in Molecular Biology before realizing that what fascinated me wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do every day. I was 24 when I went back to school for Culinary and started working in kitchens.

While I was writing yesterday about what I want to be (or not be) as a chef, I got to thinking about how I became who I am as an adult.  I started looking back and trying to figure out how I had developed into this person.  How my ideals were shaped and how I came to value certain things over others.  I began to wonder how I avoided the pitfalls many of my friends and acquaintances in the restaurant business have fallen into: drugs, violence, alcoholism, burnout, temper tantrums, nervous breakdowns, breakups, toxic relationships, etc. etc. This is what I came down to.  Forgive me if it’s a bit long winded, but, so goes the expression about once you open the gates…


 

When you think about your childhood, what are the first things that you think of?

My Dad, my Marine.

My Mom, how strong she is.

Friday Night. Adirondack Chairs. Wine. Love.

My first microscope.

My Auntie Joanne chasing my brother with a broom for teasing me.

Making gravy and meatballs and Itallian cookies with my aunts before Christmas.

My easy bake oven and the way my Dad would eat anything that lightbulb cooked (or didn’t).

Softball. Softball. Softball.

The way my brother used to tease me, and the day I learned to fight back and love him at the same time.

Learning to drive in the cemetery, so that “if I killed us, we wouldn’t have far to go.”

High expectations, discipline, help, success.

Oh, and the Three R’s:  Respect for yourself, Respect for others, and Responsibility for everything you say or do.

Every minute of every day we are walking reflections of our experiences past.  As it relates to these particular memories… Every day I am a bit of my Father.  Stubborn. Respectful, determined, humble, educated, ever a student.  A leader.  Every day I am a bit of my Mother: Strong, creative, caring.  Between the two of them they taught me humility, dedication, and sacrifice.  They encouraged me at every turn and helped me back onto my feet when I fell.  Not literally though – I had to pick my own ass up off of the ground and brush off.  But they were always there with a bandaid and some encouragement to keep going.

Really most of those memories come back to them.  They gave me both my first microscope and my first easy bake oven (though now that I think about it, the oven may have come from my aunt?).  My mom hunted for bugs with me and helped me build my first terrarium – fostering my creativity, curiosity and love for discovery.  She taught me to cook, as she made dinner for my family every single night (and forced us to sit down as a family to eat it). My dad ate everything I made in that oven… even when the packaged ingredients ran out and I started just mixing whatever was in the kitchen and baking it.  Mostly flour water and eggs.  That can’t have tasted good.

Every Friday night my parents sat in our back yard in the adirondack chairs from happy hour until dark.  My dad drinks beer and my mom wine.  While their tastes have improved from Sutter Home and Budweiser to Louis Jadot and Magic Hat, not much has changed in the 30 years I’ve been alive.  It was and will always be family time.  Sometimes my closest cousins (who might as well be siblings) would stop by, my Aunt Joanne was a near weekly presence.  We would laugh.  Oh, would we laugh.  Sometimes we would cry. Decompress. Relax.  Solve the world’s problems. I learned to drink in those chairs, learned my limits.  I learned to rely on the people around me, talk it out, and let go of the day.

My family – my big, loud, crazy, Itallian family… They shaped my love of food.  My Aunt Joanne made the best meatballs I’ve ever had.  And the best popcorn.  My Uncle Tony let me stand at his knees on Christmas Eve and help him with the gravy (to you civilians: gravy = tomato meat sauce. not bolognese … red sauce with meatballs and sausage). NO METAL SPOONS!  My Aunt Helen taught me just the right way to knot anisette cookies, and that pizzelles are only as good as the waffle press (cast iron or die).  Our traditional Christmas Eve dinner (Feast of the 7 Fishes) with the whole family (at one point, almost 40 of us) was always hand made and always delicious, if not loud, smoky, and drama filled.  While as a kid I hated the smoke, I loved the meal and everything that lead up to it.  I learned to love people for who they were, not who I wanted them to be.

Softball was a study in discipline, dedication, work ethic, and team work.  I could probably write a whole book just dedicated to the way softball shaped me as an adult.  I played through college.  It made me the physically and mentally strong person I am today.  It made me able to focus in the face of extreme pressure.  I am able to control pain and fatigue.  To push through.  The art of leadership, set like an edge by my father and honed by years of hard work on the field.  The fact that a leader doesn’t always sit on the throne.  These are all things that were learned through softball.

My brother taught me to take my bumps, but also to give it right back.  He made fun of me relentlessly until I was about 10 years old, and then I finally figured out how to use my words to fight back.  I can debate with the best of them.  I learned to both win and lose with grace.  I also learned to speak up for myself when I feel like something isn’t right.

The Three R’s I think are self explanatory.  These were the last words from my mother every time I left the house.  She made me recite them.  No matter how I hated her for yelling “remember the three R’s” after me as I walked into my first school dance, I love her a thousand times more now for it.  I look forward very much now to teaching them to my own children.

So how does all of this relate to the kitchen?

Except, maybe, the learning to drive thing, everything else contributed greatly to the person I have become, to the Chef I will become. These experiences molded how I see the world and myself.  I gained confidence, work ethic, and humility.  I learned that a sacrifice today may mean success tomorrow.  I learned to lead by example and to trust my teammates.  I learned to taste with my eyes closed and listen with my heart open.  It is my sincerest belief that these things, these memories and experiences will push me in the direction I am aiming: towards CHEF, and help me along the way.

I am a reflection of my experiences and everyone that participated in them along the way.

 

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Who will you be, Chef?

As cooks, we all collect bits and pieces of our Chefs, Sous Chefs, leaders, people who inspire us.  Like puzzle pieces, they will all come together someday to create this image, however cracked and uneven, of who we become as Chefs.  Who will you be, when that someday comes?

Will you be aloof from your staff? Or right there in the trenches?

Are you old school? Do you like to be HEARD, CHEF! YES, CHEF! or do you want your whisper to be louder than the loudest scream?

Are you aiming for an elusive James Beard or Michelin Star? Or, do you just want to bring good food to average people and do it really really well?

Will people aim to gain your respect? Or will they cower under you and pray to survive the (year) night?

Will you be straight forward? Or will you beat around the bush?

Will you play favorites? Or will you nurture those who are struggling?

Do you value work ethic over talent? Or the other way around?

How Do You See Yourself?

I suppose all of those questions boil down to who you are as a person and what your goals are in the kitchen.  No matter what your goals are, who you are will determine what you can achieve and how you will get there.  How were you raised? At home, at school, in the kitchen? What kind of leaders have you had?   From the day you were born, who has been molding you?  Who has contributed to your value system?

I ask myself these questions all the time.  As my career progresses and I feel myself getting closer to stepping up from being a cook, feel myself being groomed (so to speak), I wonder more and more frequently who will I be?.

The thing I seem to come back around to most frequently is a little bit different of a question. Really, it’s the same question, just twisted a little bit differently.

Who will I NOT be?

That question, I have several definitive answers for.

I will NOT be a screamer.

Three words: WASTE OF ENERGY.

Also, see the next question.  A whispered note of correction or praise should be louder than the top of your voice if your team respects you.

I will NOT be feared, but instead respected.

I think a lot of chefs mistake fear for respect.  The first Beard Winner that I worked for, I was afraid of.  He was volatile and unpredictable.  I was afraid every day that I worked for him and his sous (who he had molded to be just as volatile and unpredictable as himself).  I did NOT do my best work for him because I was too focused on my own fear.  Now, I work for another Beard winning chef who is quite the opposite.  I do better work now than I have ever done, simply because I am not afraid.

I will NOT be decietful, or play my sous chefs or cooks against each other.

I’ve seen the result of a chef who plays games with their staff, and it’s ugly.  This particular chef took advantage of the naive newcomers and was unfair to the others because of their own insecurities.  In the end, we all left.

I will NOT allow one cook to bring down the whole team.

One negative nancy can bring down your whole team, and affect the mood, pace, quality of service.  If you’ve got one guy slamming pans around all over the place, everyone else is going to be looking over their shoulder all night instead of focusing on what they are doing.

I will NOT will not run a kitchen which has a negative vibe.

At the end of the day, people who are happier at work do better work.

I will NOT value talent over work ethic.

Yes, at some point talent does become important.  However, when you’re hiring line cooks you always have to bear in mind that you can teach someone knife skills, how to saute, even guide them towards creativity.  You can not however (in most cases) teach a strong work ethic to someone who has no idea what it is to work.   Talent on top of a strong work ethic – well then you’ve hit the jackpot. 

I will NOT be friends with my non-management staff.

This is a dicey one.  But, in my book there has to be a firm line between managers and staff.  There can be no grey.  

Just because I am not screaming in your face doesn’t mean that I don’t expect a firm “Yes Chef” in response.  If you get too close personally with the people who you are leading, discipline becomes more difficult, is taken less seriously, is sometimes disregarded.  Praise for someone you had a beer with last night looks like favortism to someone who wasn’t invited.  You can see how this may degenerate into chaos.

I will NOT allow things that are sub par to leave my kitchen, even if it means waiting a few extra minutes.

If it’s overcooked, undercooked, not seasoned properly, doesn’t look right, doesn’t smell right, has a big greasy thumbprint on it, is too big, too small, misshapen … etc. etc.

Also along those lines, myself or my sous chefs will be checking your product EVERY DAY.  So if that sauce is too runny, if your pickling liquid tastes like crap, if your supremes look like you used a hack saw…. DO IT AGAIN.  I will help you, if you  need it, but we will not be putting that oxidized guacamole on ANYTHING. Clear?

I will NOT allow my cooks to feel like they are drowning, or my sous chefs to work more than 10 hours a day.

Within reason, if you have made a list and are working hard, I will be happy to help you bang out that prep.  If you come to me (more than five minutes before service) and tell me you are in the weeds and sinking fast (thank you for your honesty) I will be happy to help you, or get someone to help you.  That’s what TEAM is.  That is mutual respect.

I know that operating budgets are tight and sometimes your staff can be unpredictable.  Call outs happen.  However, I will make sure (even if it means working more myself) that there is some kind of balance in the work and personal lives of my sous chefs.   I am tired just looking at my sous chefs sometimes, thinking about the 80 hours that they put in some weeks.  I can see the burnout coming.  I don’t ever want my sous to look or feel that way.  I want them fresh, excited, mentally clear every day.  

Finally, I will NOT allow anyone in my kitchen to work harder than me.

Hands down, end of story.  And I will let them all see it.  I will never ask you to do something I couldn’t or wouldn’t do.  If the dishwasher didn’t show up this morning? I’ll help.  The line needs scrubbing down at the end of the night? I’m there.  People work hard for people who work hard.  I WILL set that example. 

I suppose it is yet to be determined who I will become when people start to call me Chef.  But, I think I’m on the right track.  I guess only time can tell.

Sound.

To an average outsider (that is, non-chef) the kitchen is a cacophony of noise. Things banging and clanging and loud and hot everywhere.

To a chef, though, it is a symphony.

The sound of knives chopping, slicing, the tip tracing a line on the cutting board then the back of the blade gathering a pile of freshly cut herbs.  Pepper cracking in a handheld grinder – fresh on every item.

Saute pans going down on the stove…. bang

the electric lighter on the burner…. click

the flame catching … woosh

product going down in the pan … sizzle

bangclickwoosh

bangclickwoosh

sizzle

crackle

sizzle

crackle

it’s my favorite symphony and it changes every night.  I am my favorite composer but what I write is dictated by the ticket machine, in a rhythm that is ever changing and unending.

clickclickclickclick clickclick clack click clackityclack

The sound of butter as it hits the pan, and how it settles in as the water evaporates and you get to pure butter.

splattersizzlesizzlesettle

The pitter spatter of bursting cells as fresh herbs go into the hot butter and release their water, flavoring the fat for the

light scratch

of the basting spoon, like a stick across a snare drum.

Risotto pans

scraping around and around

never stopping for fear that they will stick.

The bubbling of water, the sound when it’s about to boil.

The way meats sizzle so hard at first and then ease up as the fat renders out and a crust develops or the skin becomes crisp.

Spoons going in and out of bains, the tap tap of water being knocked off before something new gets stirred.

Drawers opening and closing. Product going in and out.

It’s primal, beautiful. Like listening to evolution: new things being created from old things. Growth. Development.

Hardly noise.

A symphony.

Touch.

Chefs have a reputation for not having any feeling left in their fingers.

That’s not nearly accurate.

It’s true in a way: my temperature sensitivity is minimal.  Unless it’s REALLY HOT (or cold) I typically am not phased.

My sensitivity and awareness to/of other things, though, is probably much higher than you could imagine.  My fingers, they are full of feels.  In the literal and figurative senses of the word.  What my fingers feel is directly connected to what my heart feels.

Salt – this is the most distinct and intense of the spices for me.  Kosher salt, specifically.  The way the crystals stick in your fingerprint.  How gritty it feels.  The way it doesn’t slide but grinds across itself, sprinkles out of your fingertips at the edge of the pressure.  When you shake your wrist just so, and make your thumb do those little circles so that the coat is even on whatever you’re salting…  it’s the only crystalline thing in your seasoning setup and so it is completely unique. Identifiable with your eyes closed.  My heart skips every time I pick it up in my fingertips because I know it is the start of something new.  Something delicious.

Pepper is almost as distinct as salt.  Fresh… somewhere between cracked and ground.  Not powder.  Just a few remaining ‘big’ pieces… half peppercorns that snuck through the blades of the grinder between pulses.  Pepper is entirely different from salt.  Softer.  Round edges.  It’s not sticky like the salt.  You have to be more careful with it.  It will fall out of your fingertips in clumps if you try to hold too much at once.  I know it, but i know it like the voice of a highschool acquaintance.  Familiar, but I don’t really like it on it’s own.

When you mix the salt and pepper together you get this kind of heavenly concoction.  Like your best friends all in one room.  The perfect mix of sticky and slippery, loud and soft,  it has a little bit of float but doesn’t blow in the draft from the hoods like the solo pepper would.  It is easy to get a nice even coating.

Crushed pepper flakes, powdered spices, crushed pods and ground twig-like things, chopped herbs and whole spices.  Texture and consistency of sauces, a good stock from a weak one… These are all things my fingers can feel and distinguish from one another.  They all have specific qualities that make them identifiable without having to look at them.  All facilitated by my fingers.

So you see, my fingers, they have a lot of feeling.  They know a great many things.  They may not know heat or cold, but they know a great many things.