Balancing Act

Chefs live on the edge of a knife.  In some moments, quite literally; in others, only figuratively.  In all cases, the edge is sharp and dangerous whether literal or not.

We teeter on that edge day and night, day after day night after night.  Trying to find the balance between a thousand things, things that vary from {how quickly you are able to complete knife work with how accurately you are able to do that work} to {should I go out with the other cooks, or go out with my other friends} and everything in between and beyond.

The balancing act – walking the edge – it is what drags many of us back into the kitchen day after day.

The rush.

The tension.

The fear mingling with adrenaline and excitement.

Your heart racing, as it seems, in time with the ticket printer.

It’s like a drug, and we are all addicts.  Our justifications are widely varied, as are our specialties, backgrounds and tastes.  But, addicts one and all.

The thing is,  as much as that rush may tame our anxiety during working hours… as good as the fix may be…  we have to learn to leave the blade at work – to indulge with moderation.  After all, If you don’t step off of the edge once in a while, you become statistically, progressively, more and more likely to slip.

And when you fall, you fall hard.  That edge you hone so carefully will slice you wide open.  For some, there is no recovering.  The burnout, the disgrace, the loss of family and friends.  The very real addictions to alcohol and drugs.

It is imperative that we learn the balance between the fix and our lives outside.  That we learn moderation.  

Some of us, myself included, have a hard time finding that balance.  My work has a tendency to become my life.  The line between dedication and consumption is very, very fine, and quite blurry.

I spend a minimum of 10 hours in my kitchen every day. I go in early and leave last most days.  That means that I spend more time with the people in that kitchen than anyone else.  Even my fiancee, if you don’t count the time we are sleeping.  They become my family.  My dysfunctional but loving parents, brothers, sisters.  So, there is this part of me that wants to be with them even when we aren’t on shift.  But I resist. I don’t.  There are a lot of reasons why.  For the purposes of today, we will limit ourseves to my mental health.

Here’s the thing; If my whole life is surrounded by the same people, the same conversations, the same bullcrap 24/7, inside and outside of that kitchen, I’ll go crazy.  You can’t go to the bar with your coworkers and bitch about your coworkers.  You can’t go drinking with someone one night and be friends, and then go back to the kitchen the next day and be the boss again.  It might work for a little while, but eventually, the lines of ‘friendship’ and ‘leadership’ get blurry.  Respect is lost, willingness to obey is lost.   Eventually you need to talk to someone else. You have to have friends that won’t be hurt that you think that the proteins cook is an asshole, or that the GM guy is always going down.  When you leave the kitchen frustrated with your colleagues, you can’t go out with your colleagues to get your piece of peace.

It is a challange, as a chef, to maintain friendships and relationships outside of the restaurant.  I know.  There is a very limited subset of the population that work the same hours as you and can tolerate your schedule.  It can be tough to find those people.  But even if there aren’t many other people and it’s hard to line your schedules up so that you can have a beer together, or go for a ride, or a hike, or whatever, you have to find something to occupy yourself outside of that environment.

If I could make a couple of reccommendations, to help you find that balance… indulge me.

If you like to have a nightcap after your shift, find a good industry bar and go by yourself.  

Talk to the bartender.  Talk to the sad, burnt soul next to you.  Leave your brothers behind at the restaurant and go somewhere that other restaurant people go.  Those people, they will understand.   You can say whatever you want, to someone who understands, get some feedback, and go home feeling better.  And maybe you’ll make some friends along the way. Friends who get it – the hours, the burns, the pressure, all of it.

Find a hobby.

Something that gets you outside and active.  It’s hard to have the energy sometimes, I know.  I’m not saying you have to go run 7 miles before service on Saturday after getting your ass kicked on Friday night.  But the fresh air helps me clear my mind.

Walks with my dog can be so therapeutic … more than any glass of bourbon or beer.  I can say anything I want to her… and you may think that’s crazy, talking to my dog.  I get how it might seem that way. But, I can say whatever I want to her with no fear.  She may not have any solutions or resolutions, but just getting it off of my chest can feel like a weight lifted. I’m not saying get a dog (because unless you have someone to help you out, let’s be honest, you don’t have time for a dog), but get yourself out there where the air is clear and you can relax.

Talk to the trees or the sky or God or the universe, out loud or in your head. Whatever you’re comfortable with. It will make you feel better.  And it doesn’t just have to be about your frustrations.  Maybe you’re trying  to work your way through a new dish, or whether or not to hire someone, or making a pro/con list about what your next move is.  Nature is therapeutic.

Do new things.

I know that our days off are precious and that we often spend them recovering and recouperating and recharging…but you can recharge places other than your couch.  Go to a park or a beach that you’ve never been to.  Go to an afternoon minor league baseball game.  Go to a brewery or a winery or a distillery (whatever you prefer) and do a tour and a tasting.  Discover a new restaurant (and maybe some inspiration along the way).  Explore your city.

Excercise.  

The most mentally fit people I know are also the most physically fit.  Burn off frustration, energize yourself, learn a new coping mechanism.  I can’t afford a gym – you probably can’t either if you are reading this.  But, a good pair of running shoes and a TRX workout system aren’t super expensive and will do wonders.

If you’re saying in your head “yeah right I don’t have the energy to exercise” you’re just making an excuse.  You may feel a bit more tired for the first week or so that you are working out, but let me lay some knowledge on you:

It is scientifically proven that the more you demand of your body, the more it will give you.  Energy is not finite.  It can be built up, stored, increased.  How do you think marathoners do it? Triatheletes? They build their energy stores over time.  You can do the same thing.  Boom. SCIENCE. So go do it!

Here’s to your health and happiness.  I hope that you are able to find it.  I am still searching for my balance, but I have help along the way and it is a beautiful road.

Good luck.

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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.

I got distracted…

Today, I was supposed to bring you the next installment of the Maslow and Food series… but I am sorry to say that I was distracted.

A few days ago, my executive chef told me to watch “Mind of a Chef” (a PBS series narrated by Anthony Bourdain, who is my hero, so obviously I was IN).  It’s available on Amazon Prime which means I can binge watch the first two seasons… dangerous but in a way satisfying.

I AM HOOKED. And, MY MIND IS BLOWN.

The first season features David Chang.  Episode 1 made me want ramen noodles more than I’ve wanted ANYTHING in a long time.

Episode 2 is devoted to the pig (otherwise known as the king of the meat animals).

I can’t wait to see what comes next!

I’m going to have a really hard time getting off of my couch to go to work.

Anyway, my apologies for not finishing the Maslow post, I promise to finish it for tomorrow 😉

Maslow and Food (part 3) – Love, Belongingness, and Esteem

– an installment of the series Maslow and Food, which began with an introduction, continued yesterday, and is now on to its third installment, below –

The way the Pyramid works, in theory, is that you can not progress toward a completely fulfilled life until you have completed each layer.  Since food, for me, has fulfilled the requirements of the first two rungs, I can now move on to the third and fourth, which go somewhat together (as did the first two).

3. Love and belongingness needs

This layer focuses on interpersonal relationships and the feelings that stem from them – friendship, intimacy, affection and love.  It covers pretty much all relationships in your daily life, from your team at work to family, friends, and romantic relationships.  For me, food is involved in establishing all of these relationships, leading me to a feeling of fulfillment in all of them.

Somewhat obviously, my job as a chef brings food into my relationships at work.  Less obvious, though, is why these relationships are so satisfying.  To me, the teamwork, the experience of going through hell together on a nightly basis, the beers after service and the laughs in between… these all bring a level of closeness to my work relationships that I don’t feel I could achieve in any other setting.

Beyond work, all of my other relationships are somehow impacted by food:  whether it is sitting down to the table with my parents like we did when we were kids, or the perfect sandwich from that place down the street from my best friend’s house, or the little place with the great fries and drinks hidden in the south end where my fiance and I have date nights because it is quiet and we can sit in a dark corner and get lost in our conversation without being bothered.

…I can still remember what I made for dinner the first Christmas that I was with friends instead of my family.  I can still remember what I made the first morning that my now-fiance stayed over at my place.  I can still remember what I made for dinner the Christmas that my parents flew halfway around the world just to be with me, what I had for dinner on that double date with my best friend and her new girlfriend, what we ate on the Fourth of July the first time I spent it on the beach with my best friend’s family.  I can still remember how huge my uncle seemed, standing over the stove with that wooden spoon (“never, ever, put a metal spoon in your gravy, you hear me? You’ll ruin it”) on Christmas Eve, and my mother’s perfect Risi Bisi every Easter.

Every single relationship in my life is punctuated by memories of food.  Food belongs with me and I with it – there is no question.

4. Esteem needs

Esteem needs are things like positive self-esteem, achievement of goals, mastery of skills, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.  Basically anything that gives you a sense of self-worth and accomplishment.

Food satisfies these needs in many ways.  There is a daily sense of achievement, whether through small goals throughout service or putting a meal on the table at home.  A positive sense of self esteem is generated through this constant achievement (and dare I say, the occasional compliment?).

When you finally master that sauce, or technique, the satisfaction is through the roof.  When you are finally able to quenelle that foam/sauce/icecream/whipped cream perfectly with only one spoon.  When your stock comes out beautifully rich and gelatinous.  When you get that perfect crisp skin on a piece of fish.  Every little technique and task has a learning curve, and when you finally get it right, the satisfaction is …. inexplicable.

An accumulation of these little skills brings you prestige among your peers, a status among them.  You become looked up to.  You are eligible, in a sense, for the satisfaction that comes with a colleague asking your advice.  Maybe this will parlay into some extra responsibility, or a promotion.

You become, in short, fulfilled.

That brings us to an end for today.  Tomorrow we move on to more abstract things, with cognitive and aesthetic needs.  Convenient, how the pyramid kind of breaks itself down into groups of two, isn’t it?

Maslow and Food – The Bottom of the Pyramid (part 2)

– continued from yesterday’s introduction

There are certain things that we all need to live a fulfilled life.  One psychologist, Abraham Maslow, developed a chart called ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ which outlines the concepts that must be present in our lives for us to live a fully ‘actualized’ life… that is to say for us to be fulfilled in our lives and be happy.  The most recent version of the chart has eight factors that every human is affected by, some conscious and some subconscious, which motivate us to do pretty much everything in our lives

.maslow8

So how are these needs fulfilled by food?

(I am going to reference my own feelings from here on out but I welcome any comments and conversation about the concepts. I would love to hear what you have to say!)

Starting at the bottom of the pyramid and working my way to the top:

1. Biological and Physiological needs –

Maslow says these are the most basic essentials for life.  Things like air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.

In the most literal of ways, no, food is not air or sex or shelter or sleep.  But, hear me out.

When I was a child, I would come home (shelter) after school to the smell of my mother cooking.  The (air) in the house was thick with the scent of (on tuesdays) onions and garlic sauteeing, the sound of meat sputtering, the acidic gurgling of my mother’s meat sauce on the stove.  I still can’t smell those things without being transported back to my mother’s kitchen and smiling.

As an adult, (food) and (drink) go together.  The best food paired with the best drink, or just a burger and a beer.  One can not be without the other, in my world.  The combination leads to the warm and fuzzies… (warmth) in the figurative sense.  My heart and mind are at peace, warm and full.

(Sex) is a bit of a stretch, but, that same level of satisfaction does come after a truly exquisite meal.  A well written menu can leave my mouth watering and my desire so intense that when the plate finally lands in front of me and I take that first bite, I get goosebumps.  A foodgasm, if you will.

Finally, sleep.  With an empty stomach or unsatisfied appetite, I am unable to sleep until I am satisfied.  A great meal can give me a night’s sleep incomparable to most anything.

2. Safety needs

The second stage of fulfillment, according to Maslow, includes protection from the elements, security, order, law, stability, and so on.

Food has always given me a sense of (protection) and (security)  Not in the sense of eating my feelings, but in the coming home kind of way.  Originally, it was based in that coming-home-to-mom’s feeling, as if everything would be ok.  As an adult it is about the sense of control I feel – it is the thing I do when everything else is going crazy.  It helps me regain (stability), put my life back in (order), see things more clearly.  Food always behaves a certain predictable way, in accordance with the many (law)s of physics which never change – maillard browning, the way proteins unfold to make an eggwhite hold air and become stiff, the way deep fat frying is actually a dry cooking technique, etc.  They are unbiased constants that can soothe me back into a feeling of calm, quiet, secure, everything-will-be-ok state of mind.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment, the third and fourth rungs on the ladder:  Love and Esteem and Food

Maslow and Food – Forward (part 1)

I was sitting at the bar a few nights ago, decompressing after work, when I was asked by someone how old I was.  The woman seemed to think that there was no way that I was old enough to be sitting in that bar drinking that martini legally.  I had to actually show her my license to prove to her that yes, I am 29, and yes, that is my real age.

She got up and went to have a cigarette and came back, again looking quizzical. She proceeds to drag me (unwillingly) back into conversation:

So how is it possible that you are 29 and look like you’re 18?

I was kind of taken aback.  Usually people just tell me that “you’re so lucky to be such a babyface, you’ll look young forever” and leave me alone.  But no, this woman needed an answer.

I’m only 24 and I look 35 already.  It’s not fair, you must tell me your secret!

So, I took a second to consider it.  What is it that I do that makes me any different from this woman? The only answer that I could come up with is this:

I do everything that makes me happy.  End of story.  My job sucked, so I quit it and became a chef because I love food and cooking makes me happy.  I just got engaged to someone who makes me happier than I’ve ever been at home.  I walk my dog at least three miles every day so I get a lot of fresh air (and perspective when I need it).  I quit smoking, do my best to eat well, try to stay in shape and laugh every day.  I do the things that make me happy. Yeah, that must be it.  Happiness keeps me young.

I think she expected me to tell her to go buy some crazy expensive face cream and get a massage or something.  This was definitely not the answer she was looking for.  She just kind of said “oh” and walked away to have another cigarette (“could you watch my drink again honey? I’ll be right back”).  Sure, lady, go smoke another butt.

She came back long enough to tell me that “that is the best answer I’ve ever heard” and pound the rest of her wine before paying her tab and heading out.  I couldn’t figure out if she had simply had enough, couldn’t handle the answer because it made her think too much about her own sad life, or if she just got lost in her own head and needed to go home.

Either way, the whole interaction got me to thinking; what is it that makes me so genuinely happy? Why is it that I can be so happy doing this thing, cooking, that so many people hate? And then I came around to thinking about food in general and why it is the centerpiece to so many happy memories for so many people.

Then I remembered something my dad used to talk to me about a lot (particularly in the less-happy times in my life): Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

stay tuned – more tomorrow!

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.