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.

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.