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.

Family Meal

Family Meal….family meal is a tough, contentious topic if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant.

My feelings on family meal are wide and varied.  They start at the bottom with “go fuck yourself” and progress to the top and “come eat.” as a consumer I love family meal but as a producer, it can swing drastically based on how much other work I have to do.

I suppose how I feel about it depends on where I am working at the moment, the people being fed and their attitudes.  I don’t mind feeding the appreciative ones.  The ones who work really hard and understand how hard the kitchen works and appreciate their free meal every day.

The thing that triggered this post is an event – it happened last Sunday at work and I can’t wrap my head around it, can’t stop thinking about it.  I’m feeling a few things – anger, frustration… disrespected.

A little background before I dive in: we are open breakfast, lunch and dinner every day except Christmas and Independance day.  We aren’t mass production by any means but we definitely do some volume.  Dine LA (restaurant week) just ended Sunday night, Monday we had a huge buyout for a movie premier, we are/were exhausted, overstretched and behind on prep.  Family meal always falls to the saute cook… I’m not really sure why but for whatever reason, it does.  Which means that it falls to me 5 days a week.

Sunday was a hard day. We got wrecked on Saturday night, almost 300 covers. I was starting from scratch for mis en place… Which really is two afternoons worth of work and I had about 3 hours to get it done between my arrival and the first reservation, never mind the happy hour snacks that would roll in through the afternoon.

Most days I stay ahead enough on my prep that I don’t mind making family meal. I am usually able to find a half hour in my day to put up halfway decent nosh for the crew around about 5 o’clock.

This day was obviously not one of those days, from the very beginning.  Every cook was in the same position, scrambling to get ready before it got busy. We all came in early, we were running when we hit the ground. So, no help to be had from each other, we were all on our own gunning for preparedness. It took until about 5:30 for us all to get close enough that we could take a few minutes to put together a staff meal. We were doing it as a team when a big ticket of bar snacks came in. So, I put down staff meal and picked up the tacos. As we were plating, the sous chef goes “That’s weird, there is no table number or guest count. This better not be for staff. ”

Rewind the day about 10 minutes and step into the front of the house.

The servers don’t understand how the kitchen can be busy when there are no guests sitting at tables. They all started complaining to the floor manager that they are hungry and that staf meal in’t up yet. And his response is to try and shut them up by RINGING IN BAR SNACKS FOR THE STAFF.

“What? You guys are too busy to put up family meal? Let me create some MORE work for you and use up the meez you already did. That seems like a good idea.”

So there we are. The kitchen dimension intersects the front of the house dimension, and I am standing there, fuming, family meal in one hand and a big platter of bar snacks in the other.

Are you kidding me? Is this real?

Now, I get why restaurants provide family meal. The days are long, we don’t make a ton of money, it builds the team to share a meal. But, the expectation that your free meal be more important than the mis en place with which I will feed our paying guests? That’s just some bull. I get paid to feed them, not to feed you.

I don’t know. Like I said at the beginning, family meal is always (and probably always will be) a touchy subject.

I guess my point is that the front of the house needs to have more respect for the weight that the kitchen bears on a daily basis.  You come in, you roll your silver and put out your candles, talk to your guests, ring some food in.  It can be hectic at times, yes.  I respect that to be a true professional server is an art form.  However, that respect has to go both ways.  Without me doing my job to the best of my ability, you quite literally don’t have a job.  And that meal – Family Meal – is a gift, from me to you, because we can not survive without one another.  If I want my passion to be conveyed to a guest, I need you too.  We need each other.  So Family Meal is my gift to you, to say thank you for your help.

But for the sake of our team, the respect has to go both ways.  Recognize when we are flying.  I know you can tell.  I haven’t stopped to say hi today? Service hasn’t started and the cooks are already soaked with sweat? It’s Saturday? or, Saturday was banging and today is Sunday? Just take a second to stop and think.

And maybe say thank you once in awhile.  That means more than anything else.