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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Real Questions asked by Real Guests…

What kind of fish is in this Bluefish Pate?

 

A real question asked by a real guest sitting at the bar.

I wish I was kidding.  Unfortunately, people sometimes can’t see what’s written in bold black ink, never mind what’s between the lines.

Commence lesson on the Bluefish, native to the cold, North Atlantic waters, and particularly prevalent along the coast of Massachusetts…

I genuinely wish that people would take some time to think before they open their mouths.  I’m more than willing to answer and discuss any decently thoughtful and intelligent questions guests may have.  For instance:

“I’ve never had bluefish before. Can you tell me a bit about it?”

Well, certainly.

But people don’t think before they speak anymore. When did that happen?

Anyway, if you’ve heard some bad questions, I’d like to hear them too, so go ahead and send them to me! I’ve got a button up there along the top that says “what’s your story?” Click away and tell me your question or story. I’m looking forward to hearing it!

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.

The one with the puddles

– An anonymous contribution to the Knockers on 32 series –

One night, we had some of the runoff from a big event nearby – men in tuxes and women all done up to the nine’s.  They came in after their charity event or whatever and were having some drinks.

I spotted her around eleven, she was hard to miss… Gorgeous, Dior dress, Jimmy Chu’s, sparkling from everywhere with perfectly cut diamonds, glass of champagne swinging wildly in her hand as she talked to her friends, dripping with new money and class.

Around midnight, I see her again.  Sitting in the barstool, halfway passed out.  Wobbling back and forth a bit, eyes unfocused, some guy (not in a tux) kissing her neck and trying to get her to stand up.  As any good restaurant manager would, I took it all in and realized that this was all wrong.  So, I went over and shoo’d the creep away and talked to the girl.  She agrees that she wants to go home and has, in fact, had a bit too much champagne and not enough to eat.

As we are talking I walk her to the front door and hail a cab.  We say good night, the taxi pulls away and I turn around to go back into the bar, which has cleared out a bit.

I look down the path from whence I came and what, to my wandering eyes did appear, but ten tiny puddles leading up to where I stood.

That chick peed herself, starting at the barstool, and continuing until just before she got in the cab.

I guess that you can dress them up like dolls and give them everything in the world, but you can’t instill class or control.  The best looking girl in the room, made her exit by getting hammered and pissing all over her thousand dollar shoes … and my floor.

That time the affair was CALLED OUT.

A joint effort with our sister-tumblr KItchen Wisdom – another entry in the Knockers on 32 series.

“I guess I have a tendency to work in open kitchens.

In one kitchen, you could see the whole dining room, but not the bar.  Interestingly, they could hear you if you were talking in a normal voice, but they had to be yelling for you to hear them.  Something to do with the way the vents worked. I don’t really know.

Things you should know about working in hotels:  It’s like being back in highschool.  Rumors abound, as well as backstabbing and undermining.  But, the pay is better than most and you get health insurance and disability. Sooo….

One server, he was married.  I never met his wife, except for this night.  We all knew he was having an affair with the hostess.  Everyone talked about it all the time, except for them.  They were both in their 40’s, and she was single (I think, all of a sudden I’m not sure anymore).  He always hung out next to the hostess stand, it’s not like he even tried to be discreet about his interest in her.  They would both park in the unnecessary depths of the parking lot and walked there together at the end of the night.  They had been ‘seen’ making out by his car more than once.

One night, it all came to a head. With a bang.

In the middle of service, out of nowhere, you just hear this awful screaming.

His wife had shown up.

She was screaming at the hostess, on the other side of the dining room.  It continued as the hostess ran away, through the dining room, weaving her way through the tables trying to get into the relative safety of the back of the house.  “You whore, you slut, you homewrecker.“  A great many other expletives and the like. About halfway through the room, he sees what is going on, and starts chasing after the two women… “baby, no, it’s ok, just stop, why are you doing this” etc. etc. etc.

All the way through the rest of the dining room, and into the back kitchen.

The cat was officially out of the bag.”

That time the hooker got stood up.

A joint effort with out sister-tumblr Kitchen Wisdom, another installment of the Knockers on 32 series.

Have you ever seen a high-class, high-price escort get stood up?

I have.

It’s hysterical, and sad, and you can’t stop watching it.  Kind of like a car accident.

One night, I’m standing at my station in my exceedingly open kitchen, and watching the bar crowd come and go.  It’s a steady night so I don’t get to watch it too closely, but closely enough to follow the plot.

Close up on the ‘butherface’ smokeshow in the red dress, nursing a belvedere and cranberry.  Banging body, tight dress, long weave with bangs to cover her moderately ugly face.  I don’t mean to be judgemental, I just have to paint the picture.  This woman is SEXY from about 15 feet, but once you get closer, ehhhh.  I can tell you pretty definitively that this is the M.O. of most ‘escorts’ in my city… at least the kind that show up a few nights a week in our 5 star hotel …

anyway

She has a canada goose jacket draped casually on the corner of her chair at the bar, and an iPhone 5 in her hand.  She kind of dawdles aimlessly with the garnish on her glass, her hair, her dress, the napkin, her dress, checking her phone and the door every few minutes.  She says “oh no, I’m sorry, I’m waiting for someone” to four or five people who try to sit next to her, as it is getting late, and it is now the only open seat at the bar.

An hour or so passes, and no one has shown up.  Her glass is empty, the bartender asks if she wants another, she orders it but doesn’t touch it.  Not yet.

Eventually, a well dressed man in maybe his late 20’s shows up and sits next to her.  At first you think that this is him, the john.  You write him a quick story in your head; He’s probably new money and single and needs some ‘company’ because he works so much he can’t maintain a relationship.  Then she notices, and tries to shoo him off.  He says something to the effect of “I’m waiting for friends too, I’ll move as soon as yours gets here.”  And your story drifts away like a cloud and everyone recommences the waiting.

Eventually, the guy’s friend shows up.  They are both attractive men, both clearly have money.  You see the woman go from annoyed and lonely to working in about 5 seconds flat.  She has finally given up on whoever was supposed to meet her to begin with.

She talks and flirts and tosses her hair around…. adjusts the top of her dress and drops something on the floor to bend over for.  She worked hard, let me tell you.  But, the guys weren’t budging.  They held conversation and had small talk with her in between, but never really showed interest.

About half an hour later you see why: their girlfriends show up.  Now, there was zero noticeable tension.  Good for these guys and girls, that even though the guys were talking to an obvious hooker, the girls were able to dismiss it – or maybe they just didn’t realize?…  Either way, they even started conversation with the woman.

By this point, the bar had filled up so much that I couldn’t hear what was being said anymore.  I am curious though, if the girls figured out that this woman was a hooker.  What kind of questions do you ask if you are standing next to “pretty woman” at the bar?   And I wonder if the boys picked up the tab that she so expertly walked out on.

1,000 dollar extensions, and she couldn’t pay 30 bucks for two drinks.  What a roller coaster it must be to be one of those ‘ladies of the night.’

What’s your ‘Knockers’ story?

Knockers on 32 is my favorite story from my adventures in the kitchen.  I have so many others but this one stuck with me in the most vivid fashion.

What is your ‘knockers’ story? The one that is the first story you tell when you get around a group of chefs or restaurant people telling war stories?

Share it with us – we will be sure to give you credit (if you want it) and add it to our series. Just click “knockers on 32” on the header and you’ll find a submission form there 🙂

Or, just tag it #knockerson32 and add it to the collection!