Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lessons from the Kitchen

A few weeks ago, I had my toughest night in the kitchen. No, nothing horrible happened, and in terms of actual mistakes, I didn’t really make many. But I was off. I even knew it as was coming. It had been a long week. And I was beginning to feel a sore throat coming on. It had been a little while since I had been in cooking, and I knew of at least one new menu item that I didn’t know how to prepare and I didn’t feel ready. There was just a lot going on. I wasn’t 100%.

As I started setting up the station, I was running around grabbing different things, cutting board, a rack here, a hotel pan there, etc. But for some reason, things were missing today. And I swear, I was looking in the right place, but for one reason or another, I just couldn’t seem to find the things I needed. It was as if someone was trying to make it harder for me. Sigh.

We had a busy night ahead of us—with a little more than half of our diners for the night all coming in between 7:30 and 8 pm. Yikes. We were going to get hit hard over a short period of time.

I’m a perfectionist. I work hard. And I want my team and my superiors to be happy with my work. Crap, I just want to be happy with my work. Is that too much to ask? With my ‘day job’, I know what I’m doing. I have a good grasp of the industry. I know what I’m suppose to do. And although there are always new things to learn and new skills to master, I do fairly well.

With my ‘night job’? I’m not there (yet). And it’s hard for me not to be the best. It’s hard that there’s much more that I don’t know, than I do know. It’s at those times, that I have to remember. I’m there to learn. I’ve been doing this for a split second. The people around me? They’ve been cooking for years. Just being allowed to work the line means something. And I should be thankful, and happy that I’m even there.

So although on this particular night I was disappointed in myself, I have to put some things into perspective. First, there were lots of good moments. Lots of successes (which given my personality, I can easily forget about!) From simple things like remembering a few more names of the people working there, to changing my energy and ending the night better than it started. I’m also beginning to be able to anticipate things and do certain things before I’m asked to. It’s a great feeling.

Also, I realized, in terms of this being a learning and growing experience? I’m getting so much from it. Some of the things I learned this night?

1. Not every night is a good night
Early in the night, one of the cooks came by to talk to me and asked how it was going. I told him I was having a bad night. His response? Everyone has a bad night. Don’t worry about it. Shake it off. There’ll always be another night (well, sure, for him. But what about me? I’m just a stage. One bad move and am I out?) But seriously. No matter what type of job you do. It’s ok if it’s not your night. Not every night can be your night.

2. Knife skills are important!
You’ve heard it before. And I’ve always known that I’ve needed to learn/improve my knife skills. Well, when you have one of the executive sous looking down on you and wincing at the way you’re holding your knife, it sure does seems like a good time to learn the correct way to hold the knife. My moment of pure embarrassment as I felt his eyes on me quickly passed after I realize this was my chance to learn. And for all you home cooks out there? You’re probably holding that knife wrong. (For the record, he was right. My new grip has made a world of difference in terms of my ability to control the knife!)

3. Don’t slouch! Don’t hunch!
Back problems (along with carpal tunnel syndrome) are very common amongst chefs. You have to stand up straight (especially when you’re working in an open kitchen), but when you’re working and cutting and cooking, you also can’t hunch over. Imagine hunching over your cutting board for a minimum of eight hours a day, at least five days a week, it’s not good for your body. It’s like those days of the awkward school portrait. Tilt your head a little to the left. Move your shoulders to the right. But oh wait, tilt your head back. It takes some getting use to. And all I keep wanting to do is hunch over and concentrate on what’s on my board.

4. A smile will get you a long way
I may not know what I’m doing, but my please and thank-you’s have gotten me far. I don’t know everyone’s name (it takes a lot of dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, expediters, servers and managers to run a restaurant, and with my sporadic shifts, I’m not making fast enough headway on learning all the names), but I smile at everyone. Those of you that know me know that I tend to just generally smile a lot. So this isn’t really anything different. It’s amazing how once you look up at someone and give them a smile, it just opens them up to smile at you back. It just lightens things up a little bit. And no matter how stressed everyone is, or how fast they’re moving, or how behind they are, they can still take the time to smile. And I don’t know about them, but I feel better.

5. There are kitchen politics just like there are politics in every office
Not that I ever thought it would be any different from a ‘traditional office’, but it is definitely obvious that there are politics in the kitchen just like any other place. I’m learning a lot by being a silent observer.

6. Cooks and kitchen people are nice.
Seriously. They’re all nice. And mean well. Even when they don’t seem like it at first. And even when they scare and intimidate you. They have a passion for cooking. For making delicious food for others all while they eat scraps and make minimum wage. For the most part, they’re all there because they want to be. And the fact that you’ve chosen to do the same with your time? (And in my case, my free time!) I think it wins big points with them.

7. Everyone’s got a slightly different way of doing things
Again, kind of an obvious statement. But I’m quickly learning that one person may say one thing, and another may expect it done differently. I’m trying to ask as many questions as I possibly can (not hard for me!) and just do all I can to make everyone around me happy and to meet their expectations. I’m excited to think that one of these days, I’ll have my own style and small unique spins on things.

8. When someone teaches you, listen.
I can take critique. Especially when it’s in regards to something I don’t even know much about! So, when people take the time to teach me something, I take the time to listen. And I’m grateful. It means I’m worth teaching.

9. Passion counts
A passion for food. A passion for cooking. A passion for perfection. A passion for creating something that can bring happiness to other people. Do you have that passion? Is it in your blood? I find myself CRAVING being in the restaurant when I'm not there. Like literally wondering if I have a reason to swing by. Just to see what's happening. Who's coming in to eat? How many are in the books? What's new on the menu? Dumb right? I need to find more things to think about? Well, I can't help it! It becomes a part of who you are.

10. You have to remember why you’re there
And it can’t be for any superficial reasons. You're not going to gain riches nor fame. You have to want to be there. You have to truly invest your whole being into the job if you’re serious about it. Don't forget the reasons you're there. Don't forget the way you felt the night after your first service. Strive for that feeling each and every night.

I learned a lot on that night. Whether or not I am able to return in the kitchen, I'm grateful to everyone who has taught me something through this experience. I know that not everyone is given a chance like this and I really do appreciate my opportunity. I am having an amazing experience and so thankful for everything I've learned and all the great people I've met.

1 comment:

  1. You're definitely getting the full education, Jamie; it is about the food, but so much more. Your "back door" perspective is very refreshing too... kind of an outsider's anthropological view of what kitchen culture is like. Keep it up!