I am having a hard time. A lot of people I know are having a similarly hard time and so maybe it's time to be having a hard time. I am trying to see and understand where I fit and don't appear to fit in my job, the kitchen, among cooks, with chefs, in the industry as a whole, and all the invisible crevices in which ickinesses take up residence if we're not careful.

I attempt to be as honest with my weaknesses as I can, without creating a ladder from which to climb over the bridge on. It's not easy finding one's way in the maze that kitchens seem to be, what with everyone's egos and conflicting opinions and inability to let go of power and so forth. What's ironic is that I've had two major conversations with "new cooks" recently and each one said to me,

"It should just be about the food. Why can't people just let go of their ego and pettiness and see that it's the food and the food's integrity that's the most important?"

But nothing is ever just about the thing at hand, if humans are the ones creating those things.

Some days I want to go back to being a cook with no worries but my station and the impending service. I want to be able to live without thinking I needed health insurance or heat in my house. Was life simpler then? No, it was filled with hand-to-mouth worries and no room to rest or exhale. And yet, through the mind's eye it looks like a better, less emotionally complicated time.

It's the understanding and X-ray vision of the group dynamic that kills me. Keeps me awake at night. Provides too much fuel for anxiety and separates me from the pack. I don't want to follow people blindly. I want to support the owner and the vision and add something real to the mix. I enjoy setting down roots and if a job is just a job I can barely do it effectively.

My problem is that I see every business as my own and I treat it and its overall operations as such. You could say I am the best employee to have, or the worst, depending on who you are as an owner. Translated, as a good friend of mine who has owned a business for 29 years would say, "You work too hard."

The concept is that I can help save the day. {yes, I know this is delusional.}

What if I knew that it was all out of my control? Would I look like the I'm-just-here-for-the-paycheck person? Or could I be the it-rolls-off-my-back-like-a-duck person?

When people ask for my opinion, I give it. Maybe I need to start being opinionless. I could wear a kind of sunglasses version of this attitude. If no one sees my opinions then they won't ask me to participate in the solution.

Kitchens have an intriguing learning curve. A person can learn very fast and become learned and aware if paying close attention. It takes a long time to have the full skill set of Chef, but unless one has an intentional trajectory/ plan for their learning, stagnation occurs and complacency sets in. The learning curve looks like a hill but really it's more like a train. The locomotive follows along the terrain but at some point said train goes into, and through the ground. Learning becomes deeper, more intuitive, and hopefully, less reactive.

It can also help to have some basic understanding of how unionizing does and does not work. I'm not talking about unionizing in the workplace, per se, but the dynamics of management vs. non management plays itself out in a number of ways. If you don't know how to read the writing on the wall, when people (co-workers or your boss) are trying to get rid of you, triangulate, use/ turn you into a rat, blackball you or close the business without you and any of your cohorts suspecting, you can constantly find yourself mystified of how you ended up where you are.

Have you ever watched a full season of 24? Then you have been schooled.

`

I will give you an example. I used to work at a large, high profile restaurant where perfect was what you were trying to achieve every day. No one ever thanked you or told you you were doing a good job and if no one humiliated you during a given shift, you were doing alright. Service was long and hard and even though your scheduled arrival time said 3 you got there at noon and were in the weeds well after the first ticket came in. You were lucky if you were out of the kitchen by 2 am.

I had the lead position on a two man station. The pastry department employed over 5 assistants and we were organized in order of ability. The pastry chef was A and I was C. I began working with a young man who would fill position D/E. One day the pastry chef took me into the office and read me the riot act for being too hard on said young man.

It seemed amazing to me that the pastry chef, who was violent, bad tempered and mean just for the sake of being mean, was calling me out for riding this very young (in years and in cooking experience) cook. Also, he had come from working in garde manger where the sous chef who presided over them was infamous for his acts of physical and psychological violence. (He had been in the military before this restaurant.)

To be clear about the subject of meanness in kitchens: some chefs sound mean but they are only trying to get the food out. Others are mean just to see how much denigration you can handle. The latter chefs are attempting to give you more stress than you can handle to counter-balance the real stress of making food fast and well enough for their liking and the clientele's expectations. Although there's one catch here and it lives in the grey area of abuse in kitchens: if you work in a kitchen where you are never yelled at, addressed, pushed, ridden, and/ or encouraged, you are not on the radar of the chef and sous chefs and you should go to a kitchen where someone notices you. Or the chef knows she/he's a shoemaker and on some level you know too, so people leave you alone lest you show someone above you up. (In which case you should get out of said kitchen because you have little to learn if your chef and/ or sous chefs are mere pretenders.)

It's a fine line between these different mean-nesses, and it takes a lot of years on the line to really know, or be able to discern the differences, when face to face with mean chefs.

I thought a lot on the problem at hand, concerning this whiny cook. If a child throws a temper tantrum every time s/he wants something, or tells on fellow students just to get the teacher's approval, s/he learns that this is the way to get what they want or to get through issues. But children don't see the bigger picture, they can't, because their world only exists because they're in it.

I've worked in some kitchens where two cooks did not get along and the chef solved the problem by saying if they couldn't get along they would both be fired.

I did something else. When a governing body is pitting two seemingly opposed groups against each other, it can be because that governing body doesn't want anyone to notice how corrupt it is. But when two enemied groups become allies, their force is that much stronger.

One day I went into work and made that young man into my ally. By the time I left that kitchen, mr. D/E was fiercely loyal to me and we worked incredibly well as a team. The kitchen at large was mystified. What I did, the methods I employed, were subtle but tried and true. I had not thought of them myself, I merely employed them. You could say I babied or coddled him, but what lay beneath was much more complex.

`

Once I have seen, and experienced, I have learned. Not to say I'm perfect or can't learn any further in any or all areas, but once I know something I can't go back to not knowing. I can't go back to pretending I don't know why a department or restaurant is losing money. Can't not see who despises whom and why certain mis en place always goes missing. Can't not take inventory and track sales and be concerned with cost of goods and attempt to reach out and teach those who are still green and help the dishwashers and communicate with the front of house and want the best parts of people to shine.

Can't stand still.

Until I'm in front of the mirror.

And then all goes black.

In this economy, in this small town that is the Bay Area, in my industry as a whole, I am seeing some trends I wish I did not see, I wish I did not know, I wish I could go back in time and not experience first hand. I wish I had more hope right now, but I'm sorry to say that I don't.

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Tags: BOH, communication, management, restaurant, training

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Comment by Shuna fish Lydon on June 19, 2008 at 11:38pm
Frank C,

I fear it is far too late for warnings, but I appreciate the metaphor! Thank you for reading and commenting.
Comment by Frank C on June 18, 2008 at 7:55am
If you use this industry for a social relationship, your heart will get broken. Its a business, not a social club or an art studio. Don't get emotionally attached to anything or anyone. She is a cruel mistress.
Comment by Ted Cohn on June 6, 2008 at 10:23am
Shuna, this is a very revealing post -- you really have put your heart out there. Thanks for sharing your very personal feelings on this subject. I hope that other cooks, chefs and kithen staff can chime in on this. This just confirms that politics are everywhere and unceasing. Sorry to hear it. Is this representative of the widespread BOH culture?

My wife is insisting I read a book about living a positive/happy life without negativity, worry, or stress -- that most of this is caused by our egos. She swears by it but is on a mini vacation. I promise to share the title when she returns.

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