The other day I was catching up with a chef I used to work for. When I admitted that a few weeks from now marks the two year anniversary of the last day I worked a shift on the line, the conversation inevitably changed to the subject of wasting one’s potential. Understandable, as this is someone who at one point was a mentor, someone who certainly passed along a lot of culinary knowledge early on in my restaurant career. This person frequently took precious time out of their busy day to teach me, and I appreciate that, I really do.
That’s how anyone learns anything in restaurants – a chef or other more experienced cook with way too little free energy somehow manages to carve out just a sliver of their time for you. Five minutes to show you something here, one minute to answer a question there. Slowly over time knowledge gets passed along in this way. How to peel a kiwi with a spoon, how to quickly dissect a pomegranate with a bigger spoon, how to peel off just enough of that stubborn layer of silverskin without messing up the entire rack of lamb. Cooking well is all about amassing thousands of these little ways to do things faster, better, with less waste. These are not the basic skills learned in culinary school.
The entire canon of culinary knowledge has mostly been passed along in these short snippets, one cook to another over hundreds of years. Which is exactly what this mentor had done for me. Thousands of snippets. That was a significant investment in me, a lot of precious time.
That is the nature of trades, you learn as you go. It’s the same in any trade. Mechanics, electricians, chefs, plumbers all learn by watching, by emulating, by doing. It’s even the case in white collar jobs – highly educated doctors still need to spend a period of time with mentors during residency, lawyers practice with the guidance of senior partners before venturing out on their own.
Eventually my turn came around to teach when I became first an experienced line cook, then a sous chef and finally a chef. I’d try to teach whenever I could, which was not as often as I’d like, and certainly less often than the cooks deserved. I was usually just too busy. But I managed to pass along a bit over the years. For a while I even gave up some of my precious time to teach short classes at a local culinary school, for whatever that’s worth.
Passing on what I knew to others was an attempt to pay back that debt to all of the mentors who had taught me. Those skills are now in other people’s quivers. They can decide for themselves how to use that knowledge. Though I hope those who I taught will continue to pass along the information, it’s no longer up to me.
By passing on this knowledge I’ve paid my debts. But the question remains, am I wasting my potential?
Restaurant culture is a funny thing. You either belong, or you don’t. You are either a lifer, someone who will somehow always be involved with restaurants or at the very least on the periphery, or you are someone who is clearly from the beginning just passing through, someone for whom a restaurant job is just that; a job.
I think everyone has me pinned as a lifer. I too think this, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love every part of the business, the food, the challenges of juggling all of the moving pieces, the pressure, the rush of a busy night. The intoxicating theatre that is a well run restaurant. I’m fueled on the chaos, filled with the energy of a buzzing conglomerate of cooks and servers all working for the same general goal, even if they are not necessarily always moving in the same direction. I even like all of the interpersonal drama, most of the time anyway.
There is just something about it. Restaurants are a lot of fun.
At the same time there is always writing on the wall, a warning that the lifestyle isn’t sustainable. It’s a younger person’s game, there are precious few chefs over 40 who still manage to cook on the line and even fewer servers that age. It’s just too abusive on your body. The hours are too long, the physical toils of running around and up and down stairs, always the stairs. The people who have reached their island in restaurants are the owners, the ones who make most of the money and do the least amount of work. Ownership is how you make it past 50 years of age in restaurants.
There’s another form of abuse also prevalent in the industry – alcohol is never more than a few steps away, and that first sip of a nice frosty drink after hours running and sweating behind a hot-ass stove after a hard shift is almost heavenly. A drink or two after dealing with bitchy customers all night is almost essential for a server. That most restaurants actually include at least one free drink with every shift worked is telling. And once you reach a slightly more valuable position up the chain nobody is going to say anything if you help yourself to a second, or a third.
Running a restaurant is like throwing a big party night after night. Every detail of a good restaurant is sculpted to be fun, from the music and the decour all the way down. We need you to have a good time, that’s how we get you to keep coming through the doors. Forget how good the food is, forget the service, if a restaurant can convince you that you had a good time no matter what else happened then they’ve done their job.
But the real party doesn’t even start until most of the customers leave and it’s just the employees. Once the civilians are out of the way we can get down to business. It begins with that shift drink at the restaurant while everyone finishes with side work or cleaning up. Inevitably it moves to one of the local bars, probably culminating at somebody’s house sometime early the next day. Of course there’s also other chemicals besides alcohol, the unrestrained use of cocaine, marijuana and various prescription drugs by many in the industry is no secret.
All of that was fun for a while, but that I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life is just a lack of imagination. Eventually I matured enough to see that there is nothing intrinsically fulfilling about that lifestyle. By and large I stopped partying except for the occasional night a few times a year, though I still helped myself to a few drinks almost every night. I paid attention to that writing on the wall and started to plan my ascension to that island of ownership, a way to get off the line and off the floor. I started saving.
Eventually I realised it was much easier to just escape. For the same amount of cash that could have bought me a restaurant I can easily just live off of the dividends instead. I’ve reached a different island.
For the last two years I’ve basically been screwing around mostly just pursuing various interests and fulfilling my wanderlust. Some people might consider that a waste of my culinary potential, and I absolutely agree, it is. I spent years and countless hours toiling to get that skillset and at the moment I’m not using any of it. In the last five months I’ve cooked exactly once, unless you count a couple boxes of macaroni and cheese or a few packages of instant ramen, which definitely is not cooking in my book.
I’m not sure if I’m a restaurant lifer or not. I often miss the fun of it. At the same time I don’t miss all of the stress and the long hours and the constant aches and pains. Sometimes I still dream of fulfilling that goal of owning my own restaurant just to see if I can do it. But even if that doesn’t happen, even if I never even step into a commercial kitchen again, I have this amazing ability to cook almost anything and that is worth something.
I’ll continue to hone and improve my cooking, it’s not a talent that will go unused forever. Cooking well is valuable no matter how you slice it, I’m not wasting that skill, an I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll get to pick up a knife again for the joy of it.
There are so many other possible experiences in life than what’s contained in the small world of restaurants. Continuing down that culinary path without serious reflection would have been an even greater waste. I’ve wasted my potential to do one very specific skill for the potential to do almost anything.