The first time I was employed in a kitchen, I was extremely naive about how things worked. I was thankful that I had some of the culinary education behind me so I knew what my sous and the chef were talking about. I am a quick learner and I picked up on most (not all) of the nuances fast. I worked for an open kitchen in a casual dining establishment. At the time, I didn’t really care for the open kitchen because you were being watched.
The kitchen, and by kitchen, I mean the work area was small. It held 2 stacked ovens, 1 fryer, an 8-burner stove (if I remember correctly, and a flat top grill. Three of us on the line in a space about 10 feet by 4 feet. Including our coolers, and we were cramped. I learned to work within the confines of our space and how to not run into your coworkers.
When I went to my next kitchen, I had a better understanding of how things worked. I still had a lot to learn but I was eager. I landed the job I wanted at a fine dining restaurant. It was a dream come true, or so I thought.
The kitchen was HUGE. It was about the size of the dining area of my last restaurant. There was room everywhere and everything seemed so bright! And the walk in? OMG. So much room and it was organized.
As I worked pantry, it became clear these guys (and gals) were obviously much further along than I was. I had to adjust and pick up the pace. It wasn’t a bad thing; it kept me on my toes. I worked with ingredients I have either never tasted or had never heard of. I took notes, learned how to season properly (or so I thought), learned plating techniques, and learned that I felt out of place. I soon began training on the grill so I could work it when the regular grill guy was off. I had a day of training and then I was on my own.
I was out of my element. I had a difficult time properly temping the filets. I had the other proteins and sides down but those damn filets were going to be the death of me. I heard tips and tricks from my chef instructor, from fellow students (because I was still in school). The problem with their tips and tricks: they weren’t fine dining tips and they certainly weren’t approved by my James Beard nominated chef. I found out what NOT to do very quickly.
I made a shit ton of mistakes and it was stressing me out. I wasn’t used to it. My dream restaurant job was turning into a nightmare. I felt unsure of myself, I struggled, I faltered, I made mistakes and it all made me feel stupid.
I wanted so badly for it to work out but I felt like an outsider and not really part of a team. I decided I was going to push forward and make the best of it. I was going to be more proactive, I was going to be more outgoing. I was going to make a point to be more “not me.”
See, I’m an introvert by nature. It’s very difficult for me sometimes. Small talk is painful and I laugh when I’m nervous. These guys were outgoing, purely extroverted, and they had all been working together for a couple of years. Toss in the fact that I was green, the FNG if you will, and you have a recipe for (potential) meltdowns. Usually the chef who had a temper from time to time.
I waited it out to see if it was me or if it was the crew. I held out for as long as I could. I took the misery and I analyzed it every which way. I determined it was part me and part the crew (but probably mostly me). I think I was intimidated. No, I WAS intimidated and it got the best of me. I shut down and the crew moved forward. It was a sink or swim lesson and I was barely keeping afloat some days.
First lesson: NEVER shut down. “Movement is life.” (Quote from World War Z and Brad Pitt). It sounds funny, but it is one of the truest quotes I have ever remembered. You must keep moving. You must keep pushing through.
One of the most memorable things my chef said to me when he saw me struggling was, “it’s just a moment in time.” The entire conversation we had will remain with me for the rest of my career and the rest of my life. He said to me “no matter what is going on, take a moment to breathe. Take stock of where you are and push forward. It’s just one moment in time. It’s nothing you can’t get through.”
It’s one of the most profound things I took away from that job. I wasn’t doing good there. It wasn’t a good fit and I knew it. They knew it. I remember when Grant Achatz was talking about leaving Charlie Trotter’s restaurant and how he felt. Not that I’m in any way comparing myself to these great chefs, it’s just that I wasn’t the only cook to feel the way I was. I hated cooking. I hated fine dining. I missed the open kitchen, and I missed the fellowship on the line.
I made the decision to leave and it was a load off my shoulders. I felt relieved and I felt better. I got another position in a steakhouse. My Sous said I wouldn’t be making the same food where I was going. I told him I understood and that maybe I was meant leave to perfect what I needed to perfect and then I would be back. He said that sounds like a great idea.
When my last day came, there was no fanfare. I was reflecting on my time there and felt like I was letting a great opportunity slip away but I needed to leave. Chef shook my hand and said good luck and to come back and visit. I said goodbye to my Sous and he said thank you for being such a good employee and good luck. Aww, that was so nice and it made me feel better and that maybe I wasn’t such a screw up after all…
I left and haven’t kept in contact with anyone. Sometimes it happens. I walked away with an even better understanding of the quality of food, the quality of the cook, and the different techniques and discipline one must have. Because of this, I have no regrets about my first moment in time in fine dining.