Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tuesday Tidbits: Quite Possibly a Post So Crappy It Should Be Deleted

What you are about to read can only be summarized as a terrible blog post. It's whiny, disjointed, the antithesis of concise, and above all, void of anything remotely entertaining unless you've ever been in charge of a kitchen. So go ahead and read it if you feel the need (read: are that incredibly bored), but know that I haven't had much time to write in the past three months, so I'm publishing it based on the simple fact that I finished, at best case, the initial thought of an idea for a post.

Three years ago I took a position not in the restaurant business. It was the first job of the sort I’d accepted in over a decade. It was a family-oriented decision that centered on hours and procreation. I didn’t know how it would all go down, if I’d be able to function outside of a kitchen, and the result was a pleasant surprise.

My wife and I had an amazing baby girl over a year ago and for the duration of the two years prior, I was able to participate in social functions for the first time since early high school. I made my own schedule, enjoyed nights, weekends, and holidays off like most of the working world.

I didn’t work too terribly hard. I developed some quality relationships with both colleagues and clients, and I learned a considerable amount about a part of the Kansas City area (read: the Dotte) that had previously been an unknown. I didn’t really think I’d be there for three years, though, and what’s more: I imagined –- in some dark corner of my mind –- that when my time came to an end there, I’d have landed a writing gig.

A year before I took that job, I existed within the confines of one of the worst pieces of employment in my 32 years in the work force. It was a soul sucker, a wallowing in a swamp of mind-numbing misery that seemed perpetual and dangerous. It created internal animosity both in my heart and in my home, and though my stay was short there, it seemed to last –- both in terms of time spent on the payroll and in the time it would take to get out of that job –- for five years.

In short, I gave, and I gave, and I gave. And when there was no more left to give, I found an ounce more to give.

And then a peculiar thing happened: I got fired.

Nobody’s ever fired me before. Nobody’s ever even sat me down for the this-is-the-last-warning kind of a chat. I’ve (more or less) always been a rock star, and frankly, I’ve almost always been either promoted or eligible for rehire, or both.

It was quite a shock to the system, and in more ways than I can remember, I didn’t know how to operate with that label being stamped to my forehead. The irony of it all was that it was –- and I speak with a heavy dose of certainty here -– the best thing that has ever (occupationally) happened to me. I was, while collecting paychecks from this proprietor, an eternal slave of little consequence, and my physical and emotional investments in the establishment went unnoticed.

I haven’t thought about it before now, but it’s difficult to place a time frame around the number of months it took me to accept the heartbreak of giving my all for something, night after night, day after day, disagreement with the wife after disagreement with the wife, only to be booted out the door by a snarly lipped operations director that didn’t know any better.

Nevertheless, people in the business know about the absolute slug-like nature of this particular company, and a friend in the business quickly offered me employment, and as a result I participated in a restaurant opening that was a joy. When I took that non-industry job three years ago, I bowed out (in my mind, anyway) of the business like Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show. I was done with the 70-hour work weeks, the late arrivals to weekend night gatherings, the missing out on holiday and happy-hour functions, the spending one day off sleeping, the other doing laundry. It was like I’d graduated from this institution I’d been in for longer than it took to get through all of my primary education.

The point is that it took a minute to realize that getting fired from that chef position was a blessing in disguise, and more specifically, it’s taken even longer to recognize that more than one gift came from that experience.

One of those gifts is the knowledge that I gained from having had the position. The other is the people I met, namely the person I most recently began calling my boss.

In early November, that person bought a restaurant and hired me as his chef. During the first 10 weeks I resented him once or twice, but that’s because it was an absolute whirlwind of insanity, and in actuality, it’s possible I’ve resented myself for knowing with relative precision just how nuts it would be, yet I dove in anyway.

Things, however, shaped up, my restaurant-opening to-do list is complete. I’ve had some days off, and on top of both of those things, I’m actually composing a blog post. Above it all, however, has surfaced the subtle reminder that it's not all stress and blazin' guns. I do have some things for which I feel thankful: the job itself, my experience, and of course, my wife and daughter.

My wife and I reached a crossroads this fall, one wherein she would be making a change in employment. It was a change that would immediately affect our household income in the negative, but bore the potential for an eventual swing in the positive direction down the road. The immediate, however, had to be addressed; we couldn’t make it on the non-restaurant position I’d held for three years. At the same time, my former assistant general manager from the aforementioned crummy company was looking for a chef.

I met with him three times, and to be honest, I struggled big time with the decision, and it was in our third conversation that we shook hands on the deal. The moment I got in my car, I regretted it. I told the wife as much when I got home.

She knew I didn’t really want to do it, but she wanted me to give it a shot, to see how things looked in six months.

“I don’t think you understand how much I’m going to be gone,” I said.

“Maybe I don’t,” she said. “But we’ll see.”

So I dove in.

I asked for a week to get my feet wet, to play around with the menu before we started soft openings. My boss and his wife, however, were anxious to get revenue coming in the door, so that request was silently denied. I knew none of the staff they had hired, and I knew that there was this catering endeavor he’d been working on for the past three years, that would occasionally trickle in to the restaurant.

My first day was nothing shy of awful. I wanted to leave no less than three times before noon, to say that this simply was not for me. My boss sensed my overwhelmed, scrambled brain, and promised that if we could get through this first week, we’d not see another one like it for some time. For the first couple of months he was right about that. That first week –- full of the chaos of meeting staff, training staff, hammering out batch recipes, configuring grocery orders off the top of my head, dealing with backed-up floor drains, and more than half a dozen caterings –- nearly crushed me.

But we got through it, we had a few soft opens –- the first of which we got killed on –- and officially opened. With the help of the staff, we eventually got some semblance of line specs in place, and began to prepare for service day and night.

It was three weeks before I had a day off, and that one came via Thanksgiving, a day on which we really weren’t even open. Three weeks later, I had another day –- actually two in the same week –- off, and things, as it were, smoothed out. Or at least they gave the illusion of doing so.

Five weeks ago, I chiseled away at the only remaining item –- inventory -– left on my opening to-do list. Having completely ironed it out now, I feel like we are officially operational and open, regardless of the fact that we’ve been the latter for three months.

What’s been fascinating about the experience is that this technically wasn’t my first open, but it was my first on-an-island open, if you will, and by that I mean no other facility to lean on, no other chefs to help me out. Just me, my staff, and their warehouse of questions.

I’ve always stood by the mantra that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and this is mostly because I’ve never considered myself among the elite intelligent. Things, especially of the science and math nature, don’t come easily to me, and so I’ve got to ask 80 questions to make sure I’m understanding what’s supposedly being learned. So I’m sympathetic for those that ask questions when learning on the fly. It gets tricky, however, when you’re asked no fewer than six dozen questions a day, and those questions include things like the following:

“This recipe says I should bring this sauce ‘to a slow boil,’ so how long should I leave it on the stove?”

“This recipe says to ‘allow sauce to cool,’ so how long should I let it hang out?”

“When you say you want me to ‘caramelize two diced yellow onions,’ am I getting these purple onions or these yellow ones?”

“How should I dice them?”

The list goes on.

Like I said, I don’t particularly have a problem with questions, or even an abundance of them. I never anticipated receiving so many of them, though, on topics I thought were, to an extent, understood. And to this I attribute the demographics of my staff. They, for the most part, are young, inexperienced, of a generation with which I’m not familiar, and above all, white. More on this last attribute in a bit, but first let’s get the old-and-stuck-in-your-ways portion out of the way.

I imagine a healthy portion of kids in their late teens and early 20s party. I know I did. Few were the nights that I wasn’t guzzling 12-packs of cheap beer purchased with a fake ID and burning spliffs of crappy weed. I get that. I do.

What I don’t get are the pills and the other chemical-based drugs in which folks of this generation appear well-versed. It’s not important to get into the specifics of consumption, but the nuts and bolts of the thing are this: These chemical drugs that kids are doing at a young age really warps their brains. They eat “cottons” and “bars” while getting housed on their liquor of choice –- what ever happened to some good ol’ trunk-chilled 3.2 grocery-store beer? –- and although I’m certain they’d refuse to acknowledge it, it hinders the way the sober mind is supposed to work. Inevitably, this leads to excess questions. Questions like, “What the fuck does ‘reserve’ mean?” or the general demand to have answers to anything and everything right here and now, as if the chef is a walking, breathing version of Google.

And then there’s the white thing.

I could list dozens of stories of Hispanic employees I’ve had in the nine kitchens I’ve worked in, but a guy like Oscar –- pronounced oh-SCAR –- is perhaps most suitable. This guy was never late and never missed a shift. He would arrive each day to a pile of filth already created by the likes of myself and the overlooked dishes from the previous evening’s close; right out of the gate, he had to play catch up to be prepared for the lunch volume.

In addition, he always had a monster prep list, sundry cleaning tasks, and whatever crap I’d throw on him last minute, like, “Hey I need these 90 shrimp peeled and deveined in the next six minutes.” He always did it with a smile, whistled while he worked, and was friendly to the service staff that shit on him more regularly than they did their toilets.

Why? Well, let’s not slip too far down the political slope here, but because he was living the dream in America, making what was a white-collar salary compared to what it was like in his country, and perhaps more importantly, no one was ever trying to screw him out of his earnings every time he turned around.

These kids that work for me now, though, come in the door with some sense of entitlement. And that’s not even the right word. It’s a self-sculpted set of expectations that includes some of the following assumptions:

1) For every six minutes of hard -– and I do use that term loosely –- work I put in, I should get four minutes of on-the-clock leisure.

2) If I get housed the night before work, roll in 15 minutes late on two hours of sleep and am crabby all day, you should understand that I’m living my 19-year-old life this way and be cool with it. I mean, after all, you get the privilege of standing next to me all day. I. Am. Awesome.

3) Closely related: Any and all objects in my possession or loosely associated with me must look righteous or else I will deem them material fit for the dumpster. So, you drive a beater? Be thankful it runs, and that you have one. Then take that philosophy and apply it to your clothing, technological devices, and any other property you probably didn’t pay for, and get over yourself.

4) Speaking of technology, count on me getting upset when I am told not to tweet, text, or take phone calls on my cell while on the clock/line.

5) Lastly, if I observe –- and trust me, I’ll be looking –- any deviation of policy enforcement from one employee to the next, I’ll call you out on it in the most disrespectful manner available to me at the time.

Two things to take away from all of this: At the core of these individuals is, for the most part, some element of quality human being. It just takes some time to chisel down to it. And second, working with Spanish-speakers really spoiled me. Big time.

But back to the more global picture of this endeavor: If number 24 of the New York Jets can coin his own nickname, I deem myself entitled to poach it: Banky Island.

In case it’s not obvious, I have (next to) no one to bounce ideas off of, share the workload, and above all, shoulder the stress. My two exceptions would be the owner, who’s done the catering work for the last three years, and mostly, he's done it solo. He’s got some BOH experience, but now he’s got a bigger fish to fry: melding his catering clientele into a restaurant, that he’s running with a skeleton-management crew. The other is this cat that’s the chef at a country club. He’s been in the business for a long time, and he can come in a couple times a week, hammer some shit out for me, and be the most efficient person in the building in doing so. But this is his side gig; he’s full-time and salaried at the club.

Therefore, the bulk of everything food –- catering stuff aside –- falls on me. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure and stress, and precisely zero percent of the people I call my co-workers get that. Meaning, it’s not that they struggle to comprehend everything I’m trying to accomplish, execute, and manage. Rather, the thought simply never occurs to them. I don’t mention that to illustrate a fault them. I really don’t.

Here’s the ironic part: I’ve felt precisely that 1,000 times over in the past. It’s not a foreign feeling. The difference is that I’ve always had chefs with whom I commiserated. Not this time. Not on this island. I’m alone, and it’s all on me as to whether or not the kitchen portion of this establishment will succeed or fail.

We got open, though, had some rough patches, and came out on top. Well, by “on top,” I mean I felt like it was successful. I managed to complete everything on my opening checklist, figure out the strengths and weaknesses of each member of my staff, and felt confident putting my head on the pillow at night.

There are always wrinkles, though, and if there aren’t, you could argue that your operation will go stale. I personally like my wrinkles spread out over time, but you can’t always control the smoothness, or lack thereof, headed your way.

On a macro level, the beast is myself, making sure that I’m keeping things fresh, challenging myself, teaching my staff, maintaining organization, and above all, not spreading myself too thin. On a micro level, it’s making sure that all of those things are being done right, especially when I’m not there.

On both levels, it’s about happiness. Am I happy about particular situations? The big picture? Do I feel supported in my endeavors, or am I being taken advantage of?

The tough part about answering those questions is that it’s impossible to gauge any of them when ownership is panicking day and night about sales and revenue, which they are, which one should (at least partially) expect when you open a restaurant in November in a destinationless locale in the midst of an suffocating economy. And it’s even worse when 95 percent of the hope of reducing that which makes you panic has been pinned to a thing called Facebook.

It’s been a fascinating experience, though, being back in the culinary saddle. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to get back in the ring and challenge success to a 12-round bout. I know I’ve been able to teach a few folks a few things. I know I’ve made small steps in the direction of managing my stress levels, and above all, I’ve learned –- cheesy as it sounds -– to appreciate my family a lot more than I previously had.

As my wife said, “At the end of the day, we’re the ones that are going to be here for you.”

And to her I say, "We're halfway to six months. Here's to hoping you're still saying that in May."


Cecil said...

Hang in there, buddy. I'm sure you're probably about down to the bone now with all of this, but just think: you did it.

And you did it surrounded by worthless honkies. There's nothing worse than an American teenager working a line.

Jason Fisher said...

Rules are still rules. No one is allowed to give themselves a nickname.

Smooth Papa Fresh

Tiffany said...

You are doing a great job and the food shows that for sure. So proud of you and you have had to conquer a lot of obstacles in a short period of time. Who knows? You may be loving it come May. Hang in there kid. We are all rooting for you.

blairjjohnson said...

Thanks, Cecil. BPF -- That's the beauty of the Bank': Didn't give it to myself.