Stepping Out of the Shadow

The eucalyptus tree sentinel still stands there on California Highway 29.  It is the most northerly tree in a stand of siblings, notable for a big rounded scar that covers an old wound where a branch was removed.

I don’t know when it was planted, or how old it is.  I just know that whenever I am lucky enough to find myself back in the valley, I look for it.  Seeing it reassures me that some things are immutable, or at least, longer lasting than some of our lifetimes.

I was recently back there, in that magical valley, where so much emotion, tribulation, victory, elation and defeat were compressed into three short years.  It doesn’t matter from which direction I approach the valley, which road I take in, my hands start to shake, my eyes well with tears and I feel my heart ache and jump with exultation at the same time.  Every direction heads home.

When I left that valley in 2000, it took me a long time to come to grips with the rest of my life.  That may sound strange but when you work with someone who cast such a big shadow in your life, someone who gets into your mind and reworks the way you think, someone who pushes you to discover just how far you can fly, life without that person seems strangely bereft.

It took me over a decade to realize that I was good enough on my own, that I had merit, and that my path was not a mistake, that I hadn’t FAILED.  You see, I felt like I failed when I left that restaurant, that I had caved in and just couldn’t measure up.

When I first left that valley, I took a job in a coastal town.  My greatest responsibility was to come up with a daily pasta and fish special, and that was as far as I wanted to think. I didn’t have to worry about making sure labels were straight on containers in the walk-in refrigerator, or scour the parking lot for errant cigarette butts or sit in terror of knowing something was out of place but not seeing it until it was pointed out to me by The Daily Big Shadow.  I wasn’t getting up at two in the morning with stomach cramps and nausea because I was so worked up about a day that hadn’t even dawned yet.  It was a blissful relief to just make sandwiches for tourists, to put up simple fare, to have no expectations put upon me, to not worry about finding my own errors before someone else did.  It was a time to decompress, to discover what cooking meant for me in the absence of The Daily Big Shadow.

I struggled, boy did I struggle.  I hated telling people where I had worked because all of sudden, their expectations of what I should cook became ridiculous.  They wanted multi-course menus with all the nuances of that valley restaurant.  But I felt I couldn’t do it.  I was just one part of a complex dance, and being a “young “cook, I didn’t feel I had it in my repertoire to achieve such heights.

I also didn’t want my identity to be so tied up in that valley restaurant that all I would do with my future was reproduce a poor imitation of the real thing.  I wanted to have my own voice, my own identity.  Trouble was, I didn’t even know if I could sing.  I wanted to be recognized for my own talents and I didn’t know if I could even carry an aria, much less sing background vocals.

The other part that I hated about people knowing for whom I had worked was their opinions.  Everyone had to make some sort of judgment about The Daily Big Shadow, either dissing him or revering him as a culinary god.  It was weird, like people had to make TDBS accessible in their minds by judging him.  By attaching their assessments to his persona, they were able to grasp him, make him real, and get a handle on the phenomenon that TDBS had become.

Their expectations would translate to me, and I lived in such fear that I could not nor would not ever measure up.  Of course I could not.  No one can.  And we shouldn’t.  We should measure ourselves against ourselves.  Common sense, but I wasn’t listening.  I began to doubt my ability to cook at all.

I expressed those doubts by being demanding, by shouting, by pushing and by sheer arrogance.  I walked around with a huge chip on my shoulder, justifying it by telling myself it made me taller.  In reality, it was weighing me down.  I carried that chip, which grew to a stump, which became a log, which evolved into a deep-rooted tree.  People along the way tried to help me chop that tree down, for it was blocking the sunshine out of my life.  But I was too comfortable hiding in its shadow, too afraid to be blinded by the pure sun to raise that ax myself.

It took a major heartbreak and several years of solitude to find the ax handle was in my grasp all along.  I flung myself into foreign countries, hoping to escape in the clamor of new cities ,wanting the unfamiliar din to drown out the familiar prickly whisper telling me that my efforts were futile, that I needed to start looking within.

There’s nothing like loneliness to make one look inward, and those four years abroad were some of the loneliest ones in my adult days.  I had to come to the end of myself to find the start of myself.

Since that time, I’ve learned to be comfortable in my own skin, to trust myself and to understand that the most important lesson I learned in that sunny California valley was more about self-confidence and respect than about cooking.

I am in a much happier place now.  I realize that the disapproval I felt was not TDBS’s but mine.  I know now that we each make our own road.  Some roads are elegant boulevards, some of dusty country highways and some are rough trails in a forest. Some are just brief impressions in sand, gone by the morning.  And that’s just the way it should be.  That deep-rooted tree has turned into a solid plank of principles and philosophies that guide me.  I stand taller because there is not a chip to weigh me down.

I am humbled that I had the chance to work in that magical valley, that I was given that chance to be a part of something so special.  I also accept now that I earned my right to be there, that I was not a charity case and that my work counted for something.  To admit that to myself was huge milestone for me.  TDBS put much into my success, but only because I did.

I am glad the eucalyptus tree still stands guard as an anchor for the many souls that flit in and out of that valley.  It is a visible reminder of the solid roots we developed so we could fly away and bloom.  I hope it will be there to greet me, and you, for many years to come.

Look for it the next time you are rolling down California Highway 29, and shout out a hello to it for me.  And then whisper a thank you.

 

 

 

 

Go Fly a Kite

When I was a kid, my sister and I would try to make and fly kites.  We carefully glued together chopsticks to form the crossbeams and attached paper to form the body.  We tied our creations to our bikes and pedaled mightily with the wind, only to have our joys deflated by the bumpity bump bump of the kite sagging and bouncing along the road behind us.

Undeterred, we decided that the paper was too heavy, so being the intrepid explorers that we were, we used newspaper instead.  Proudly sporting the Sunday comic section, our kites were ready to re-launch.  We primed our bikes, checked our knots and off we went, flying with the wind.

We may have flown, but our kites decided otherwise.  They once again sadly plummeted to earth and trailed behind us like forgotten streamers of a long-gone Fourth of July parade.

Surely, SURELY our kites must be too heavy.  There could be no other explanation.  With that, we fashioned more kites, this time using tissue paper as the wings.  Purple, blue, pink and green, our kites were little jewels just waiting to take their place against the summer blue sky.

Hope springs eternal; well, at least for us it did.  Undaunted, we set ourselves up at the launch pad, a gentle rise of the driveway.  After a final check by Mission Control, we revved up our engines and thrust ourselves down the runway.

And our kites dragged forlornly behind us.

Dejected and feeling much like Charlie Brown in his kite-flying escapades, we put our kites away and turned to face the rest of the business of growing up.  We did not give up hope completely; over the years we tried again and again until we outgrew our bikes and our childhood dreams.

It wasn’t until much later that it finally dawned on me that to fly a kite, you had to run against the wind.

Wow.  What a revolutionary idea for me.

To launch your plane, your kite, your dream, you have to fly into the wind.  That was such a novel concept to someone who had always been taught to not make waves, to fit in, to blend in and be one of the crowd.

Play it safe, play it conservative, don’t take chances.  This was the mantra of my childhood.  And I’ve been rebelling against it ever since.

Right now, I’m in the midst of getting another dream of mine to fly.  There are some strong headwinds that want to push me down.  They are coming from all directions.  Some winds howl that I’m not good enough, that I don’t know enough.  Other winds whisper in my ear that I will fail and I should just play it safe.  Some gusts echo in my head the negative things I’ve heard.  Little tornados lift my hopes, only to dash me down again.  They eddy and flow around me, unseen but clamoring in my head.

But there are gentler currents as well.  They are the ones that flutter around me, telling me I cannot fail, that failure is just another step towards knowledge.  They rustle my confidence and breathe fresh air into stagnating hopes.  They rally to my defense, tell me not to give up.  They cool my raging anger at the impossibility of it all, and provide just enough of a breeze to kindle the fire. They form an invisible string that attaches to my kite and pulls it up, making it airborne.

And so I will run into the wind, because it seems that is all I know what to do. I stand on my launch pad, checking the gauges, ready to run into the wind, colorful kite in hand.  Let’s fly!

 

Like Riding a Bike

This past weekend, my husband and I decided to go for a bike ride, to celebrate me successfully completing another 365 days of my life.  I had not been on my bike for five years, so when Hubby suggested we go for a bike ride, I was, oh, a bit uncomfortable at the idea.

When I told my husband that I was nervous about riding a bike, he looked at me incredulously and chuckled just a little at my fears.

Despite having ridden a bike through my childhood and college years, it was only about five years ago that I decided it might be a good thing to buy a bike and start riding again.  Hubby and I dutifully went off to look at bikes, and we settled on a pretty white one.  I sat down on the seat, pushed off to test drive it, and immediately fell over.  On Green Lake Drive.  On a busy warm spring day.  With all kinds of cars and people going by.  Ker plop.  I was down.

A gorgeous road rash burst into bloom on my knee, and a trail of blood starting gushing to the pavement.  The sales person was even more shaken than I was, getting me back inside the shop, having me sit down, and running off the fetch the first aid kit.  You know the whole rushing around with arms flailing in the air?  Okay, it wasn’t QUITE that dramatic, but it was close!

Having demolished their supply of Band-Aids and earned my Red Badge of Courage, I wrapped a piece of gauze around my knee, steadied my shaking hands, and yup, got back on that bike.

So you can understand, perhaps, why the thought of getting back on the white beast really was freaking me out.

Happily, the day ended with me NOT falling off the bike.  I even remembered the combination for the bike lock!  Hey hey, success!

As we made the circuit from North Seattle to Woodinville and back, I was back in Hilo, on my red bike with the pink streamers and sparkly paint.  We, the neighborhood kids, rode with impunity through our neighborhood.  We taunted barking dogs, terrorized sleeping cats, climbed hills and pretended that our bikes were jets, spaceships, horses, race cars, tanks and time machines.  Our bikes were so much more than just vehicles moving our childhood memories from one adventure to another.  Our bikes are what made our static drawings of childhood adventures into living breathing moving pictures, filmed in Technicolor with a hefty supply of Bacitracin and Band Aids at the ready.  Our bikes made us INVINCIBLE!

I wasn’t always a super hero on my bike, and am still very much NOT one.  My fledgling super hero days in bike riding involved countless crashes into the wild olive bushes that lined the end our driveway.  My mother would run alongside me, holding the bike steady and then PUSH!  Off she would launch me, telling me to PEDAL PEDAL PEDAL to gain speed and balance.  And nine times out of ten, I would pedal directly into the green embrace of those olive bushes.

I don’t know when or how I figured out the whole balance on two wheels thing, and I must admit, whoever was the first one who thought that it was possible is pretty much a genius.  And no, I am not an avid bike rider now.  I mean come on, it just doesn’t make sense!

But what I cherish when I’m riding, what I get from being back in the saddle is that return to the Super Girl of my youth.  So when you see me pedaling sedately by, just know that inside, Super Girl is doing backflips, wheelies and jumping curbs, making those sparkly pink streamers at the end of the handle bars fly in the wind.

 

 

Being Connected

I have always known I was adopted.  I think my parents told me as soon as I could comprehend what that meant. They didn’t want it to be that traumatic skeleton in the closet, a la soap opera plot line (cue organ playing and heavy stage curtains parting now).

I cannot tell you when I learned my birth name, or the events that led up to my arrival in America because those facts were taught to me quite early in life.  They were always a part of my childhood landscape.

I thought I had adjusted myself quite well, thank you very much, to being an adopted child.  Indeed, with so many adoptees seeking their birth parents and being open about wanting to know their history, much of the drama was gone, at least for me.  It just wasn’t a big deal.

I even turned down the opportunity to find my birth parents a few years ago when I was about to leave my post in South Korea.  It was my cooks who insisted that I find my birth mother, convincing me with the logic that even if I didn’t care to know what happened to her, SHE would want to know what happened to me.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I didn’t care.  I just always assumed that she was dead and that I would one day meet her in Heaven or wherever one’s spirit goes and then I would be able to ask her all the questions I’d been hoarding for that moment.  I still think that.

My search in South Korea turned out to be fruitless.  In my flippant way, I told others and myself that this indeed proved my theory that I had been dropped onto this planet by aliens.  It was an easy way to cushion the disappointment.

A little over a year ago, my husband got me a genetic testing kit.  He said that it would be helpful for me since whenever I get asked family health history questions, I always have to pull the “I don’t know, I’m adopted” card.  I duly spit into the vial, and off it went to Central Headquarters courtesy of the United States Postal Service.

I received my results a few weeks later.  It was oddly comforting to know a bit more about my genetic makeup and what health issues I might face in the future.  I was fascinated at how “they” were able to trace how much of each gene pool I have in me, including 3% Neanderthal, whatever that means.  (I checked, I still don’t have hair on my knuckles nor do I walk with them dragging on the ground a la the common cartoon caricature, sorry to disappoint.)

Another feature of this service was the ability to find blood relatives.  I didn’t give this much thought, until a few days ago when I got a message from someone who shared a maternal great-great-great grandmother with me.  Maybe there should be one more “great” in there.  I don’t know, the whole how many times removed thing just confuses me.

I debated on answering that message.  I mean, I’ve been living my “solitary” life for the last 40 plus years.  No harm, no foul.  Never been troubled before about needing to know “my people” or having to belong.  I was quite happy in my circle of genetic uniqueness.

But hey, what the heck, right?

So I answered.  Surprisingly, my fourth cousin pinged me back almost right away.

That ping cracked my heart.

I never realized how alone I felt until I got that message.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have a loving sister, a husband that I treasure, friends that are gold and so much more.  I do not lack in the love and support department; indeed I count myself very blessed.

BUT A BLOOD RELATIVE.  Wow, the concept was staggering.  All of a sudden, in a few lines typed on some computer in Minnesota, I had a connection with someone who shared an ancestor with me.

Trippy, amazing, overwhelming.  I had to sit and just cry.

I don’t expect to automatically form a bond with this woman.  I think as we get to know each other that will or will not happen organically.  I don’t believe you have an affinity for someone just because you share a bloodline.  I do believe this woman is kind and shares many of the same emotions as I do, and I look forward to learning more about her.

I do wish we could have known the grandmother we shared.  I want to sit at her feet and hear the stories of our family, hear our history however long or short it may be. I want to see the characteristics we share, put a home to some of the quirky traits I have, have an explanation for why I do the things I do.  I want to connect.

My life hasn’t changed drastically since this discovery last week.  I still do dorky things like forget to put water in the coffee maker and so on.

But I do know now, not just on an intellectual level, that I am not alone.

And that’s awesome.

 

 

Difficult Bosses

This morning this blog post caught my eye.  At first, I thought it was a How-to-Complain-About-Your-Boss-to-HR manual.  But upon reading it, I discovered that it touched upon the very subject a friend and I had been discussing earlier this week:  What makes us tick and what we are looking for in an employee and why we’re not “just being bitchy.”

I think this blog post has it right.

One of the things I tell young cooks is that they need to figure out what gets a chef all riled up, and then not do those things.  While this may sound like ego-stroking, there are some important truths to be learned by following this logic.

I had this drilled into my brain in one of the first kitchens I worked in.  I was helping the chef make crème anglaise during his regular cooking classes.  I was new to his kitchen, and a freshman in the cooking world.  I intellectually KNEW I SHOULD have an ice bath, a clean container and a strainer ready for him to use the moment the sauce was finished.  BUT I DID NOT.

Needless to say, la merde hit le fan, with hurricane force.  And nothing, NOTHING quite brings a point home like having it screamed into your face in front of strangers, with la merde en vol.

Was he being unreasonable?  Yes, you could say that.  But I was also foolish to not have the proper mise-en-place ready.  The yelling may have assuaged his ego, but nothing could repair the overcooked sauce which now resembled sweet scrambled eggs.

This was my first lesson in seeing the big picture, anticipating what will be needed, and most importantly, making sure everything goes smoothly.  It was my first less-than gentle nudge into the mind of a chef.  Think like a chef, become a chef.  Think like a boss, become a boss.

I guess I could have huffed off into a corner and sulked, and I very well may have.  I can’t remember.  But I do know that every time I make crème anglaise, I have everything I will need ready beforehand, and I teach my cooks the same.

Another thing I tell cooks, especially sous chefs, is that if they cannot give me time off without worry, then I question their worth as an employee.

This may sound harsh, but is that not why we hire people we think are competent and able to do the job?  One of the lessons I learned through the years, and am learning still, is that I cannot do everything, and that I need to trust the people I hired to do the jobs for which I hired them.

This isn’t about whether or not we are best buddies, or how much we have in common or what the weather is on any particular day.  The question is whether or not you can do the job.  Can you solve a problem that has not yet happened?  When the flames flare up, are you going to be the one with the fire extinguisher, and more importantly, a plan to salvage and succeed despite the setback?

This is what runs through my mind during my work day.  The delivery didn’t show up?  I have a substitute ingredient already in mind.  The dishwasher called in sick?  No worries, here’s what we’ll do.  We ran out of cream?  Who can we send to get more or where can we find a cow?  My days sometimes feel like juggling acts, catching one ball while lofting another, all while running in circles.

This whole thinking like the chef thing seems like such hard work, and it is.  It means constantly being on your toes, always looking around, being aware, calculating and planning.  It is exhausting, but it does get easier.

As I graduated from cold pantry station cook to the hot line at lunch, the chef would stand on the other side of the pass, glaring at me and watching everything I did.  Every day I would gird myself, pull myself up by kitchen clog straps and march in, determined that this time, THIS time, he was not going to unnerve me and I would not go down in a ball of flames.

One day, the chef was late for lunch service.  As the minutes ticked by, my anxiety was growing, and still, no chef.  Several hours later he finally appeared.  He looked at me and said, “Miss, today I give you a big gift.  I trusted you with lunch.”  I think he also smiled.

If you think like a chef, you will be a chef.

It’s Like Dating

Well, it’s been a few months since my last post.  Okay, who am I kidding?  It’s been almost a year since my last post.

 So much has changed for me in the last year.  In September 2013 I closed my restaurant on Orcas Island.  That was a hard thing to do.  For all the stress, heartaches and aggravation that it brought me, that restaurant was my Declaration of Independence.  By opening Allium, I was telling the world, if anyone was listening, and more importantly, myself that I was confident enough to strike out on my own, to work for ME, to be beholden to no one else.  It was my graduation into the world of Being Your Own Boss, and all the thrills and glories that come with it.  It was a roller coaster ride of the grandest design, and when I walked away, I found myself hooked on the adrenaline of being a restaurateur.  

About a year ago, I decided that if I was going to open a new restaurant, it would be casual, with a focus on high-quality homemade food.  Okay, who am I kidding.  not IF, but WHEN.

When is now.  The concept of the idea has percolated and distilled itself into Gnocchi Bar. “What,” you say. “A restaurant based on gnocchi? Impossible!”

To which I reply that gnocchi was the biggest seller at Allium, the thing that people HAD to order, and if I were a smart business person, I would forged ahead with this idea.  To those who asked if having a restaurant based on one item would work, I say look at how cupcakes, burger, ramen, pizza, pho and donuts each have merited a home of their own.

So, how does this all relate to dating?

I think that dating requires a certain amount of thought.  You have to decide at some point and time that you are indeed ready to share your life with someone else, or at least explore the options of sharing your life with someone else.

You have to TRUST that you are able to do this.  Don’t discount this.  Exposing your emotional self and all your little quirks is scary than some of us may be willing to admit.

You have to date, a LOT.  You have to see what’s out there, what works for you, what you would avoid like the plague, what foibles and eccentricities you are willing to tolerate, and may even find adorable and funny.  You  have decide what’s right for you.  Every date helps you finetune what works for you, and also makes you a better partner for someone else.

You have to be brave enough to jump off that bridge, knowing that somehow, if everything goes kaput, you have the wherewithal to pull yourself out of freefall and arc out of it even stronger than before.

So it goes with opening a restaurant.

You decide that you are mature enough and wise enough to do it.  You’re wrong, of course, and half of what you SHOULD know you WON’T know until you have your trial-by-fire, but that’s okay.  The important thing is TO know that you will go through this, and to make sure you have the right support around you to survive the pants-kicking you’re about to get.

You have to look at LOTS of restaurants, dishes, ideas and locations.  Allium was my first crush, and I married it.  While it turned out okay, I sure am approaching this next business spouse with much more caution and wisdom.  Don’t marry the first person you date, don’t marry the first restaurant you see.

I’ve spent that last six months looking, cautiously at first, but now with more intensity, at locations for lease.  As my search progressed, I started learning what the right questions to ask were.  I started making checklists in my head, and becoming ruthless in figuring out what the deal breakers were.  Too small of a spot?  No go.  Too isolated a location?  Um, not for me.  Too expensive to open?  I’m not the sugar momma you’re looking for.

Cold?  Cruel?  Calculating?  Some may say yes, but I don’t think so.  I see nothing wrong with taking the time to find the right fit.  Don’t let anyone pigeonhole you into something that is not the right fit.  It’s better to walk away before any real investment in time, money and emotional currency is spent.

If you are seriously planning to spend the rest of your life with someone, if you are seriously planning to invest your blood, sweat and tears into a business, then don’t you owe it to yourself to make sure you’re happy with it?

No, you can’t foresee all the bumps in the road and nothing, I repeat, NOTHING ever goes as planned.  You adapt the restaurant into the space that it occupies.  On paper the words may dictate one thing, but each space has a personality of its own, and it will tell you what works and doesn’t.  But you have to be willing to listen.

The romance novels may say it’s all hearts and roses, but the reality is, everyone farts in bed.  As reality sets in, you adapt and adjust.  You can compromise on the little stuff, like milk brands, how you like the towels folded.  But not on the big stuff, like being honest, faithful and true.

You can alter the menu, the hours and the service to adapt, but you don’t compromise on your commitment to quality, ethics and fairness.

The hardest part is to admit that you don’t know.

The best lesson I learned was that I didn’t know everything, and more importantly, that was okay!  I didn’t need to know everything.  I needed to be aware of everything, but more importantly, I needed to hire the right people and TRUST them to do their jobs.  I needed to let go of the reigns enough to let others have the space to do what they do best, what I hired them for.

And so my Search of the Perfect Restaurant Space continues.  I’ve spent months planning on paper the financials of this place, how it will work, the principles that will drive our decisions.  When I find the right spot, I will know it.  I feel like what were once parallel tracks (idea vs reality) are now converging and I can almost see at what point they will intersect.

Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

Motivation for a Buck

As you may know, a little over a year ago, I wrote a short story, chronicling the adventures of a humble dollar bill named Bucky.  As Bucky moved through the local economy, lives were improved and things got better.

People have asked me why I wrote that little book.  Last night, it became crystal clear to me.

A local came in with a job application.  I asked her how things were going, that I hadn’t seen her around for a bit.  Her voice broke as she told me that things were a little tough, that she had lost her house.  She tried so hard to put up a brave front, but it was evident that she was on her last reserves, that the stress and uncertainty were taking its toll on her.  It was hard to not break down and cry as I heard her story.

It is harder still to watch people who are losing what counts for many Americans as our security, our homes, for no other reason than greed and the chase of even greater profits.  Here is someone who is willing to work hard, who is not afraid to put her shoulder to the wheel, to get her hands dirty.  And yet, despite her best intentions, she can’t make it in this country, one of the richest in the world.

How is it possible, that in a land where the ultra rich have more golden toilets to sit on than they can count, that some people are lucky to even have one porcelain loo?

She wasn’t asking for a hand out.  She was asking for a job.

And the saddest part?

I have no work for her.

If you think you’re doing better, that it’s all going to be great, think again.  Your neighbors are still struggling.  That trip to the locally owned store, the extra dollar you tip your server, the vegetables you buy from the farmer in the field, that’s what my book is all about.

You make a reservation and you no-show?  Guess what?  You just cost a small business money in labor and time.  That server that was hoping for a good table and a good tip will now have to figure out some other way to make rent, to make ends meet.  You decide to save a couple of dollars by shopping at a big chain store instead of the mom and pop one down the street?  When that small store shuts down, you can take responsibility for it, because you helped its demise along.

Would you rather save a few bucks, and watch your local neighborhood wither away, struggle and scrape?  Or would you rather spend with more thought and consideration, and watch your community flourish?

I know it’s hard.  I get it.  I truly do.  The need seems to always outstrip the supply, the budget is always too thin, the belt too tight.  But can you please help your local community just a little?

Your dollar is your vote.  You can vote to keep your community thriving or you can vote to turn it into a ghost town.  The choice is yours.

Thank you.

For more information on Bucky The Dollar Bill, please visit http://spreadthebucky.com/.  Come meet me in person on April 22 from 3:30 to 5:30 at Bartell’s (our local drug store) at the University Village or on April 23 from 3:30 to 5:30 at the Bartell’s in the Bellevue Village.

 

So You Wannt Be A Chef…..

A friend of mine asked me a little while ago for my thoughts and advice on entering the cooking world.  Here is what I told her:

The first thing I would ask anyone seeking to make a career change to the food sector is WHY do you want to do so? There is no right or wrong answer, but depending on what your answer is, you might find that this is not the path for you.

If you think cooking is a fast-track to fame and fortune, you dream of being the next great television chef , then there is a great chance you will be sorely disappointed. I’ve met a few television chefs, and it seems the common denominator for many is having an larger-than-life personality and the ability to be outrageous.  Yup, I’ve given up my dreams of fortune and glory.

Cooking, at least for me, is about feeding people. This is a realization I have come to after almost 18 years in the biz. It is a humble craft, and very temporal. Think about it. What someone eats today becomes compost tomorrow.

Cooking is NOT an art. Oh yes, there are aesthetics involved. But we are artisans, not artists. Our job is to produce the same consistent results day in/day out. The gnocchi is the biggest seller on the menu, and I have regulars who come in just for that. It doesn’t matter what kind of mood I’m in, how I’m feeling, what’s going on around me. The gnocchi has to be at the same standard every time. This is the hardest thing for me to convey to young cooks.

What is your end goal? Do you hope to have your own place someday? And if you do, then learn basic accounting now. Learn to use social media, start making contacts in the food community.  Decide what’s important to you in business.  Is it pure profit?  Is it a venue for personal expression?  Do you want to be a part of a community? What are you standards for running your business, the people from whom you buy, the people with whom you work?  Figure out your business ethics DNA now, and work to stay true to it.

If you do end up with your own restaurant, understand that cooking will be the last thing you will worry about at the end of the day. You should open a restaurant when you can cook on auto-pilot, not because you don’t care, but because there are so many other things that will need your attention:

making sure the restaurant is clean
updating the website
doing the books
ordering
scheduling equipment maintenance, repair
taking out the trash, doing dishes to save on labor costs, or when you can’t find a dishwasher
hiring/coaching/training employees
stressing about paying rent/bills/payroll

AND SO MUCH MORE.

At some point, cooking will become a relief, because here is the ONE thing you can do instinctively and well.

If you stay in the cooking world as an employee, know that this profession seems to attract people with “issues”—- drugs, alcohol and things I’ve never even considered.  Some of them just show up and do the job, because that is all they can do.  Are you able to see people through their faults, and value their attributes?  At what point do you say enough is enough and jettison someone who is weighing your operation down?  Like attracts like, and those who think like you will be attracted to working for you.  Keep your standards high, and eventually you will find yourself surrounded by people with the same mindset.

What will set you ahead? Stay clean, stay sober, show up and give 110% every day. Understand that on the other side of the plate is a real live person who is going to EAT THE FOOD YOU JUST MADE. Don’t phone it in. Get discouraged (you’re human) but don’t let it show on the plate.

As Escoffier once said, a cook can be tired, but the guest must never know he is tired.

In other words, be professional.

You won’t get rich at this, at least not for the first few years. And it seems there is a trade off—- stay in the corporate world where the higher up the ladder you go, the less you will cook.  You will make a comfortable living in return.  Or stay in small establishments where you most likely will not have benefits, but because of the very nature of the beast, you will be cooking.  And trust me, there are many days when I crave the security of working for a big hotel or company.

Would I do it again. Hells yes. Would I do things differently? I’m not sure. I think every thing I’ve done has made me a better cook, chef, person, and the last one is the most important one.

One last piece of advice: don’t spend big bucks on a long program.  I chose a school with a short intensive curriculum.  The school I went to taught me the nuts and bolts of good French cooking techniques, in a year, with vast amounts of hands-on classroom experience and real-life on the job training.

I’m not trying to discourage you. I just want you to have a realistic idea of what is involved in this crazy addictive restaurant world.  Still going to take the plunge?  Then come on in, the water is fine.

 

Driving Miss Daisy

This is my favorite time of year.

I could be a tad biased, as I was born in the spring.  I could be like most of us in the northern grayer climes, desperate for sun, warmth, spring flowers and the promise of a gentler season right around the corner.  I don’t remember feeling this way while growing up in a season-less place, somewhere the months rolled right into each other, the only line of demarcation being the amount of rain or sun in any given day.

But now, now I take great pleasure in driving through the Skagit Valley on my way down from Orcas.  I love seeing the earth waking from a cold slumber, shaking off the frosty fingers of winter.  I pass by graceful farmhouses that remind me of dowager aunts in calico dresses who patiently wait on their porches for your next visit, tea and cookies ever at the ready.  I mark the passage of another year by how much further a barn has sagged, how much more moss has grown on the roof.  I revel in the sight of neon green willow tips, reddish blueberry shoots, raspberry canes fresh from the barber and sprouting new beards.  I thrill at the sight of bald eagles visible in bare branches, starlings giving chase to over-familiar hawks, and snow geese kiting over fields like acrobats.

I know I am zipping through these country lanes, taking in the wall of colors from the daffodil and tulip fields, pushing on to the freeway and to Seattle, but the feeling I get is of being in a slower time, when people knew their neighbors well enough to borrow a cup of sugar.

It’s a romanticized notion, yes.  I see the derelict farm equipment, the “for sale” signs, and know that this area has been as hard hit, if not more, as the big city by the recent economic downturn.  But when one is cruising by at fifty miles per hour, it is harder to spot the imperfections, and maybe I like it that way.  It’s much like how we romanticize life in castles with knights and such, ignoring the fact that there was no indoor plumbing or central heating.

As I turn the car for the freeway, the kindly farmhouse aunts tell me they will keep the porch lights on, to hurry back for another visit, knowing full well it will be another year before they see me again.  I shoot back onto I5 at seventy miles an hour, reassured in knowing this touchstone of a valley is still there for me.

 

It’s All Magic

At first, it seems like cooking and writing are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and never the twain shall meet.

Cooks are those bad-ass, tattooed, pierced rebels of society who work odd hours and fly in the face of social norms.  Well, at least that’s what television shows would have us believe.

Writers are sage creatures, sporting tweed jackets with elbow patches, long flowing skirts and sensible shoes.  They fling themselves headlong into the wilds of Borneo, seeking visceral first-hand experience for their imminent novel about the intrepid treasure hunter seeking fortune and glory.  Or at least that’s the image of writers many of us have in our minds.

Truth is, cooks are just dorky, sometimes socially awkward people who hide behind their aprons and chef jackets, and find it easier to talk to a steak on the grill than hold a conversation at a cocktail party.  And no, one’s prowess in the kitchen does not have a direct correlation to the number of tattoos one sports (also contrary to the “reality” of television shows).

That rarefied air that writers breathe, well, it’s just plain ole oxygen.  It is often inhaled as we sit in our bathrobes and bunny slippers and write at two in the afternoon.  No tweed jackets, no elbow patches, no wild jaunts into unknown jungles.

So what do we have in common?  We take elementary ingredients and transform them into extraordinary.

For instance, in cooking, we take milk, sugar and eggs and make these three humble ingredients into a luscious custard.  Or we add a squeeze of lemon juice to a rich dish, such as scallops, to bring the flavor into focus and sharpen the edges of the taste.  We subject these ingredients to methods that will bring out their best sides.

Scrambled eggs are my favorite example.  We could simply crack a few eggs in a bowl, toss in some salt and pepper, whisk that puppy around and throw it into a hot pan.  Swish the mixture around et voila, in three minutes or so, you have scrambled eggs.

Or….we could take the same eggs, add some cream and Dijon mustard to them.  We could then cook them gently with butter over a steam bath to make soft pillows of eggs, unlike the standard breakfast fare many of us grew up with.

In writing, we take a basic command such as “Bring milk” into a softer more poetic direction when we say it like this: “Would you kindly bring the milk here?”  We make it more palatable, pleasing to the ear.  The hearer thinks that by bringing the milk to us, they are granting us a favor.  The simple act of bringing the milk over becomes a much more genteel act.

We’re taking basic building blocks of food and language, and through our manipulation, transforming them into a sum greater than all the parts.  A little butter here, a graceful adjective there, and suddenly the world’s a nicer place.

Another similarity between cooking and writing is that it takes time to hone our crafts.  While we may start with raw talent at a young age, it takes immeasurable years of trial, error, failure and defeat to file away the sharp edges and polish the final product.  I know I look back at my early attempts at cooking, menus, writing and cringe at times.  With maturity, our works take on a patina that cannot be rushed or faked.  It can only happen with experience, many failures and few successes along the way to buoy one’s spirits.

We push ourselves to get better, to achieve more.  We study under the tutelage of those who we think can help us, those who we admire. We read voraciously, trying to find the key to great writing.  We expose ourselves to criticism, and go back to the drawing board. This process never ends.  What does change is how far we fall.  As we gain more experience, our valleys become more shallow and the climb back up gets easier.

The road to perfection, however, is never ending.  If your internal GPS tells that you’ve arrived, you might want to either check your unit for errors or upgrade to a more reliable one.  The road to perfection goes on forever into the horizon, and really, that’s what is so wonderful about it.

Writers and cooks, so very much alike we are, in our quest to make an everyday thing (reading, eating) into a joy and a happy memory.