Just the other night, after the chaos of Friday dinner service I was with a veteran chef friend of mine, chatting over some whiskey on ice. He still had the smell of the charbroiler on his clothes and his beat-up kitchen clogs were wearing remnants of a busy weekend dinner rush. As we chatted, I could hear the frustration in his voice. I could sense it in his demeanor – agitation, frustration, confused. This, I get it because I’ve had that same blood pressuring-raising sensation before as well – he was feeling the same frustration as many other chefs that have been in the industry for decades.
He took a swig of bourbon, swished it around in his mouth for a moment and began:
“The young cooks these days, they just don’t get it. They don’t have respect for the tradition – the tradition of trade and of the craft. They don’t have a respect for the insane amount of work necessary to get from the bottom rungs of the kitchen ladder, to becoming a sous or executive chef. Maybe it’s not all their fault. They have these false expectations from culinary school or TV and actually haven’t the slightest clue as to what it takes to get to a position and a place like where we are.”
I nodded my head in agreement. This entire argument is something I’ve, in recent months, been wrestling with in my head. The labor shortage and how something is amiss in kitchen culture as a whole, as the younger generation is coming up – there is a disconnect.
“Chris, I worked my ass off for years and I was goddamn work horse, but I had to pay my dues – we all had to pay our dues. Now, these youngsters – they all want it right away – they’re just not hungry anymore.”
He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts, reaching back into the deep recesses of his mind. It was like sitting on the porch with your grandfather, as he was just about to get into one of those, “back in my day” tales. I nestled up to the table, engaging the conversation.
“You see, I became a Sous Chef over a cheeseburger. Yeah, a cheeseburger. Let me explain…
So, I was working as a line cook of a top notch country club. We did some killer numbers – the dining room, banquets – we had all sorts of kitchens and there were a lot of us back there working, putting in our time.
One day, in between services, I noticed one of our two sous chefs perfectly crafting the most delicious looking cheeseburger. At that point I decided what would be on the menu for me as well.
I had earned one right?”
I smiled at him, “Sure thing, buddy,” nodding in agreement. He continued:
“As I started making that cheeseburger, I was mapping out it out in my mind – how much bacon? What kind of cheese? How long should I grill it for? Toasted bun? Maybe some arugula and some garlic aioli to finish it off?”
Truth be told; half-buzzed and lacking anything substantial since mid-morning, I was salivating at the mere thought of this cheeseburger, just based on him describing it, but where the hell could he be going with this story? He reached for another sip of his bourbon. The ice was dissipating and had almost disappeared – just a thin shaving across the top of his whiskey, of which he only had two, maybe three sips left. He continued,
“At that point, the executive sous chef came around the corner, always able to command the attention of the cooks in the kitchen. He looked at me and asked,
“What is that you’re putting together here?”
“Oh, I’m just making a burger – one like Mike’s over there”
“No, no you’re not. You’ll eat staff meal with the rest of the crew later.”
The chef paused, dramatically as he was visibly irritated and doing his best to refrain from causing a scene.
“You want a Burger? Become a Sous Chef. Then you can have a Cheeseburger.”
So, the chef walked off and I ate the typical family meal with the rest of the staff, frustrated at what had happened a few hours earlier. But, if you fast forward just about two months, I got to make myself my very first burger in that kitchen, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. I became a sous chef and actually took over Mike’s position – I outcooked him, I outworked him, I out-everythinged him. He took that cheeseburger for granted, meanwhile, it was my driving force. I was hungry.
We laughed for a moment, tilted back the last few sips of our watered down whiskeys, and went our separate ways.
“Get some rest old man,” I laughed in his direction.
As I was laid in bed a few hours later, I was trying to piece everything together. Sure, the cheeseburger story was entertaining, but who cares that much about a damn burger? How could it have stuck in his mind for so long?
And then it clicked in my mind, making sense. That cheeseburger, as silly as it might seem – it represented something far greater than a meal, or even a job title.
That cheeseburger represented freedom.
It represented the fact that he could decide to have whatever he wanted for dinner at work from now on. I made the connection – the connection between discipline and freedom. He had been disciplined and diligent and the hardest working person in that building and it paid off for him. I think it pays off for all of us if we embody those same traits. You can teach someone how to do the technical skills, but the hustle, the hard work and the dedication to excellence – that has to come from inside. It has to come from a place of hunger and desire. This industry is not easy and guess what? It never will be. But the more discipline, hard work, hunger and drive you have to succeed – the more commited you are to all of those things – the more freedom you will create for yourself down the road with more opportunities, more benefits, more money, and more options for just about everything within your control.
Fast forward a couple of years in my buddy’s career.
He moved on from the country club to get some new experiences under some new chefs, so he found himself with the fortunate opportunity of working in a handful of different kitchens, further honing in on and dedicating himself to the craft. And then, one day he got a phone call:
“We want to offer you the executive chef position.”
It turns out that his first chef position was with the same country club as where he’d first become a sous chef several years prior – he was returning to where he had outworked cooks much more senior than him and who had been cooking a whole hell of a lot longer.
So, he and I – we both have a couple words of advice for all the young cooks, old cooks and just people in general.
As Henry David Thoreau stated so profoundly centuries ago,
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”
I woke up the next morning to a text message with this picture and a note:
“To this day, every so often, I’ll wander into the kitchen, make myself that same delicious cheeseburger, take it with me back into my office and reflect – just to remind myself of how far I’ve come and how much it took to get here.”
If you liked this article, you should definitely check out the very first article I ever wrote that went viral, Dear Chefs.
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