These words come from Shuna Lydon. She’s been a professional chef for over 16 years. It’s a bit of a ramble. It’s got nothing to do with the silly worlds of adland and marketingland. And yet. Despite being ostensibly about being a professional chef, there’s enough hard-earned wisdom here for everyone. And it’s far too good not to share:
A chef I worked with once used to say, “You have to be able to go to bed with yourself at night.” In other words: where is your fucking integrity?
Esteemable acts build self esteem.
Nothing else. No bling, no sex, no person, no awards, no TV spots, no stock options, no trust fund, no purebred dog, no wedding in East Hampton, no name in bright lights, no knives named after you, no resume, nothing else, but your repetition of esteemable acts, will build, nourish and uphold self esteem.
Because when you’re a cook among cooks, it’s a god damned verb. We cook. Action. Active. Constant. Repeat. Craft.
We cooks respect the now. We don’t care where you’ve been, who you’ve fucked, how many hours you worked at your last job, where your scars come from, what the NY Times said about you, what your jacket’s been embroidered with, how much French you speak, how many varietals of mushrooms you know, what you think of sea salt, how many farms you’ve visited, where you started, how long you’ve been doing it. Cooks watch. Cooks listen.
How elegant are you on the line? Is every plate the same? At what point will you break and start cutting corners? Are you cleaner, faster, more efficient than me?
How about your manners? Do you kiss certain people’s ass and talk shit behind another’s? Do you say hello to everyone by name when you walk in the door? Do you shake everyone’s hand regardless of position? Do you wait until someone asks for your help before giving it freely? When your fellows are in the weeds do you jump in to help? Do you know how to listen with more than your ears? Do you thank the people who have helped you? When you give notice are you graceful?
Kitchens are old school. They’re not necessarily democracies, even if the government they’ve grown up in is. The manners chefs in most kitchens expect might be considered ‘old fashioned.’ I say it’s better to err on old fashioned. few people will fault you for saying ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘Yes, Chef.’ Most chefs don’t want to hear what you think or even have time for a discussion when they’re correcting or talking to you. If you think you know better, do better. If you think you can do better, what the fuck are you waiting for? If you made a mistake, be grateful your chef noticed, take [immediate!] heed, move on. If you’re sure you know better than your chef, you’re in the wrong fucking kitchen – leave and go where the chef knows more than you or become a sous chef so you can feel the pleasure of constantly being wedged between a rock and a harder place.
Even if you’re front of house. Especially if you’re front of house. The chefs are considered the parents of the house, even if they don’t pay the mortgage.
These words: Reliability. Accountability. Cleanliness. Humility. Manners. Efficiency. They apply to waiters, bussers, back waiters, captains, baristas, runners, bartenders and everyone in between.
You think that when you become a chef it will be all about cooking. All about baking. All about food. You and the meditation of kitchen. But once you become someone responsible for humans and not just carrots, the game changes forever. carrots don’t braise themselves. Cakes don’t rise because you hope they will. All those burgers don’t get to temp at the wave of your expert hand.
People. People are the machine that run the ship. People. And people need encouragement, admonishing,teaching, inspiring, guiding, pushing, critiquing, listening to, growing, forcing, nudging, laughing with, watching, learning, mentoring, following, yelling, training, fighting, wrestling, forging, molding, and setting free.
And it’s not just chefs who are ‘in charge of’ cooks. Cooks need to be in charge of themselves. They need to go to bed with themselves at night. Cooks need to rely on one another. Cooks need to speak to and with one another. They need to watch and listen and learn who are the good ones amongst them all. Stick with the winners is what I say. Cooks need to work next to, with, alongside their prep staff. A chef du partie is only as good as her commis. A commis is only as good as his chef du partie.
Because what you learn in the kitchen, what you learn on the floor: When that person who has been around your block a few more times than you, takes the time to pass on their experience, pass on a few words of encouragement/critique/acknowledgement/compliment/admonishment, they’re doing it for the you of you, not merely the you of the numbers on your paycheck.
Listen and use these words, these exercises, these lessons, these challenges/growing opportunities to water your integrity, to nourish your self esteem, to honor humility, to pay homage to your craft. Use these exercises, these lessons, these challenges/growing opportunities to the betterment of your kitchen, you, your goals, and whomever you choose to pass them onto next.
For these are not merely kitchen lessons, these are life lessons.
Keep them as clean and as sharp as your knives, and they will never steer you wrong.
Thanks to Keith White for sharing this gold dust.