Monday, August 17, 2009

La vida de los cocineros

The search is over and I was able to fill my kitchen vacancy with someone quite up to the task. This is a tiny operation that takes certain sensibilities to be able to succeed. Truthfully I'm lucky that the proper person crossed my path in such a timely manner. In what can only be described as serendipitous, I had two highly qualified applicants vying for the position and was able to put one in a newly opened front of house position. Said applicant was narrowly edged out by the other for the cooking gig, but had an impressive resume that included multitudes of experience in all manners of restaurant work. The opening of an FOH position blessed me with the opportunity to make two great new people part of our family. And since I only interviewed the pair, I didn't have to turn anyone away. Bonus!

All this resume reading and subsequent orientating or new employees got me to thinking about restaurant culture, that of the kitchen to be specific. I came up through the ranks with a generation of young cooks drawn to a lifestyle glamorized by celebrity chefs. The "tell-all," Kitchen Confidential made what was largely viewed as boring and sometimes gruesome hourly work to the kids around me seem like rock-star status. What was just normal life to them was now immortalized in the memoirs of someone cool and successful. I read that book and loved it. It inspired me to press on with a career in restaurants. I was a bit surprised by how many other people it inspired, but more so with how it moved them. As I moved forward I found myself competing for jobs with people who didn't really have any passion for food. They didn't take any pride in their work. Status in the kitchen for them was not perfection in each plate put forward, but rather in how hard they could party the night before a double. It didn't seem to matter that their station was a mess, that they couldn't keep up with a brisk kitchen pace, or that they regularly had plates returned to the kitchen. I was recently chatting with a friend's sibling who was contemplating a more serious career in kitchens. He had some experience and I was trying to help him formulate a strategy for approaching chefs on this current job search - a subject I feel qualified to consult on given my recent search for new employees. We talked about the important points of a resume, and what sort of things most chefs are looking for in an applicant. He was going on an on about how he works hard during "the rush," likes to joke around the whole time (I think this is meant to illustrate how cool he is under pressure), and then drink beer with everyone else while cleaning up. He didn't talk about taking pride in his dishes, striving to cook better and find new techniques for efficiency, working clean and organized, or anything like that. It hit me at that moment: any cook who thrives on the glamorized version of "line-cook" lifestyle, will hate my kitchen. Sure, we work hard and long, but the atmosphere is always relaxed. There is no chauvinism in my kitchen. Needless machismo is not tolerated. Music is never blasting, and is certainly never on during service. No one shows up hungover, and if someone was, they would probably try to hide it rather than boast about it. Pranks are rare (but not unappreciated). No one yells, intimidates, or threatens. That's simply not how we do things, and it that's what you're into you won't fit in with us. I find the line-cook lifestyle so conflicting because only one in a million can actually pull it off. The rest are simply posers and will go the way most posers do in end.

When I said Kitchen Confidential inspired me, I meant it. It was one part in particular. When Bourdain described chef Scott Bryan of a neighboring restaurant, that was my "a ha" moment. I want to be like that guy. The kitchen was quiet while everyone worked at a steady, fluid pace. When it became busier, rather than getting worked into a frenzy, the pace simply picked up. Still quiet, still fluid. I'm not there yet. In fact, I may never be. What I do know is that by dedicating myself to this ideal, rather than to rockstar living and kitchen shenanigans I've been able to steadily improve and build on prior success to reach further in my career. I'm proud of what I have right now no matter how difficult it can be at times and my cooks are proud to be a part of it. This is not by any means a rant and I'm certainly not suggesting that by living a certain lifestyle you are suddenly not good cook. What I have seen over my years is that it's rare to be both, and one does not lead to the other. I wonder how long this trend will last, and if a day will ever come that does not produce hundreds of useless resumes in response to one Craig's list add. For now though, I'm satisfied to know that there are a few people out there who feel the same way I do. There must be, because all the great food available here in Portland and beyond surely is not being made by a bunch of loud-mouth hacks, and also because I've found a few of them to hang with me in my a-typical kitchen. To share in the cooking and occasional dish washing...

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