Monday, February 22, 2010

Cross Country Excursion Part 1

With my departure from Portland and the chef's life over a week behind me I've traded in the little burns and nicks on my fingertips for an aching back; the result of endless hours behind the wheel of my trusty Subaru. She carried me west almost five years ago, so now we get to see some new parts of the U.S. together on the return trip. My itinerary is loose, to say the least. After I hit Albuquerque a few days from now where I will stay with an old friend from the days in Boston (thank you once again, Facebook), I'm not too sure where I will go next. The goal is to make it to Maryland where I will stash all my worldly possessions while I see the world. Let us hope that I do not get sidetracked along the way, or worse yet: lost in Appalacia.

I made my way back to Portland after a brief getaway to the Oregon coast for mere moments before splitting town. I took only that evening to pack up the car and see some friends last minute. At four the next morning I was up and haphazardly loading the debris from my apartment floor into the few remaining inches of car space. Coffee from the 24 hour Dutch Brothers at the base of the Morrison Bridge and I was off! I was in Eugene before the sun came up. What can I say, I was antsy. If you're wondering, staying up very late and then rising early to drive all day did not pan out well. Frequent stops for power napping were necessary that day. At the California border I had some tangerines confiscated by the fruit patrol. Special Agent Orange (moniker provided by me, of course) assured me the fruit I had purchased at New Seasons in Portland was definitely grown in Florida even though it was not labeled as such. The color - I swear they were orange, just like all other oranges - is what tipped him off. Only citrus grown in California can be brought into California according to the border agent, which seems exceptionally strange if you think about it visually. It occurred to me at the time that this is fruit confiscating shenanigans is something akin to Mexican drug cartels bribing law enforcement to shut out the competition. I know better than to argue with the law, though. I let him take my contraband oranges, but I laugh last. Those were only decoy fruit. I held back on revealing the other bag of tangerines in my cooler and the Washington grown Jazz Apples below that. Once again border agents are left befuddled and standing akimbo by my subterfuge.

I made it to San Francisco later that day and immediately received not one, but two parking tickets at the same time. Only in California could one get fleeced by the government for traffic fines and fruit in the same day. What more can we expect from the state that gave us Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bay Watch? SF wasn't all bad, though. Chinatown there is no joke and the city streets are steeped in history. I'd like to get back there and spend some more time. From San Fran I moved on to Santa Barbara to stay with some family. I'll spare you the envy-inducing details, but the picture above is taken from the balcony of the guest room I'm staying in. guest room has a balcony, with a sweet view. Tomorrow I press on to Las Vegas to see another old old friend from days of yore (Facebook strikes again!), before New Mexico. As I pass through different cities and town I've gotten to pondering what motivates people to patronize certain restaurants and love the food of certain chefs. One thing that's clear to me is that people are wildly different from locale to locale. It would follow that what accounts for their respective likes and dislikes differs as well. Of course, I'm always on the look out for where I might land next for work and it interests me greatly whether or not a formula that worked in Portland could work somewhere else. The more personal questions is: as a chef, what motivates me? Could I work and exist in a place where diners don't want to be challenged by food or may not notice or give a damn when care and love have been put into the product? Or, is personal satisfaction in a job well done enough to keep me going? The battery on my laptop is dying and the power adapter is lost in my car somewhere. I'll pick that little question up at a later date...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Close the window, open the door...

Anyone who's stumbled upon this here interweb outpost once or twice before will notice a small yet significant change. My location is no longer designated as Portland, OR and my identity is no longer shrouded in secrecy. The subterfuge was not so much for effect as it was that I didn't think anyone was reading this, much less caring who wrote it. Big thanks to Jeff McCarthy, et al for helping me experience a brief twinge of what I think was satisfaction that people have read something I wrote. In less than two weeks time my location will no longer be fixed, as I am embarking on an unspecified period of travel and will no longer be working as a chef. My reasons for enacting such a drastic change are too numerous to list and, well, boring. I do however, have a few thoughts to share on leaving the chef gig, travel/exploration, and how it all fits into this here blog.

We are told during our formidable years and indeed it is the American ideal that hard work and dedication will lead to success. While I haven't lost faith as of yet, I've realized at this point that hard work alone is not the whole story. Even more so, I've realized that the simple hope of being judged on your merit is not simple at all. I've always known this in a greater context, but believed and hoped that when it came to me and my work that it would be simple. Work long hours, never quit, never settle and presto, success! It was my plan to transcend things like hype, image, spin, flair, dumb luck, location and choice of colleagues. I know now that you can't tip the scales of success in your favor with hard work alone. It's more of a disorganized and often silly balancing act. Choosing to focus less (although not blind completely) on the other things, I opted to toil endlessly, control every factor and master every task as best I could. It seems now that I have gone as far as merit alone can take me and I'm left wondering where to go from here. If I could fit the reasons I'm moving on from this job to travel in a nutshell, that would be it. Of course there's more to it, but I want to avoid the many tangents I could go off on.

So what of the Executive Dishwasher now that I will no longer have a chef's daily minutiae to reference here? The title came about originally from a characterture I had created of myself being the highest salaried dishwasher in Portland, since my daily routine involved quite a bit of manning the dish pit. It was not at all the way I had pictured the life of a chef, but quickly found solace in the art (yes I said art!) of scrubbing, spraying and juggling dish racks. I made it an integral part of the aforementioned "never quit, never settle" mantra. I may be in charge, I thought, but never too good to do some dishes. Hence the character and title of this blog. Despite the way I make it sound, I haven't given up on the idea that hard work will ultimately pay off. In fact, I'm sure more than ever now that while it may not be the quickest way to the top, it is ultimately the most sustaining. Dishwashers are placed at the bottom of the restaurant hierarchy but are often the most sustaining and highly respected members of the team. Cooks and servers can call in sick with little ripple effect, but when the dishwasher is a few moments late is when panic starts to set in. You're on the cusp of a busy Friday or Saturday night with pots and pans from prep piling up in the pit; your throat gets a little dry and that uneasy feeling in your stomach starts to nag more persistently. "I've still got ten things to do before we open! Who the hell is gonna wash dishes tonight!?" is what you're thinking but won't voice out loud. And then he or she shows up with a smile, apologizing profusely for the traffic, flat bike tire or some such other thing. "No problem," you say as relief washes over you. Dish washers make shit happen, plain and simple. I'm not gonna call it something cliche like, "the glue that holds us together," or whatnot, but their importance should never be downplayed. That is why no matter where I go in this industry - up or down the ladder - I'll never be ashamed to work as or be associated with the position. I've always been motivated by the recognition my achievements get. How busy is the restaurant? How positive are the reviews? What job do I have and who knows about it? The most positive thing to come out of my first go around in the Executive Chef role thus far is a more refined motivation. Rather than being preoccupied with recognition for what I do I'm hoping to focus more squarely on what it actually is that I'm doing. Make shit happen. Like the dishwashers. With that I close the window through which I was watching what I do, where I work and how other people perceive it. I'd rather open the door and step into the middle of it all. To start things off I'll be traveling through Asia and Europe for a while, hopefully keeping this blog up to date with where I'm at, what I'm seeing and whatever dishes I might be washing.