We’re in a situation these days at work where those of us who cook for a living are having to take things back to basics and re-learn some appreciation for what many of us view as scut work. I think it’s a good thing.
It is all fine and good to be creative and come up with new dishes and keep pushing culinary boundaries. This is what I love to do and what so many of my cheffery friends enjoy on a daily basis. But, in any decent commercial kitchen, one has to be a generalist and be willing to pitch in wherever it’s needed. If you find an executive chef who’s not willing to take his/her turn washing dishes, you’ve got a problem. A good leader pulls from the front of the team instead of shouting orders from the wagon the team is pulling.
Anyway, staffing issues at the shop these days require me and the rest of us to take turns doing things we don’t normally do. Though hired to be creative and Do My Thing, I’m anymore having to pull shifts doing nothing more challenging than frying huge boatloads of chicken or shoveling out rotisserie chickens or managing the salad bar. These are humbling tasks for folks who those who are more accustomed to being Out There.
I say it’s a good thing for a couple of reasons. First of all, it reminds us we’re all the same size – no matter how big we sometimes think we are. Matter of fact, compared to those who do these kinds of jobs on a daily basis, the creative types are much smaller. It’s the chicken-fryers and the salad folks who do their jobs so well they become invisible. Customers arrive, buy and simply assume it’s going to be consistently good. There’s no feedback and no pat on the head for those who produce it. It’s not easy to get it right, and even the slightest slip-up can bring howls of protest from the customer.
The second reason it’s a good thing is that doing this kind of work takes us back to our culinary roots and forces us to reacquaint ourselves with things we might not otherwise do much anymore. At a certain level, chefs leave the frying and other prep work to someone else and they disconnect, and this is detrimental to their own creativity and skill. Just as a race car driver needs to spend time helping rebuild an engine, so does a chef need to spend the same time frying, picking shell parts from crab or otherwise getting one-on-one with the food they’re putting out. It’s true in any industry.
When someone runs a small restaurant, all of this is assumed. Any small business owner understands quickly they have to do anything and everything just to make it through another day. But once a place expands a bit and there are multiple locations or the one location gets to a certain size, specialization can quickly become a bitch. “It’s not MY job” can become a huge issue. Yes it is – but too many forget that.
I am not a manager these days, but I’ve spent a lot of time being one and being an owner. Once some folks reach a certain level of managerial responsibility, it can be easy to talk down or to simply assume others are going to do the basic work. Conversely, it can be easy for those doing that work to become resentful because what they do doesn’t seem to get the respect it deserves. After all, it’s the foundation of the company product and reputation.
I’m getting a re-education these days. We all need one from time to time.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.