These last few months were filled with relentless worry and fear. However, I know that some things remain certain. My little family is intact and we manage to stay positive. My son’s never-ending stories about Fortnite, my dog’s incessant need to be petted, my husband’s love and hate for football, my in-laws’ and my mother’s love, and my sisters’ unconditional friendships are constants that no global pandemic or catastrophe can alter. Still, the absence of family gatherings, hugs, and other physical interaction with loved ones and friends, playdates, weekend outings, travel, and holiday celebrations have brought much melancholy in our lives. The trivial and the mundane now seem to be the things we miss the most.
I am one of the few lucky ones to still be employed, doing the same work that I love. I am currently operating a much smaller scale of the business given that only one of the 19 units I oversee have stayed open. Presently we are serving an average of 550 guests daily…quite a drop from the 7000 daily average, pre-Covid. We have a skeleton crew of five amazing chefs who happily do everything and anything needed to get the job done. Now that I only have one café and some catering to look after, and with such a small crew, I spend most of my time in the kitchen with the team. My days can start as early as 3 a.m. and can end as late as 5 pm. An average of 11-hour physical workdays are no easy feat when one is almost fifty years old and running on six-hour sleep. The new schedule took some getting used to but just like the saying goes about riding a bike…my mindset quickly adapted to the new routine and my practical kitchen prep and organizational skills came back instantly. Like a programmed robot, I jump out of bed as soon as my alarm goes off at dawn.
During these early mornings in the kitchen while I get things set up before the crew arrives, I often think of my early days as a cook. It was twenty years ago, but some memories remain deeply etched in my brain. Like the first time I tasted a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. My chef lightly seasoned the sliced tomatoes with salt and told me to eat a piece. I was blown away at how sweet, tangy, and juicy it was. I also remember seeing and tasting hen of the woods mushrooms for the first time. These wild fungi were simply roasted and seasoned with sea salt and fresh thyme. That one bite sent me into a new world of flavor. I remember feeling euphoric. As a new cook, I had to learn everything and I had to prove myself to everyone. I had to learn the kitchen lingo and learn the ins and outs of a big professional kitchen. I had to learn to fit into a crew of 180, who possessed amazing prep and cooking skills. It was quite intimidating. During that time, I was quite fortunate to have two great chefs in that kitchen. They prepared me for the many things that came my way many years later. They prepared me to make the right call in certain tough situations. They prepared me to lead. They prepared me for now. Of course, at that time I did not realize that I was being primed for a career that only existed in my wildest dreams.
The head chef was a woman who was sharp as a newly honed knife, and compassionate as an aunt. She was also as tough as a mafia godfather but as loving as a mom. She was the boss but she was also one of us. She was respected, feared, and loved. She wasn’t always in the kitchen, but she showed up when it mattered. She was not perfect, but she was the perfect leader to teach us and guide us during that time. When asked how she was doing, she would respond, “always good,” a mantra that perplexed me every now and then. After all no one is always good. I did not quiet grasp it until years later when I became the leader of the brigade. Always good would be the only right disposition for a leader. It sets the tone for the kitchen. It spreads positivity. And positivity should trickle down from the top.
She also made a point to talk to each staff member when she did her rounds in the morning. These talks were short and done in passing, but for that brief moment Chef made us feel like there was no one else more important in her world. She made eye contact, she listened, and she gave feedback. She knew me well as a person and as a cook. She saw potential in me and made sure there was a path to lead me in the right direction. She told me when I did a good job and she told me when my work was not good enough. She let me know when I let her down and she let me know when I made her proud. Those truthful conversations in the hallway and office were unforgettable. They often lifted me up, and at times crushed my soul. But those instances also taught me the most. How I organize for catering events, how I write detailed prep sheets, and how I always manage to stay two steps ahead of the team were all due to those tearful learning moments. I learned from her that it is important to know each one of my team members by name and to know something personal about them. She taught me the value of making a connection.
Chef was also a friend. She was there for me when I needed to restart my life. Along with the Sous Chef, she gave me the courage and support I needed to refocus my vision blurred by a broken heart. I regained my stance which eventually became steady and balanced. Both of them kept me busy in the kitchen, which helped heal my pain, refined my skills, and paid my bills. They both showed me the importance of building a good team. They both taught me leadership. Twenty years ago was a different time in the kitchen though. Our bonds were shatterproof and there was an infinite amount of loyalty. It was family. I am forever thankful for that feeling of belonging.
I don’t think I have ever had other bosses like them again. Nor do I think I will ever have that kind of bond with another leader. I don’t think I’ll ever have the same alliance and allegiance. After all, I am now more the mentor than the mentee. I only hope that in the many years since I became a chef that I was able to give my employees what my mentors have given me. I hope I was able to impart some positive lessons to carry them through tough times and to keep them grounded during triumphant moments. I hope I gave them plenty of encouragement and just enough criticism to keep it balanced. I hope I was compassionate and understanding. I hope I was fair and forgiving. I hope I was honest and kind. I hope I was never too proud to apologize when I made mistakes. I hope I gave them my undivided time. I hope I thanked them enough. I hope I made them feel valued. I hope I was able to give them opportunities to grow and find their paths. I hope that the ones I disappointed and discouraged have forgiven me and used those unpleasant moments as weapons against self-doubt. I hope.
Twenty years ago, I could have never imagined two decades in the future to be such a tragedy and still have a clear vision of what a fortunate life is. Twenty years ago, I didn’t foresee I would be in a position to influence anyone let alone be a guide to someone’s path. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have predicted where luck and hard work would take me. Twenty years ago, I did not know I would find my humble beginnings in the kitchen to be priceless and the most important learning moments of my professional life.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the training days and lessons learned in the kitchen. I am thankful for all the cuts that took too long to heal; for all the burns that scarred my skin for years; for all the blisters in my fingers; for the sore feet and back. I am thankful for the decisive moments; for the flashes of tears in the walk in and locker room; for every shot of tequila after a successful dinner shift; for every successful event and for the ones that defeated me and deflated me. I am thankful for all the mistakes; for all the new tricks; for the pats on the back; for all the bacon and walnuts I burned. I am thankful for every family meal shared; for the camaraderie; for lasting friendships; for every respect received and given; for every memorable taste; for all the long hours on the job; for the recurring work nightmares; for every proud moment; for the teamwork; and for all the jobs well done. I am grateful for my two chef mentors from the early days and for the opportunity to be a mentor to someone.
I don’t usually do the turkey roasting in our family because my mother-in-law is quite the expert at this. However, I thought it would be fitting to post a roast turkey recipe in honor of my chefs from the old days and because I am feeling nostalgic of those times spent with them. A turkey roast is also a beautiful tribute to the many wonderful years my chefs and I cooked Thanksgiving dinners at the old folks’ home.
This year, I hope that you get to celebrate in spirit someone who inspired you professionally. I hope you get to make a feast fit for your wants and needs during this extraordinary time. There is still much to be thankful for despite this global pandemic. We cannot let it get to our hearts. We cannot let it consume our being. Let us all be thankful for each other and for the life ahead.
CLICK HERE for the recipes!
Have a happy Thanksgiving!