One Decade Down
It is about this time of year a decade ago when I started my journey into the world of food. It was a humble beginning for me, weeding out a garden behind a restaurant in Niagara Falls, New York. That job evolved into leaving and becoming a dishwasher at Wendy’s. The pace of the restaurant was one of the few times I felt that alive. And also, it felt like I belonged. I have followed it ever since.
I was a loner, nerdy kid. Good grades but more focused on having my nose in a book or staring at the TV playing Skyrim more than making friends and trying to be cool. (Still holds up to this day.) I also wrote a ton, more so Harry Potter knock offs and short fantasy stories. I was 15 and really did not know what life had in store.
I wasn’t really good at much if I am being honest with myself. School was mostly boring, nothing really stood out to me. Sports were exhausting and the thought of running around a football field with all of those pads on leaves me still shuddering in fear. So when cooking came into my life I had finally found out what I truly loved.
I share all of this not to replay my life but to share how I felt. I know many of you starting out probably feel the same. Food is that spark! It is the highlight of all that is good in your life. And if you are choosing a path in the food world it is probably because you are good at the work or at least have the passion to get good at it.
Over the last ten years I have been nothing short of blessed. I have worked with tremendous mentors, had the most amazing experiences, gained and lost relationships with people, achieved more than I thought was possible for me and have really given my own life and journey meaning.
I believe the food industry is beautiful because there is a stream that branches off into all different directions. It weaves its way into so many different avenues of work but all of it is connected by the love of food and people. I am enamored still with this industry 10 years later and am just as excited to learn and grow within it.
I write this longer blog post to offer perspective and hopefully some sound advice. Or maybe it is written therapy, a journal of sorts. I am only a decade into my career and there are others with more experience that could offer great insight as well. But if you were to look at it as a journey from point A to B, and hoping all goes well, I’m about 10-20% ahead of the beginner on that journey. Memories are fresh and I am still learning. These points are not an end all be all, but rather a fluid acknowledgment of my view of the industry based on what I have seen, learned and lived. I hope it helps in some way.
Get Over Your Hero Story
This will be a tough pill to swallow, it was for me anyway. I think if you are like me you grew up thinking you will be something great. And I have no doubt that you or I will be. We will be. But there is this funny way of perceiving the food world that I fell into when starting out and that was through the lens of my ego.
Up until age 19 I envisioned myself as this lone hero in this grand story. Everyone else in my life was a supporting role to the ultimate journey of my success and my arrival to the top of the mountain. I had a chip on my shoulder, which is good, but also a very active ego, which is not so good. I saw myself as this person struggling beyond others for a goal only I can see. Looking back now I see how not only childish but ignorant this is. If you see yourself and the world like this then you need to do one thing.
Knock That Shit Off
When we believe the lie that it is “our” story only we automatically shut out the needs of others. Furthermore, we act as if our own desires and self interests trump anyone else’s. The truth is that we are all in this together. It is cliche but it is true. A kitchen does not run off of one Chef, no matter how much the media or awards may tell you. It is about a team, the group, the ones who show up together and put up the fight.
As the loner this was tough to understand. Tough to swallow. But it is so damn true. This industry is competitive and cut throat and all of the other adjectives and metaphors used to describe a contentious industry. But that is even more reason to find a solid group of people to stick with. To get through it together. To build each other up.
The matter of it all is that when you realize you are a part of a great story, not the ONLY part, you experience life in a new way. This industry really opens up to you. People share in the successes and failures with you. You make amazing friendships. You learn more and more opportunities come your way. Don’t be the hero, be the person within the heroic team that is winning or losing the battles together.
Where You Start Is Unlikely Where You Will Finish
Second lesson learned/piece of advice is that things change in your life more than you probably would want to admit. When I started in the food world I wanted to own a restaurant akin to Olive Garden. I then wanted 3 Michelin Stars for my 10 seat VIP only restaurant. I then wanted to manage multiple business channels in regards to restaurants. And after all of that I decided restaurants actually might not be my thing and I am doing work I deeply love now in recipe development.
I had a major identity crisis when I left restaurants. I felt like I was betraying who I was, leaving the place I always wanted to be. This was over dramatic and the reality is that if you or I decide we want to try new ventures in our lives that it is ok to do so. We only limit ourselves when we talk ourselves out of trying something new. The judgment and criticism we fear from others only really comes from the voice in our own heads.
I think specifically in restaurants there is such a strong bond and comradery. It is truly unlike most jobs you will find and the people you end up working with and spending time with are everything to you. They were for me. But sometimes the love of restaurants can turn into cultish behavior if we do not check ourselves and the reasons we do it.
The food world is vast. If you have followed my content for any period of time you know I talk about this a ton, but I really do think more need to hear it. And not only is the food world vast, it is vastly interesting. There are so many people doing interesting, deep and engaging work. So with that being said this is not a call to leave restaurants. It is a call to be aware of what’s out there and to chase after what lights the fire inside you.
Know Your WHY
This existential task of figuring out why the hell we are all on this planet has plagued philosophers, societies, governments and artists for generations. “Why am I here?”. It is a really hard question to answer. If you cook you probably ask yourself daily as well.
I read during the pandemic a book called “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Victor Frankl. Some of you may know it, but if you do not you should definitely pick it up. The basic message I took from it is that the meaning we all have are the actions we push ourselves to commit to. It is the goal, the task, the actual idea or action we chase that gives us meaning and drive.
So I challenge you to really understand what that means for you in the food world. I think a lot of cooks are saturated with interest in the fine dining sector. It is very alluring to want to work in fine dining kitchens and in rated restaurants. It is the hero’s journey for some, a long road to a finish of awards and accolades and success.
My issue with only being interested in fine dining is that it is only one very small part of the industry. It is often very challenging and also does not yield great work/life results if leadership is not focused on that. I have seen those who want to do more within their life and career stay at a station for years in hopes of chasing an award.
I have the utmost respect for chefs who gain their awards and accolades. But if you talk to them it is not really the reason or the only reason they do what they do. I have seen so many in this industry wanting to be in fine dining for the awards and accolades. The glory of being a chef.
I have met people completely miserable with their path but still hanging on due to the rating and prestige their food could receive. If the awards are one of your goals then that is great!
BUT if they are your only goal then I do not see how you will ever attain fulfillment on that journey. We get into this work to feed people and create value and experiences. If our entire career path is based on a small group of people declaring our food worthy of the highest recognition then it leaves a lot of room for disappointment, resentment and general unhappiness.
I really think as an industry we need to reset our view on awards, ratings and the prestige of these institutions. Not get away with or try to hide. But to really teach the next generation that stable pay, health insurance and a healthy work environment should be priority number one. The awards and other perks of doing good in food should come much later after meeting the essentials of leading a healthy life in the industry.
The other aspect of wanting to be awarded is that sometimes you will not fit the mold. How many artists throughout the years did their work and have it not even be recognized only to have it praised and deemed as great years later? One or two awards committees should not dictate if you are a successful cook or chef.
I had a great mentor who shared with me that it is not the best restaurant that is always written about, but rather the one who always puts out of its doors quality leaders. The chefs who build, train and inspire the next generation to evolve what we are and how we do what we do.
Self Doubt Can Be Your Closest Friend
There have been so many times in the span of the last 10 years when I didn’t believe I could do something. Whether it be to make a consomme, get to a food cost percentage goal or learn an entirely new part of the industry, I always had that voice in my head questioning my ability.
For years I was afraid of self doubt. Anxiety hung over me for much of the last decade. I swear it was truly up until this last year where I started to have more and more self confidence. Where I could look at my work and appreciate what I had done.
So if you are just starting out, 5 years in or even past me and deal with self doubt I write to say so do I. But over the last year I have come to accept that it is a part of everything we do. When the voice in my head shares the reasons I cannot I simply reply, “Interesting, well thanks for the input but I think I am going to try anyway.” I don’t have that fear that locks me up anymore and it has helped me so much to come to reality that doubting yourself is normal.
I think even chefs with 40 years of experience still have those conversations. From talking to many I have learned it never really goes away. And why should it? We are wired for survival and to be realistic. But it is also ok to chase a dream. So have a friendship with your self doubt because out of everyone in your life it will probably show up the most. Especially if you are trying to do great things.
It Should Still Be Fun, Right?
I have shifted my role throughout the last decade in food, as mentioned above. I think it is super important to experiment and explore in our industry. To push into the unknown. But during the pandemic and even now I see so many people struggling with whatever it is they carry. I think we as an industry and consumers in general just have to show more empathy to each other.
This work is hard. Restaurants, manufacturing, media, small businesses. It is all so damn hard when it comes to food. The finite time food exists is a leading cause of the difficulty. Lack of education on the cost of food and how it is produced is another reason, which in turn leads to poor margins in many food businesses. This industry is hard.
So if you have the luxury to sit back, take stock of where you are and have the drive and opportunity to try something new then you should go for it. If you are truly unhappy and unpassionate with your work and you have the means to pivot or learn a new skill then do it. There is no sunk cost. What you learn in one sector translates to another.
Having fun, learning and being able to support yourself in a healthy lifestyle is always the goal. So I wish you all get to that point.
There are many factors to why people are treated poorly throughout this industry and is a big reason why I try to move the conversation forward in a way that betters this world I love. A world in food that has many flaws that need fixing. But with amazing people who make my work so meaningful. I ask that you do not let fear of judgment and self doubt hold you back if they are the only reasons you do not make that next move.
When I started this brand I had no idea what I was doing. It was hard, I was clueless and barely anyone paid attention. Even now the audience is not as big as so many other food media establishments. But I love the work. It is what I do that makes me feel connected and a part of the human experience. I hope you find this for yourself.
For me, whenever I feel doubt, anxiety or panic about my life or career I only need two words. I have them tattooed on me. They help me a ton and I hope they help some of you too.