“Never Give an Inch”
My favorite novels are ones that tell stories of passionate and alienated anti-heroes trapped on a quest of their own design. Single-mindedly pursuing a ridiculous goal whose purpose lies in opposition to all their best interests, they neglect everything except that which is eminently material to the cause. The goal is true, and noble, and there is no question that it must be achieved. On the Path, those of lesser vision fall to the side, or are discarded. Great personal injuries occur, often leading to death at the fulfillment of the quest, or just before. But most of all, our hero’s wracked torture as he watches everything close stripped from him, trailing away in fish-eyed confusion, broken and torn by his mission, is the meat that keeps me turning the page. “Will he come to the conclusion that he is wasting everything?” “Will he die in his pursuit?” “Is there any compromise that he can fashion to achieve his truth and stay human?”
Unfortunately, in life, things do not get tidily wrapped up in 427 pages. The hero rarely gets to give everything for the one true holy thing. There are PTA meetings to attend, spouses and children, and it’s nice to keep a friend or two in pocket. This dilemma, the fractured interface of the ideal of the perfect restaurant with the compromise of reality, is where we, the Chefs, find ourselves. We believe in our vision; for the dish, for the concept, for the kitchen, for the restaurant. And the requirements of our trade make sacrifice a fundamental theme. We truly bleed for the craft, and sacrifice our backs and friends and weekends, and thrive in a milieu where the truest yardsticks are pain. How many hours spent over the stove, how wickedly scarring the burns, and how many screaming attacks survived are strung like black and jagged pearls along life’s string. The quest strips us, breaks us, isolates us, and we follow it through the darkness for our light at the end.
But the light is never to be found. Every day begins anew. No matter what the achievement of yesterday; covers served, excellent sauce, perfect medium rare, rocking service, today winds a new clock and sets it to tick. Yesterday’s masterpiece is gone, washed down with wine into the organic soup of life. Today we begin anew to bang nature’s raw products into form and flavor to please our eyes and tongues. When finished, they fly from us, never returning as we turn to the next plate. And so go the days and weeks and seasons and years, continually trying to accomplish the goal of assembling perfection amid the erratic beauty of this earth. The stone is rolled up,
But we believe that we can. That we will. That we HAVE to. And that if you don’t like it, then f__k off and go away and leave us to our mission. Because if you can’t be there with me, then I’ll do it myself. And for the hours of sweating, cursing, and screaming, we find the occasional bits of beauty and that keeps us moving forward.
That, and off color butternut squash humor.
But there is no redemption. A good chef believes that he or she is right, completely and without question. And this right needs not be questioned. To competently lead a disparate group of young men and women into the stressful pressures and conditions of service, they must be prepared to execute the commands of the chef. To question, to disobey, is to slow down the machine and break the flow. And without the flow, there is chaos. And chaos is the enemy of the restaurant. Only by applying incredible organization and control can the endless details of the evening’s dinner service be executed.
Chefs are jerks by definition. A chef is an egotistic creative control freak, usually with a neatness fixation. He has little patience for fools and no time for drama. Play your part, carry the weight, and step in line. This does not make for a great personal life as these traits carry into relationships with friends and family. Even with other restaurant people, the chef is alone. Between the competition with other chefs (don’t even try to deny it, every last one of you), the master/student relationship with the cooks, and the flirty yet distrustful connection to the servers, there is a quiet place where the Chef sits alone, even in the center of the room.
But we have no choice and love it. We grow, and adjust, and develop some ability to step back from the quest and breathe