the love [and the weight]

Health, Hospitality Industry

There’s been a lot going on lately in the chef community in regards to depression, anxiety and suicide.

Ever since Bourdain, we have been woke. And this doesn’t begin to touch on all of the chefs who struggle with substances A to Z.

I’ve been lucky to have worked for people who haven’t ran me into the ground, physically and verbally.  The stress of a restaurant failing and succeeding are so tight, that the way a person carries it to their staff is almost too much.

I had a hard week following Bourdain’s suicide. Those closest to me saw that.

I was stuck in a deep, dark hole.
I was heavy with grief.

I was thinking of nothing but my failures. My failed marriage. My failure as a husband and partner. Failure as a friend, boss, chef, uncle, son, brother. It seems when the dark pours on you, it is terribly hard to get out from under it. Like a heavy blanket.

The anxiety of a slow restaurant and failing everyone that I worked with was also riding up to my shoulders. The risk of changing our service. Adding loads more overhead and pulling in okay numbers was almost over my head.

I would fantasize about working in front of a computer. Or being like my friends who sit through meetings and explode on the weekends to burn off that office smell. I would think to myself, “It would be so nice to not worry about our walk-in breaking down in the middle of this summer heat.” Only to have it break down a day later.

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This work, as I always talk about it, can be so ultra rewarding, and the weight can also be so heavy.

I love the challenge. I love the competition. I love to cook. I love holding myself to a certain level. Some of that stress I absolutely put on myself.

I am lucky to have friends and family who decided to listen to me, and ask if I was okay, because I so was not.

You should check on your strong friends, too.

Open up. Be vulnerable if you can, because it seems we are all overwhelmed with the state of things. It is tiring to give a shit, and to keep giving a shit.

It’s hard to start owning something. It’s even harder to keep it up. That’s the weight of doing something new, and having people respond.

I don’t suppose this is anything new. But it’s new to me.

This is real, though. I think that’s what scared me the most. You have to take care of yourself. You have to open yourself up wide. Maybe that’s how things get in, but it’s also how they all get out.

If you do find yourself reading this, and you need some good words or someone to listen, please reach out. You are more valuable than anything, and I hope you find the strength to see light and goodness and hope.

 

 

 

Hospitality Don’t Come Easy

Food

I get a lot of joy out of feeding my friends.

In a similar way my mom loves taking care of her kids and how she’s so very intuitive to peoples’ needs.

On the occasion that I get to plan a small to medium sized intimate meal, I get a little pumped up. Because I’m not gonna lie, it’s fun to impress people. I get the rush of stretching a culinary muscle all the while saying, “Yeah, I used a whole bottle of wine to make this…”

It sounds silly. And it is.

But a lot of it is intuition. The hospitable bones in my body come from my family, no doubt.

Just know, there is hope if you feel overwhelmed having folks over. A lot of times, it can be — but it doesn’t have to. Especially if you like the people who are coming over. If not, do what I do and hide in the kitchen. (Because there’s always junk to do in the kitchen, am I right?)

I like to be helpful, so let’s talk about some things that have helped me.

First off, you gotta know if folks can eat what you’re planning to cook. If someone is vegan, you’ll probably have to go out and buy a whole new set of groceries (if you aren’t regularly eating vegan). When in doubt, use a lot of olive oil and bread. That’ll get them happy, only for a little while though. “Josh, be sweet…” Okay, okay.

But seriously. Cook accordingly. Nobody puts baby-vegan in the corner.

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Beverages.
This also asks of you to pair accordingly to the food you’re cooking. If a dish used an entire bottle of red wine to make, it’ll probably pair well with red wine. If it’s spicy, you may want to focus on less intimidating beverages. Maybe good, light beer, or something with citrus and alcohol.

Always offer water. Especially when alcohol is present. Some folks need to switch gears sooner than others.

Watch their glasses. If they’re empty, make cozy eye-contact and fill em’ up with chosen/offered beverage. Keep cups full until you see the night winding down.

If you’re making something sweet, a lot of folks enjoy a sip of good coffee or hot tea. (or more alcohol) Decaf is probably good, but let’s not get too crazy!

Have a clean kitchen.

This is a lot of work. To cook, host and keep it clean. But it helps, especially as your guests leave. If you don’t want to do their dishes after they leave, at least rinse them well, and stack them neatly so there not so intimidating the morning after. Trust me, it helps.

Mise en place.
This is a big restaurant kitchen thing. It means “putting everything in its place”. It is, by far, the most important tool for cooks (besides whiskey). It translates well into the home kitchen. Basically, have all your stuff done before guests arrive.

You don’t want to be mincing garlic and entertaining at the same time. At least I don’t. Plus, that makes dinner last forever. Don’t fool yourself. If people are coming to eat at your house, they pretty much expect it to be almost done. Do not throw something on the stove that takes three hours to cook right as guests arrive. Unless it’s an all-day thing, ain’t nobody got time for that.

Having all your ingredients ready to go for quick assembly is key. It helps you keep a peaceful mind, all the while throwing down some killer food.

Stick with food you’re comfortable with cooking.

Unless they are close friends who love you regardless of how much you put reduced balsamic vinegar on everything, do as Michael Scott says and ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid.’

Keep a good flow.

It’s important to time your dishes, just as a restaurant would do. You want time for the drinks to settle in. You want people to be HUNGRY. Offer them little snacks. Not too much bread. Nuts are good. Things that are salty are good. Nothing too over-powering though.

You want your main dishes to shine. And no doubt they will when your tipsy friends are saying your roast chicken was the best they’ve ever had.

Because you put in a lot of work.

It’s not always easy to predict what others need. But the more you do it, the easier it’ll come to you.

So, call up a few buds.

Give them at least two beverages to start working on.

Keep that kitchen clean.

Have yo’ stuff ready.

Fall into the ebb and flow.

Laugh a ton.

Stress, not so much.

When you’re in the presence of dear ones, take it in.

Because that’s all that really matters.

 

 

Last Meal

Food, Story

I ask this question to a lot of people.

Cooks I’ve worked with and friends and family.  I love hearing the answers.

I’ve written about this before. The meal that puts you right in your sweet spot. Where indulgence and ingredient and technique form a perfect memory. I’ve had several last meals float around my head — things surely changing as I grow and am introduced to more unique experiences.

At first it was chicken wings and chili cheese fries.

Fried chicken will always find a place in my last meal. As will pecan pie and my mom’s sweet tea.

A fellow cook I work with said “cioppino” which is basically a fish stew. He’s from an Italian-American household in Astoria, Oregon where the weather and closeness to the salty ocean can almost force upon you a need to eat seafood. I can understand that. I loved his answer. Because it was something he associated with more than just food. It was that sense of place. Something I’m sure he loved growing up and can make pretty damn good.

So that led me to think about another part of this complex question.

This food — this “last meal” — this summation of all things good in your life would probably be nothing without the company of others to eat it with.

And that hit me hard. Right in my soft spot that is seemingly getting softer and softer.

To quote Alexander Supertramp, “Happiness is only real when shared”. This saying may or may not be true to you, but it resonates deeply to me.

We eat food alone all the time. But the memory of eating food with others seems to stick out the most. Sharing food has all the elements of what makes us healthy people. There’s a sense of nostalgia. There’s proximity. There’s vulnerability. There’s love and conversation. Food has this ability to break people down into their most human form. Creatures that need to eat to survive.

So I say I like my mom’s sweet tea…which I really do…but bigger than that, I miss and love my mom and what that taste of sweet tea does to me. It brings me back when she used to wash my hair in the sink when I was a kid and it reminds me of the crock pot of red beans and her love of magnolias and that when I think of hospitality, I think of her.

Fried chicken is best when eaten among others. (Or..in a dark room with the doors locked…as I joke.) It reminds me of lunch after church and taking a nap with Bob Ross on TV. The comfort that food brings is powerful.

Sure we all have things we’d love to taste before we die, but more importantly, we’d rather remember the people we loved and loved us back.

My last meal keeps getting bigger and richer.

The table grows each year.

So grab a chair and let’s talk.

There’s plenty to go around.

the industry.

Uncategorized

Usually people find themselves in the service industry on their way to something bigger and better. Some are in school hoping for that sweet spot to open up right as they walk across the stage to receive their 20,000-dollar education. Others are in this line of work because they have no other choice and the economy is pitter-pattering slowly, but surely. Then there are the ones who get pulled in and have a hard time leaving.

I guess I would say I’m somewhere in between them all. My brief stint in the fast-food industry ended in 10th grade when I thought I could work at Wendy’s, only to be frightened by the man (who had just gotten out of jail) turning burgers on the flattop and flipping out because I thought I had locked myself inside the walk-in refrigerator. I had a lot to learn. My work ethic was next to nothing, but luckily… that has changed.

The industry makes you harden up. Sometimes it makes your cuss more and forces you to bite your tongue more than ever. Some are better with customers and others are better at making the products to serve. I’m better at the latter, but learning to fight off my introverted tendencies to feel energized by small talk and the usual “hey-how-are-yas”.

I think the people in the industry do some of the noblest work there is. The cooks, servers, bartenders and baristas face the best and worst of the human condition. People have to eat and drink, so we give it to them. If they don’t like it, we hear about it. There’s a special place in my heart for these people and anyone who knows me well will tell you how intimidated I am about the waiter/waitress. After all, they are the ones to judge whether you are cool or not. I imagine their thumbs, edging up and down, determining whether you’re a decent human being like the final say of a gladiator’s death.

But we all know about the bad ones. The servers and staff who just stink at what they do. And bless their heart. It’s not always their fault [though sometimes it is]. When you get stuck in a rut, it’s hard to act happy. Some customers will eat you alive because their money is in your hands. You better not waste it on a bad experience. I’ve been around some who take this too seriously – patronizing every action of the server when I think it’s just fine. “She totally forgot the bread!” or “I can’t believe how awkward he is…”
Of course, everyone is different. I like the simple small talk and order. The waiter doesn’t need to know where I went to high school or when my sister’s birthday is! We have such odd expectations. Most other cultures wouldn’t give you nearly as much attention as we do here. I just want to be liked by the employees, because I know how it is. When you work in the trenches, you join a special group of people.

You are a part of the industry.

A couple of nights ago, I was serving drinks at a local event. A guy walked up and I gave him his deliciously cold IPA saying, “Here ya go sir…” in a fairly relaxed tone. He responded… “Ahh, don’t call me sir. I work in the service industry too. I’m a chef. Look at my hands. We’re all equals here…” He smiled and walked off. As a person who admires the work, I felt some small pride that I had just joined the ranks of the disgruntled, [at times] over-worked and underpaid folks who make a living feeding other people.

Tip your servers well. You can always tell the kind of folks who have worked for tips because they generally tip well. I can only assume that many believe the restaurant or café pays them well enough to make a living. This isn’t always true. In fact, it’s rarely true. We count on tips as major parts of our income, so we do appreciate it when you treat us well. And as the rule goes in our household, if we can’t afford to tip, we probably shouldn’t go out.

But, I’m only speaking upon myself because we all have our things and this just so happens to be important to me.

After all, in the bigger picture, we’re all equals. Let’s work on treating each other like human beings.

I mean after all, just look at our hands.