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.

 

 

 

Yes.

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“Why Hattiesburg?”

This was a question about four years ago that found me in a totally different place as I was freshly back to Mississippi from my life in Oregon. I had changed and so had this place. I needed work. And I had been out of the kitchen for a few months, which made me feel antsy and a little unhinged.

My answer then was something along the lines of, “I love this city. It’s done a lot for me and I think it has the potential to have really great food.”

The first year back in this city, I was running around everywhere trying to make my life work. I was saying yes to everything. EVERYTHING.

“Can you work this event?” YES.

“Would you like to cook for me and some friends, WE WILL PAY YOU.” YES.

“Will you watch our dogs. WE’LL PAY YOU.” YES. (Hi Pyper and Zoe I miss you a lot.)

“I have a client that wants a five course upscale southern style meal in the middle of a park for 50 guests. Can you do this without a real kitchen??” YES. (I mean, I have no #$^&ing clue, but YES.)

I did all of it. Some of it with a partially cracked foot (don’t ask…) and with no money to buy the food I’d hopefully be paid for. That’s what credit cards are for, right?

It is hustle. It is always hustle, for better or worse. It’s because you’re hungry for it and you have something to prove. Where this beast of a thing came from, is beyond me. In the back of my mind I felt that there was no limit to what I could do with the people I worked with. I wasn’t finding the food I wanted here, so I told myself I would make it, and that people would like if they had it the right way.

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In a year, I put my name on that kitchen, along with the folks who have worked right alongside me, crunching it out day after day. Our backs on fire, but a new hope in our bones that more would be revealed.

In three years, we have built up to a new restaurant.

With this comes many sleepless nights. A drink more than I should have. A deep and moving, but exciting kind of energy. Ultimately me, staring into space wondering how we are going to do it all.

Today, a friend saw me in a local coffeeshop staring blankly at a pile of books and said, “I know this is probably a lot, and it’s really stressful, but I think you’re going to do great, and I just want to say thank you for making this city a cooler place for all of us.”

It meant the world to me, and maybe I teared up after they left. But as a testament to the hardest days of my life, I feel humbled and also ready to get loud and crazy.

All of this, is a product of the people here believing in something as simple as food on a plate and the thought and hard work that goes into it. Maybe I romanticize it too much, because it’s not for everyone, even if they enjoy cooking.

You have to have something more to believe in,

A deeper water that flows even when it is not being fed, and a fire that grows when nothing else around you seems to be catching.

That is what I want to offer.

The space to not be good, but to be great. And to create and fail and start again something new. Because the people here deserve it and we have to keep pushing forward. That is my challenge.

And from the mushiness of my heart, I say thank you for responding. For giving me work. For letting me be pouty and rage-y from time to time. For giving me space to fail but also to succeed more than I ever thought was possible.

I just hope you’re hungry.

-casper

 

heat.

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It is cold and dark when I leave the house.

Achey cold. It is so hard to unwrap myself from my blanket and take the short ride to work. But I do it early this morning because I have to work a little harder on this day.

I open the kitchen door and turn on the oven and warmers. It’s a welcoming sound as I know heat is on the way. I kick the heater on in our dining room and try to organize my brain. It’s hard to organize yourself that early. That 6am sleepy dreamy scattered thing.

I work on the quiche and the grits and the soup. I decide I need music and for some reason Grimes is on repeat for an hour and a half. But I am by myself and she is fun and wakes me up. I put on a pot of coffee and I can smell it brewing through the kitchen.

A million things run through my mind (as they always do). What if we are too busy on this already busy and hectic day? I put it aside because the older I become the more I learn worrying is the art of suffering twice. I will still do everything I can to make a thing run smoothly, but I know as the day moves forward, so do more people. People are chaos, always.

And maybe it was a little bit of chaos. But I slip into it like a warm bath.

At the end of the day, I take out the trash and look at the new building we are moving into in a few months. I find it equal parts daunting and beautiful. Some days more beautiful, though. I am in a constant state of wonder how it ended up this way. How I pushed myself a little harder to be good at something, and it magically turned out to be my thing.

There is a certain level of luck and chance. I know the risks of this kind of work. Burn out and margins and hazards. I got it. I hear you. But I don’t often have the luxury to think too much about it. Unfortunately it has affected my writing and I miss it!

And I miss you.

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It has always been about cooking and writing. And I don’t seem to be growing out of it, but I am also a person who knows how to shed a skin and feel raw and stingy.

It all feels too big, sometimes. Like there is a version of me out there that is prepared to do it all beautifully and that version is so not me right now.

I guess maybe that’s how it always feels. But eventually, you do become that person.

I don’t know.

I feel as though I’m about to shed something heavy. I know because something big is on the horizon and I am steady on it and I know I cannot carry both.

It all feels so good right now. Showered and warm and about to crawl back into the blanket I will have to peel off in about six hours again. But it feels good, and I feel strong.

Ready to open the doors,
flip on the oven,

and do it all over again.

 

who cooks your food?

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Food softens the edges.
It gives us the space to enter into hard things, gently.

That, is what I love.

Food is political, emotional, spiritual, sexual, agricultural, among so many other things.
food is important.

I’ve been attending some talks at my local university, which just so happens to be my Alma Mater.
Last night I had the pleasure of listening to John T. Edge, among others, speak on the title: “Race at the Southern Table – The Debts of Our Pleasure”

First and foremost, I have to recognize my place of privilege. As a white American male, my backpack is very light. Meaning, historically, I have a lot going for me based on my appearance. It is important to say this, because a lot of people are lucky and work hard, but also we live in a world where those things aren’t written in stone.

I am a cook.

I work in a stuffy, windowless kitchen and get paid slightly above Mississippi’s minimum wage. Which is probably one of the lowest in the nation. I live simply. I pay my bills. I have a few beers. I work hard, for little money. I don’t do it for the money.

I do the work because my heart is bound together with yours.

Maybe I am, as they say, an “agri-poser” — or hipster cook with tattoos wishing I had a Pok Pok to frequent on a daily basis. But I don’t. I learned how to eat and cook well in Portland, Oregon. I learned what farm to table actually looks like. I worked under some shitty owners, and I’ve worked under some really great chefs whose kindness, sternness and freedom let me have a voice in a kitchen without much experience.

That is my place. I give a shit about what I do. I work hard. I can’t fall asleep at night because I’m thinking about what it is I’ll be cooking the next day. I get angry at lazy cooks and business owners. When I am in a kitchen, it is my responsibility to own it. Even when my name isn’t on a lease, I own that shit.

That, is what I do.

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But this is the story of the southern table. No doubt one that has seen so many changes in the history of my state. The conversation continues to roll on today as a person who works in the back of restaurants. Southern cuisine owes its allegiance to the African American communities, First Nation tribes and all others who have had to serve privileged class citizens. This, either due to socio-economic class, but also by the color of their skin.

There is a great injustice. Restaurants have a long way to go. It’s a hard business, and Americans are lazy and consume much more than we require. Most restaurants depend on the backs of the poor and minorities and I’ve worked beside people who have really hard stories. I’ve worked with really great, dependable people, and others who can never show up on time. And trust me, laziness comes in all colors and sizes.

It is, though, important to know the stories of the people cooking your food. People are becoming more involved with wanting to know where there food comes from. This is great. I think the next step is wanting to know WHO is cooking their food. Yes, sometimes the Chef will be in. And my biggest mentor worked her ass off in the kitchen.

These conversations are important because as I said earlier, food is important. The future of food is important. The agriculture of our state is so, so important.

I offer this as a conversation.

I am not claiming to be a professional academic or researcher on the matter, but I do have some experience working in the trenches and know that eating food is something people enjoy.

For my people especially, our table is complicated and large and colorful.

We are moving forward, with the ability to look back and to process and to recognize our place in the midst of it all.

That is all I’m asking.

Who cooks your food?

 

No hummus and pita plate! (An update, of sorts)

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I realize I’ve taken a bit of a jump from what I used to talk about.

Food has kept me more than alive these past few months. I don’t know if I would have been able to cope with my personal life if I wouldn’t have had a kitchen to cook in. The industry is funny like that. As stressful and demanding as it can be, it is a home for many. It’s been a home for me. Not just in a kitchen, but with other cooks and industry folk. They have held me tightly, given me space to create, and have fed me and let me frequent their barstools. If not to take the edge off, just a bit, but the company has been so important.

I wrote a long time ago that I had been given the task to start a dinner service at Woodlawn Coffee & Pastry, where I was once a barista, and now sous chef of a kitchen.

Well, in June, we started serving dinner hoping our liquor license would show up the next week. A lot of weird things happened and it was just taking too long, and we were being stretched too thin. So, I went back to doing breakfast, lunch and prep shifts until we got our liquor license straightened away. And so, a few weeks ago, we were officially given our liquor license. Woo!

So this Thursday, we will be having a sort of ‘grand opening’ harvest party to showcase some of the food we’ll be serving, and also as a way to have fun and welcome in the new season. It’s been a long time coming, for sure.

I’m stoked on my menu and am really proud of the way it looks.

I am, though, in the process of figuring out how to run a kitchen. Which means, thinking about food at least two weeks in advance and figuring out how to cook food with a kitchen staff that is pretty much just me, and the occasional runner, prep cook.

It’s a little scary, but I’m ready. And let’s be honest, when cooking in a kitchen, you will think you are ready, but it can change in a heartbeat. You just gotta power through it and hope to come out on the other side.

I’ve been learning a lot from other cooks. Learning to degrease as much as I can so our sink won’t back up. I’m always so amazed about how cooking relies so much on being clean, and cleaning. Always, cleaning. Haha. (I never write laughs in my blogs, but it’s so true…)

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Like I said, I’m super stoked on the menu. It’ll change quite often, considering I try hard to keep it seasonal.

This time, we are adding some house charcuterie on the menu. Pork rillettes, pate de campagne (country pate), and eventually, chicken liver mousse.

I suppose I am designing a menu on people drinking. Personally, I love rich, satisfying food when drinking a stiff cocktail or sake or wine.

No nachos. Not that I’m opposed to them, they’re just played out drinking food. No pita and hummus plate! Bah humbug! I always crack on this. I don’t know why. I just know whenever I go to a pub and see pita and hummus with raw veggies, I realize it’s easy and it’s filler, and honestly, it sells. I just can’t do it right now.

I’m excited to showcase pimiento cheese and house made crackers.  A killer meatloaf sandwich (which I’ve been told is better than most burgers on the block) and of course, since we’re a pastry shop, our desserts will be bangin’.

I’m excited, y’all. Feeding people, given its trials from time to time, really is meaningful to me.

If you do find yourself wondering about Portland, come by and say hi!

I’d love to feed ya.

Until next time, I raise my glass to those who have stuck with me during these hard, hard months. Thank you for reading and following and just being super wonderful people. It means so much to me.

-Josh

A Different Kind of Waiter Rant

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I tell people I’m often intimidated by my waiter.

I look down and avoid eye contact, usually leaving my wife to make the normal, healthy interactions.

And I’m not quite sure why this is. Yes, I’m an industry person who waits on people from time to time and customer service is very much important. But I guess it’s because I know.

I know the crap they have to deal with and I want to be the complete antithesis of an awful customer. Maybe at the risk of seeming too withdrawn, this is my issue.

Don’t get me wrong. I do smile and say thank you and order clearly. All things a waiter asks for. But to an extent, your dining experience is in their hands and you definitely don’t want to be seen (or known) as “that” customer.

Being kind goes a long way. I can’t emphasize this enough.

I often tell folks that I could do anything in the industry but be a waiter. It takes a special kind of person with a special kind of confidence to do it well.

As a kid, my mom and dad, on very rare occasions, would take us to Doug’s. It was a classy place with nice napkins and utensils and shrimp cocktail. We were taught to cut our own meat and to order off the menu as proper budding young adults.

I was terrified, but it was helpful to eventually have control over what you wanted to eat.

There’s still something so “on the spot” about it — a conversation between you and someone who will be taking care of you in some way or the other. You want this to be a good relationship. You want them to remember you when you come back. If not your name, then what you like to drink and eat. Because we do remember these things.

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Here’s some advice:

Know your beverage. There is a small moment where you first sit down and are given a menu. If you’re with people you haven’t seen in a while, you will probably get caught up in catching up. Be aware that your waiter has a system and a rhythm. If you mess that up, you mess up the rest of their flow. You should know what you want to drink on the first pass by. And don’t try every draft they have on tap. If you don’t like it, drink it up and move on with your life.

There will be a secondary pass where appetizers are ordered or whole meals. This is a good time to ask questions and hone in on what you plan on consuming that evening. I feel like this is the best time to order. But, it’s understandable, given that you were maybe asking a question or were given the specials of the day. You know, when you have what you want in mind and they drop that insane dish in your lap screaming, “You know you want this!” It can and will mess up your thought process making you re-evaluate your entire life.

Also, remember what you ordered. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked up to a table with food items and have them stare at me blankly while I call out plates. Say something! You just ordered this 10 minutes ago! Be attentive to your waiters as they are attentive to you. Answer them yes or no. Pay attention to them as you would another person because waiters are human beings just like you.

If you haven’t ordered by the third visit, the waiter is probably getting annoyed.

It’s time to move on.

It’s time to order.

The restaurant is busy and relies on turning over tables to make more money. This is also how waiters make more tips. Basically, order your food when you feel confident, but don’t drag it out.

Since we’re on the subject, don’t sit at your table longer than you have to unless it’s a special occasion and they’re expecting you to take up precious real estate for a certain amount of time. Like I said, restaurants rely on turnovers to make money. The longer you sit hoggin’ a table, the less people they’re able to fit in.

Eat. Enjoy your food. Laugh. Pay your bill. Thank your waiter at all times. Leave at least a 15-20% tip.

We are 20% percent people. But that’s because we’ve been and are currently industry folk. We know the importance of the almighty tip, and your waiters will notice.

Yes, yes.

Notice your waiters. Next time you’re out and about, watch them work and how many things they juggle.

When you and your waiter got it goin’ on, it changes things. You don’t become a burden, but an ally.

And that makes all the difference.