Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Know Thyself

I had a thought the other day while getting ready for work, ruminating about the stage who trailed my station the night before and the new back-line guy who didn't know what mise en place was and who I've kind of taken under my wing:

I think I might have gotten to the point where I might actually know something about being a cook.

Which is also to say I don't know that much at all.

Lemme explain.

At some point in the past few months, maybe especially since my trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles, and definitely since the start of my current job, I started thinking a lot, A LOT, about who I am as a cook.

When I first started on the pantry station at my first kitchen, I was completely fascinated, if not overwhelmed, by the wealth of knowledge that my bosses and coworkers possessed, the experiences they had, and the energy they had to carry out the hours they were doing every day. It got to the point where the insecure control freak part of my personality would worry that I wasn't good enough to be in this industry because I wasn't _____ [reading enough cookbooks/ eating out enough/ working enough hours off the clock/ staying late enough/ reading this one blog and that site and the other thing/ sharpening my own knives/ talking enough about food/ thinking enough about food/ obsessing over food/ forsaking the other things in my life for this career path... ad nauseum]. You get the picture. I had nights where I went home and cried because I know I didn't give it my all, or I couldn't stop thinking about how I messed up a ticket and let it haunt me for the remainder of service.

Slowly, slowwwwwly, I started to ease up a little. I took work home a little less. I forgave myself a little more. I realized that the nature of our workplace is inherently forgiving in a way: You fucked up yesterday, but look! Here's a whole new batch of people and a whole new service where you can atone for your sins and show them what you're really made of!

And then I met and befriended more cooks and chefs and saw the range of personalities that float in and out of kitchens every day. Some I could relate to more than others, and some were just completely unrelatable. I've had (and keep having) great conversations with cooks about food and work, but found that there were cooks (and even foodies) who couldn't shut the fuck up about food and what chefs they admired and what they wanted and how badass of a line cook they were and how they deserved better and how they were mistreated or taken advantage of or this that and the other thing. They're unable to step outside of themselves or the industry for just a second and see this whole big world that's going on around them, with or without their stellar butchery skills. I came to realize that I didn't exactly fit in with this tunnel-vision, food-is-God worldview, but I got the feeling I wasn't a bad cook for it.

I also found my own level of comfort with the accoutrements of our industry. I got to know the cookbook section of Powell's a little more. On the advice of my first chef I bought The French Laundry Cookbook, and then I found The Devil in the Kitchen, and enjoyed my way through The Man Who Ate Everything and even re-read Kitchen Confidential (less scary and more silly this time around, FYI). My bookshelf found more company more regularly. I found cooking blogs I loved, and instead of being so jealous of food writers who were far more talented than I, I embraced them for their literary skills and their ability to capture what I could hardly comprehend.

I overcame the fear of sharpening my own knives on a stone, and though I still pretty much suck at it, I do a serviceable enough job and am slowly getting better. I made it a habit of eating out at restaurants on my days off, partially as a way of catching up with friends I missed with my insane schedule, but mostly to get a little inspiration and to see what chefs were coming up with in Portland. I came in to work a little earlier, worked a little later, tried (and am still trying) to complain a little less and keep my mouth shut a little more.

And then, somewhere in there, I started to see the everyday a little differently. The minutiae of the grind became something to love. The perfect sear on a steak, hitting the medium-rare beautifully, finding the perfect spoon with which to butter-baste, working faster, cleaner, more precisely yet more efficiently. Picking herbs a little faster than the day before, making the Bearnaise better than yesterday's, being one hundred and ten percent ready for service when the time came.

This is not to say I'm any less hard on myself; in fact I'm probably more so now than when I first started. I still don't consider myself a great cook, and I'm really young in this industry. I'm too slow still, I can work much cleaner, the color on my sear could be more consistent, I need to be better about remembering the six hotel pans I have going in the convex while portioning my pork belly and emulsifying my sauces. I get pissed at myself when I don't do something right. I get impatient, I get short with people, I talk too much, I don't focus enough. I've fucked up enough temps to know I'm not the queen of meat... yet.

But rather than harping on exactly how much I suck, I'm more willing to let a mistake go knowing that I'm making it a goddamned mission to not make that same mistake again. That, I think, is called learning.

This is ultimately about the fact that I'm reconciling with myself who I am as a cook and what my capacity is for the idiosyncrasies that come along with being a cook. In a way I'm glad I came into cooking at the age I'm at now, because I'm surer of myself and what I want than who I was 10 years ago. I've heard chefs and cooks say "Cooking comes first; everything else is secondary," and I simply don't subscribe to that philosophy. I'm not willing to forsake my relationships with friends and family to have a successful career, especially considering what my family and friends have done to help me get to where I am now.

I've heard cooks say "You're not a real cook if you can't hold your liquor." I'm not a party girl and I rarely drink to excess, as I need to take care of my body and I have a very low tolerance for alcohol (what can I say, I'm a cheap date!). I'm very, VERY lucky to be able to even work in a kitchen in the first place and I don't take that for granted. I don't make it a habit to pick up every new hot cookbook, but that doesn't mean I don't have a few in mind or that I'm not paying attention. I'm not sure how many more years of line cooking I have in me, but I'm pretty certain it's not enough to want to make it all the way to the top of this particular chain. I know how much time and energy it takes, and while I want to give it all I got, I don't got enough to be an executive chef of a four-star restaurant.

What I do know is I want to keep cooking for people. I want to keep line cooking, at least for a while, get techniques and moves under my belt, and LEARN. I want to continue to be surrounded by cooks who are better than I am, who know more than I do, knowing that simply watching them and working side-by-side with them every day is making me a better cook. I'm figuring out my own pace, my own style, my own preferences. I'm working with what I have, yet I'm pushing myself to be better, faster, more efficient. I'm not mouth-breathingly obsessed with this career and this lifestyle, but I love it and I love that I get to live it every day. I want to be really fucking good at what I do. I have ideas in the works, and I don't need to be the kind of cook that a lot of cooks aspire to be.

And I'm really okay with that.