Saturday, January 23, 2010

Finely Aged

I got a call from my mom this morning voicing some concern over my mention of her 60th birthday in my previous post. She was worried I was stating it in more of a "Wow, my mom is old!" manner than what I really meant: I think it's simply amazing and awesome that she's lived 60 years of life and she's still so young at heart. My mom is one of the wisest, strongest and most humble people I know, and I'm fortunate that I have a concrete role model to show me what it means to struggle through seriously unforeseen hell and come out on the other side more alive and vibrant than you were before. I doubt anyone would guess she was 60 upon meeting her.

Mom in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Christine in the Blue Ridge Mountains in fall

I guess commenting on her age came so easily to me because I think about my own age quite a bit in context to my work. Last year I turned 29, and every day I'm surrounded by people who are many years younger than me, yet have been in the industry for many more years than I have. I've gotten used to most of my bosses being younger than I am, but it doesn't bother me because what matters in the end is experience. We joke about my age sometimes, and I'm amused to find myself explaining to my coworkers in their early 20's what Thundercats and the Care Bear Stare meant to me. It's quite a thing in our industry that some of the best chefs out there are 25-year-olds who have been cooking for 8 or 10 years.

Not that I was always comfortable with my age. When I first considered cooking professionally I was highly conscious about the fact that I was getting a late start. I looked around at the fresh-faced, straight-out-of-high-school kids in my culinary school class and I won't deny I felt a tinge of the weight of age. The thought crossed my mind, 'How am I going to keep up?' The harder I worked, however, and the deeper I got into the industry, the more I realized a couple of things: First, how glad I was to have had some years of living before I made a career choice. I've mentioned this before, but I'm certain I wouldn't be as put-together about my work life if I had started this insane job 10 years ago. And secondly: I feel young. I think this has something to do with the fact that my surgery was a rebirth for me. It was like I was given a chance to hit the "Restart" button.

I credit my mom with giving me context. Seven years ago my dad died in an accident and left my mom with a small business on the brink of bankruptcy thanks to an industrial depression. She literally became president overnight. She was thrust into the limelight and suddenly had the weight of an entire company and 20 years worth of my dad's work experience dropped on her shoulders. It was a ludicrously tough hill to climb that I will never fully comprehend, and to be honest there's a part of me that doesn't want to know. In seven years my mom completely turned the company around and then some; last year she was on the cover of a widely-circulated business journal as a success story in her industry, and was listed in the top 50 fastest growing women-led companies in North America. She looks younger and more vibrant now that she did 10 years ago.

The most stunning and possibly unusual part of it all is I've never once heard my mom complain. Not once. She's never been a complainer by nature, but if there were any excuse to complain, I think this would be a pretty good one. Not only that; she thinks it's weird that there's so much fuss over her success. Before my dad died she rarely met clients, never went on business trips, and took care of accounting and the behind-the-scenes paperwork. Three days ago she left the house at 5:30AM to drive four hours to a business meeting that ended at 2PM, after which she drove another two hours to the Charlotte airport to take a 6PM flight with a layover to New Orleans for an industry conference, flying back to Charlotte 36 hours later and driving another two hours home. This kind of travel is not out of the ordinary for her. When I talked to her this morning she was chipper as usual and praised the meetings and flights and drives for being smooth and on time.

Context, y'all. Context. If I have even half the strength that she does, I'm certain I can accomplish what I want to in my career and in my life.

She'll probably call me again after she reads this to tell me that she doesn't see what the big deal is. My mom is the youngest 60-year-old I know, and I wouldn't be where I am without her.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A New Year

Oh, my poor neglected blog. Thanks to a nudge from my coworkers, here I am at last. For whatever reason in the last few months I've suffered from a self-imposed, increased pressure to write quality material that people can relate to. Mix that with general blog laziness, being sick four times in five weeks, and a lovely Christmas trip to North Carolina where I did nothing but watch movies and eat pound cake and Chick Fil A, and ye here blog goes without company for too long.

Unfortunately, I really miss writing, so let that be my first resolution of 2010: Think less, write more.

So what have I learned in this past year? I'm well into my second year of cooking professionally, and things are only looking up. I've been going into work on my own time on one of my days off to trail the day kitchen manager, and it's been so eye-opening to see things from beginning to end. PM cooks are pretty spoiled at my restaurant, as a majority of the big prep gets taken care of for us during the day--butchering, portioning, braises, cures, terrines, sausages and other charcuterie, burger prep, breads, pastas, some sauces... nearly all of it is done in-house, and most of it is taken care of by the swift hands of the day crew, sous chefs and exec chef. There's definitely a good amount of prep for the evening cooks to take care of, but I think most of us would agree that we have it pretty cush.

It makes for a smooth system, but how do you learn and grow in this environment? One of the biggest lessons I learned the hard way this year was to never get comfortable. Comfortable leads to plateauing, which leads to complacency and oftentimes a shitty attitude. And, trust me, NO ONE wants to work with a cook with a shitty attitude. My point is, I'm learning to make a conscious effort to stretch my limits and my comfort zone.

Confession: Charcuterie intimidates the shit out of me. I don't even know why. Maybe it's the history of it, or how finicky it seems, or the fact that I've just been spoiled by working at two places that did almost all of their sausages, cures and terrines in house, and the people doing the charcuterie were crazy good. But I only see one solution: Learn to make it. Conquer the fear. Push my limits, scare myself a little, make some mistakes and move on. That's the only way we can get better, right?

Things aren't always what we hope for, but instead of complaining and doing nothing, I'm learning to make the best of it. I remember one of my classmates in culinary school who had this extraordinary ability to complain about everything. The kid clearly had raw talent, but he took complaining to some next level shit. Everything was always too much or not enough. Too easy, too hard, too much work, not enough to do; no matter what the situation, this guy managed to see the negative in everything. Worst of all, it was permeating--the attitude just ate at your nerves until you could cut the tension with a knife. This leads me to possibly the biggest lesson I learned this year: We can complain all we want to, but in the end we're responsible for ourselves. Getting bored on my station? Try different tasks, ask for more, trail another station. Giant prep list? Work faster and request help. Does shit suck? Then change it. It seems so unfairly simple to say, but there it is.

I'm no saint. I don't claim to be perfect, by any means, and I have my bad days. I've definitely fit the complainer description well in the past. But I'm mostly in what I'd call a happy place right now. Things are fluid and fun, my coworkers are pretty awesome, and though I get stuck in station tunnel-vision from time to time, the extra days and new projects help keep me flexible and challenged.

Other cool things that happened in 2009:
- My mom turned 60 (happy birthday Mom!)
- The third anniversary of my surgery, and I'm fit as a fiddle (despite the winter colds!)
- Bought a condo!
- Went to San Francisco and LA by myself, had an amazing time and ate some of the best food of my life
- Made some of the best food I've done yet
- Met some amazing cooking (and non-cooking) related people in Portland and elsewhere
- Obtained a 17-year-old cat named Whimpy, who was a friend's childhood house cat. Spry old guy, and a biggun too, but what a ridiculously sweet thing. I was already basically a cat lady before I got the cat, and now it's official.

This year, I'm hoping to narrow my career focus a bit. I'll let you know how that goes. I'm also hoping to travel: San Francisco is calling my name again, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Taiwan and/or Europe. And I'll write more, yes!

Things are good, friends, things are good.