Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Things no one told me about being a chef, part one

There are a bunch of things that I've discovered about being a chef that no one told me about being a chef before I actually became a chef. Here's one of them:

You are basically making it up as you go.

When I first started conceptualizing the menu for the wine bar, a month or so before we opened, I struggled a lot with not second-guessing myself (something of which I'm still guilty). At the time, I remember telling a friend who owns a 3-year-old restaurant that I felt like I was just making it up as I went, and his response was, "I still feel like that, every single day." I didn't really believe him at the time, watching his cool demeanor as he prepped, cooked and managed his restaurant seemingly seamlessly.

Fish en papillote. A moderately successful dish

I'm now almost two years into my first official chef job, and not a day goes by where a small part of me doesn't feel like I'm just making it all up as I go, or that I don't feel like I'm making decisions based on gut instinct or intuition. Some of this revolves around menu writing: There's really no telling how something's going to sell at any given moment, and I don't really have a test audience. As a new chef, I'm trying a lot of recipes for the first time, and relying on my skill and intuition to guide me in the right direction. I'm constantly balancing What I Feel Like Cooking with What I Think Will Sell with What Goes Well With X Wine with What's In Season Right Now with What Can I Purchase In Small Amounts Without Breaking My Food Cost with What's Creative And Not Super Derivative with What's Classic And Not Trying Too Hard with... with... with...

(Not to mention What Will Pick Up Beautifully On An Induction Burner And/Or Quarter-Sized Sheet Tray With As Few Steps As Possible... but that's a story for another time)

Cured salmon and smoked oyster board. I really liked this one

On top of that, there are an endless number of managerial decisions that I make on any given day, the answers to which often boil down to: What's the smartest decision here? Sometimes the answer is black and white, but often there's a undefined gray area and you just do the best you can with the information you're given. Some may call this "experience" or "creativity," and I guess if you're smart you can deduce that my past experience has certainly informed the decisions that I make now. But honestly a lot of it is just what feels right, and honestly that seems really crazy to me.

This isn't to say that I make decisions lightly or fly by the seat of my pants; quite the opposite. I'm simply surprised at how much I do on a daily basis that is a result of me deciding on something because it feels like the right thing to do or it seems cool or fun. Maybe this stems from the fact that I've never been much of a rule-breaker, and always did well with boundaries, when a lot of chefs seem to come from an opposite perspective. I'm having to learn to trust myself, and I am lucky enough to have some great sounding boards as co-workers, but ultimately I am the one Making Shit Happen and it's a lot harder than they tell you. I've gotten used to it over time but it's still pretty weird.

I will say, however, that once I realized I was feeling this way, I started asking a lot of well-seasoned, well-respected chefs, "Do you ever feel like you're just making it up as you go?" I have yet to have someone tell me "No," and the most frequent answer is "All the time!" At the very least it's nice to know I'm not alone.