Saturday, August 13, 2011

Most of What I Learned in Life, I Learned in the Kitchen

I am the proud owner of a twenty-year Associates Degree in Business. My diploma sits on my desk at the office, as a reminder to myself and others that yes, I really DO know what I'm talking about, at least some of the time. But the truth is, most of what I know in life that has any value didn't come from a textbook. The most valuable lessons I've learned in life were picked up in restaurant kitchens.

I always like to say that restaurant life is about the same as being in the Marines, except without the nice uniform or the sword. It's tough, dirty, hot and sweaty work with difficult people where you are expected to do the impossible day in and day out. The Marines have to navigate land mines and enemy fire and full frontal assault. We dealt with erupting grease traps, bus loads of Swedish Skiers ten minutes before closing, and multiple screaming babies. Ok, so maybe it isn't quite the same experience, but at least the Marines don't have to smile while they engage in hand-to-hand combat. No matter what outrageous thing our customers demand, we waitresses are always supposed to smile and be gracious.

Restaurant life quickly separates the strong from the weak. If you can't multi-task, think on your feet, deal with difficult personalities and carry twice your own body weight on a try over your head, you probably won't last that long. People always ask me how I can handle so many projects at once and this is why, when you work in food service multi-tasking is the very first skill you learn.

Back-of-the house in just about any restaurant is usually a volatile environment. When you put people with strong personalities together, most of whom have are working back-to-back twelve hour shifts, add a little heat-and-humidity and a cranky manager and possibly multiple languages, you're bound to get some fireworks. Clashes between back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house are legendary. I have seen some waitress/line cook screaming matches that would make your hair stand on end. On TV line cooks are usually portrayed as shiftless slackers, refugees from more civilized society. But the reality is, most line cooks take pride in their work and only got to BE on the line in the first place because they were good. Any line cook worth his salt takes pride in his food, and nothing will set him off as fast as a waitress questioning how he does his eggs or whether or not his steaks are the right temperature.

In most of the restaurants I've worked in back-of-the-house was dominated by men, front-of-the-house more so by women and college kids.  Over the years I also watched the kitchens come to be dominated by immigrants, which added another layer of difference between the people in the front and the people working in back. A lot of the bosses I've worked for were immigrants, too. Like I said, restaurants are not for the faint hearted, and nobody has the work ethic or the drive to succeed that a restaurant needs like an immigrant, who came here to make something better for himself and his family.

I've seen some heart-breaking things in restaurants, too, and working with so many people who came from somewhere else is why I ultimately became an activist. I wasn't actually trying to be an activist, I was just trying to help the people I worked with, people who some way or other always seemed to get the short end of the stick. In one of the restaurants where I worked a 17 year old got seriously burned when a pot of boiling soup fell on him. He should have been sent to the hospital, but instead the boss told him to clean up the mess and go back to work washing dishes. I've worked with two men who, in separate incidents, were hit by cars while riding their bikes to work. In both cases, the people who hit them drove away and left them. Neither went to the hospital, they just pulled themselves together, limped the rest of the way to work, pushing their broken bikes, and did their best to work all day through the aches and pains. Some of the finest people I've ever had the pleasure to know were my humble, hardworking immigrant co-workers, many of whom taught me more about life and what is really important than they will ever know.

It has been a couple of year's since I've waitressed. I'm getting to old and, frankly, too fat. I can't move as fast as I used to and I can't tolerate being on my feet for extended periods anymore. I also think I've reached my limit for smiling at people when really I'd like to break the plate over their heads. But I am still grateful for all that I learned about life and all the fine people I had the pleasure to know working in food service. 

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