The Top 5 Secret Loves Of A Chicago Chef.

Most articles about chef love affairs center around the cooking itself, the cuisine or ingredients & food groups. Not so here this time. There are certain aspects of a chef’s career that are certainly loved like the before mentioned, creating a menu or even opening a restaurant & overseeing its construction. For me there are a few things that have really hit home for me. They each provide a special satisfaction that makes all of the negatives of my profession vaporize like flaming brandy. Chefs each love more than 5 things as we are exposed to such a rich tapestry of life centered around our craft. Our loves rome watching a staff hit every gear on a busy night to inhaling the aroma of fresh herbs. A list can go in so many diections.

In no particular order & speaking only for myself:

I LOVE the look on a cook’s face when I can hire them (all restaurant positions). Many chefs hire their staffs directly. There is no HR. They are HR as am I. The joy, relief, excitement at that moment is so cool. The sparkle in the eye, the width of the smile and adrenaline rush is arguably the best part of the job and therefore makes my top five. When they leave I begin to let it sink in how cool it is for them to go home with a confident feeling and raised self esteem no matter their situation, good or not with a job in hand. Having new faces in my kitchens was always a welcome and fun thing. A cool thing can be the students that are relatively new out of a culinary school. But usually the coolest are immigrants. I think because they are still early in the stages of becoming Americans. Becoming an American is always cool. As most of us are citizens I would hope this is never lost on us. How important it is and how much the immigrants sacrifice let alone many times risk to be here motivated by hope like our ancestors.

I Love the staff holiday (Christmas Party) party. I would plan details for the whole staff and make the budget go far beyond what it should have for their bonuses. Management too easily overlooks how important staff moral is too often. In a time of year where depression is common I took making sure proper appreciation was shown to the staff. The very unabashed emotional responses evoked just by making an effort makes for priceless memories. This includes a chance to make a meal for them THEY will appreciate that THEY craft. Which in itself is a nice compliment. That’s the kind of compliment that has no way of being lost as time passes. My favorite part was purchasing and wrapping their gifts. In the months leading up to the party I would ask simple unassuming questions in casual conversations with every member of the staff. They would provide me with details that made shopping for each of them much easier and a lot more fun. The anticipation & then the look of surprise with the gift superseded the gift itself every time. I do need to mention that Halloween was/is also a revered thing.

I Love teaching. Instructing my staff (and now students) & sharing my knowledge is very satisfying. It also explains my transition into conducting my cooking program circuit (starting in 2004). Watching the skill levels and confidence grow with cooks and other staff members over time has cool side effects. It allowed me to tour competing on my freestyle jet ski and perform at the Air Show here for 2+ decades for one thing and no way ya can’t love that! But the bigger point is as they grow so do I. As a chef I also grew from their desire to hone their skills. While we eat at the same table I always am amazed by chefs that don’t share their recipes, knowledge & experience. You share the food but not how to make it? WTF? The teaching also encompasses how and why of everything connected in the professional kitchen. Teamwork, morals, work ethic, communication, sanitation & business guile in a competitive industry all fall into this particular love of instructing. Sharing details to a sous chef regarding choosing a purveyor of foods is as important as learning correct sauce making techniques. Teaching “Off line” kitchen duties can be easily as fulfilling as cooking methods.

Moving On. Watching a really good, skilled & well liked member of the staff leave for greener pastures is bittersweet. I always tried to encouraged it. As a professional chef the best compliment is to know you were able to help another culinary professional progress and move on in their career path. Working as a cook with many other skilled cooks who all went on to become fine chefs can be part of the rich procession of a chef’s career. As I myself moved on in this transient profession every time it was hard. Those experiences formed my affection and appreciation before I became the “top rail” in the fence. Also, leaving a few situations that were poisonous makes one even more appreciative and sensitive at the changing of the guard. The nice icing on the cake is when former staff members who have moved on come back to visit and say hi down the road. My immediate reaction was to pull up a seat and put some food in front of them:)

The last of this list is not the least: Trust. I always relish vanquishing bullies and sexual predators. In the food service industry like many others these two personality types are present too often. Since much of the food service industry is still a cash business, cash draws sharks. Cutting them out of the staff like a tumor was always a priority when a fin was spotted. This occasionally occurred among customers and business ties. The women on my staffs whether they thought I was a loon or OK always knew one thing for sure. I could be trusted implicitly at all times. I tend to be confused as to why I feel a bit isolated in this mind set. The unvarnished trust that is returned for what I consider to be “normal behavior” has few emotional equals. Maybe that explains why I am so fanatic with removing bullies and predators. The trust offered when women (and men) are vulnerable and in the moment needing help seems to me to be a higher calling. The strong should protect the weak, not victimize them. It’s a calling I have always been comfortable answering. That trust extends into injuries and occasionally even fire suppression. Kitchens/restaurants are hazardous and injuries occur regularly on some level. A good chef in my opinion should be able and versed in 1st aid. A calm reassuring response can make a huge difference in any situation. Knowing before you find yourself injured there is a smart way to deal with it can’t be measured. It is crucial to calming the injured person. The trust issue is now much more valuable to the injured person. Maybe this trust point is a form of big brother wanting to be a guardian or a village elder making sure the village is safe. Not too sure I am. Since “me melon throbs thinking about it” I’ll stop here and drop a few aspirins………….

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