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Saturday, August 25, 2012

First Opportunities


First Opportunities

There comes a time when you have to start your new course.  You can say that you’re venturing out on a new chapter in your life and that’s all good as far as talk goes but action is my choice of advancement.  Sometimes stepping forward into something as unknown as a completely different career can be a bit daunting and just plain scary, however, you’ll never know if it’s a calling or just words unless you give it a try.

Executive Chef Joe Miller always hard at work

I had the good fortune to attend an ACF (American Culinary Federation) meeting a little over a month ago when Chef Joe Miller of Meridian Hills Country Club was speaking.  Chef Miller is an outstanding chef in the Indianapolis region who also graduated from Ivy Tech. Community College roughly 8-10 years prior to me.  Our ACF president exclaimed that Chef Miller’s food is some of the best he’s ever tasted in his entire life.  High praise from someone who should know!

Chef Miller plating....

... one of ...
.... his creations.
Joe was in attendance on this night as a guest speaker to convey the nuances of the importance of “experience” in our industry.  He went on to impart the necessity of hard work and sacrifice needed to just get in the door.  Coming in early, leaving late, working for free and giving it all you’ve got are some of the key elements emphasized in his message.  He even went on to say that getting a culinary degree doesn’t separate you from the pack of culinary hopefuls as one would assume.  EXPERIENCE is the key and the only key to getting ahead.  Hours upon hours of cutting vegetables and grilling proteins are compulsory so it becomes second nature when you pick up a knife or sauté pan.

You see, having skill ingrained into every fiber and every inch of your body and mind is really what Chef Miller was talking about.  Nobody wants a chef or cook that serves raw meat or unsightly cut vegetables or worst yet, meals served in an unsanitary fashion.  Any weakness in the culinary world will be discovered and exploited with extreme prejudice and rightly so!

It is with this message that I embarked on a quest to serve in Chef Miller’s kitchen.  It took a bit of time and fortitude on my part but I was accepted into his realm to discover that positive reinforcement and true professionalism really can exist in a kitchen!  What a breath of fresh air is the best description I can come up with at this time.  They say an organization is a reflection of its leader and this leader is how I hope to pattern myself after if I should get the opportunity to have my own kitchen someday.

Gabriel awaiting an order

One of my first experiences was on the line while he was instructing a sauté cook of his exacting standards.  Joe had a very stern look on his face and stated “please, you MUST get this into your head if there is anything else you learn this night you must …….” He then went on to explain his message in a very calm and calculated style that was simply amazing to me.  Most folks in his position would have screamed and yelled an expletive-laced oratory of how the cook screwed up and how they would be fired if they didn’t get their act together.  

Brian, Jason and John helping one another out.

Not Chef Miller; not only did he behave in a genteel manner but he gave that cook a lesson in methodology and the history behind his instructions.  It was like watching the earnestness of General Patton wrapped up in the serene calm of Gandhi.  I’ve never seen anything like it before let-alone in a kitchen.

The Meridian Hills brigade is clearly evident with each station as there is a cold/Garde manger line accompanied with the lines of grill, sauté, sandwich and dessert.  Expo is usually manned by Joe himself or his Sous Chef Shane.  Shane is also immersed in the Joe Miller School of decorum as he always treated me with complete respect and presented himself with dignity.  Shane is a bit soft-spoken himself and seems to like working independently (I usually do too) but will jump at the chance to help someone out – this makes for a great sous chef.

Shane giving the line instructions

Shane preparing an order
Meridian’s cast of characters ranges from 20+ year veterans to guys who have only been there for a year or two.  The one thing in common for all of them was their willingness to accept the new guy (me) and show me, virtually, anything I queried.  This was done with class, efficiency and true hospitality meaning they really wanted to help out the new guy.  It’s not in the interest to have any weak links on any team especially a kitchen team where weakness can make for lost profits and sicken patrons.

I am truly impressed by this Meridian Hills kitchen and its leader and am forever thankful for being a part of it.  I have accepted another position that will occupy a great deal of my time preventing my stage from continuing as well as prepare me for the next leg of my culinary journey.

This is what a working "professional" kitchen looks like.

Thank you so much Chef Miller for the opportunity to work in your kitchen and reveal to me the “Right” way of doing things; I wish we had more time together but you never know?

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

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