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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Departing with Strong Lessons in Hand!


Learning to be a professional cook (7th and last in a series)

My conversational misstep has cooled a bit and I’m now focusing on learning the menu for my new job.  Alan is on site every day helping me to get my mind wrapped around the kitchen’s flow.  I have immediately spotted a few things that I should work on and that is a step-by-step process for learning each dish as well as general organization to better manage day-to-day activities.

For instance, the “to go” bowls are stored at one end of the kitchen and the lids at the other end.  Not rocket science but general things that will help immensely.  I also notice that the ordering process in cumbersome having to dart around the kitchen like a mouse being chased by a cat.  I have all these things I want to do running through my head all-the-while trying to learn the menu.

First-things-first; understanding the food and its place on the plate - I’m a bit perplexed why I’m training at my own facility as I’m so very green and not setting a great example in front of my crew fumbling with efficiency, substitutions, remembering items for each omelet, salad, sandwich, etc.

My plan was to train in another store so I could then step in at my place ready and able to set a good example for my team – this, of course, didn't happen.

I’m also a bit stupefied as to why I’m suddenly working expo (after only a week on the job) making mistake after mistake.  This is a busy restaurant (very, very busy 600 to 700 covers per day) and my BOH director has decided to baptize me by fire.  I was told to “just work through it” – really, just work through it?

A loaded ticket bar at Patachou in downtown Indianapolis
At the end of one particular shift we were alone and I told him that I felt it was “criminal” the way I was being taught.  His voice immediately raised a few octaves shouting that there was no formal program in place to train me; he exclaimed “do you see any pictures on the walls?  Were you given a handbook? No, because they don’t exist” and my heart sunk to the pit of my stomach.

The next day Alan came in and apologized for exposing a fundamental lack of organizational support and committed to help me learn my craft because at this point I’m so confused and upset that I feel like I’m running a marathon backwards while working out algorithms in my head.  I’m physically and mentally drained at the end of each shift and felt I haven’t learned a thing and sense as though I’m “un-learning” or learning in reverse.  Alan fell far short of his goal and actually set me up for failure, very puzzling.

Being of strong mind and will; I persevere on my own taking the reins into my hands and reflect on all the training I had done as a process engineer back up in Detroit as well as in prior jobs.  Some of the best culinary training I’ve ever had was at Cypress restaurant in Charleston, SC.  They were patient and pragmatic teaching me something new as I grasped the old.  I remember one of my chefs saying to learn 3 or 4 items one night and we’ll see how things go tomorrow.  I learned at my own pace and was comfortable doing it this way.

My work station at Cypress Restaurant in Charleston, SC
So I will do this on my own and set forth to train myself just like I did in Charleston.  Slowly but surely I became proficient with the menu and also running the window expediting dishes for the customer.  The mistakes began to disappear and words of “thanks” and “improvement” and, more importantly, “good job” began to fall out of my co-workers mouths.  I had clearly turned the page and I now realize that getting over perceptions are almost always impossible but fixing a problem on your own is a bit priceless.

My take-away’s from my time at CafĂ© Patachou are that you need to tread lightly when you arrive but understand a sense of urgency and attack with inner strength.  In time ….. I learned to re-design a kitchen for better flow and efficiency, discipline is never easy and always necessary, sometimes you ARE an island, organize-organize-organize and mistakes can be capitalized into strengths.  Oh yeah, I also learned what NOT to do.

The tickets are evaporating as the end of shift nears at Patachou
Although I was absolutely miserable at this job; it has taught me more valuable lessons than any other and they will all come in very handy when I begin my new position as Sous Chef at Yellowstone National Park in a few weeks.  I’m very lucky to be doing something I love and even luckier to now be doing it in the landscape of one of Mother Nature’s greatest creations.  See you soon.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Learning to be a professional cook (6th in a series)


Learning to be a professional cook (6th in a series)

Conversations -
Watch what you say because no matter how well-intentioned you are or trying to impress in an interview; the words that fall out of your mouth can and will come back to haunt you.

My first foray into culinary management came at a time in my life when I was flush with all types of experience managing folks in groups or singularly.  I was in my last interview to be a Kitchen Manager/Sous Chef for Cafe Patachou here in Indy and I never felt comfortable during the whole process. 

Fresh, healthy and delicious!
There were two directors present that represented both the front and back of the house operations.  I was having trouble with the director of Front of House (FOH) operations; let’s call her Tina.  Tina would ask me a question and then, seemingly, stare at me with steely blue eyes that created a most unpleasant feeling.  Upon asking the question she then would, invariably, interrupt to make a point about something in her past managing career that didn't make a lot of sense to me.  After a while Tina began repeating her points and I took this to mean they were important.  In reality, after some points were repeated 3 and 4 times, I understood that she might be the one who was nervous or maybe she just liked the sound of her voice?

There came a point in the interview where I hearkened back to my experiences in the automotive field and how I felt this background would help me immensely for this new position.  This is when the conversation kind of fell off the table.  I noticed the tone in Tina’s voice turning a bit adversarial and somewhat curt.  Now I’m really uncomfortable and feeling I screwed up including information about engineering analogies and will not get the job.  I was, however, asked how my past can help me in-the-now and I felt compelled to include this knowledge as it best describes my abilities to manage folks in an industrial atmosphere such as a kitchen.

Regardless of my fears Tina hired me and welcomed me to the Patachou family and I was thrilled for my first management position in a kitchen.  My knees felt a bit wobbly as I walk out to my vehicle to drive home and wondered “what just happened?”  I had that voice inside my head saying to me “beware, this interview was strange and befuddling; somewhere down the line a bump in the road may be waiting for you”.

My first day on the job was the usual getting to know the guys working for me and I was telling them a story about a guy in culinary school who in his words exclaimed “I don’t clean!” – Just then, I saw Tina walk by out of the corner of my eye.  I thought nothing of it and continued on with the story letting my crew know that I’m not like that and fully intend to scrub floors on my hands and knees if necessary and would fully expect them to do so if needed – just then, I snatched a mop and started cleaning the floors to set an example.

My Back of the House (BOH) director; let’s call him Alan came in a few days later and pulled me aside lamenting that he heard from Tina that I was yelling to my crew that “I don’t clean!” and he was disappointed in me. I told him what really happened and it was swept under the rug for the time being.

It's always busy at Cafe Patachou!
Another few days went by and my first real bad day reared its head as my bread order did not come in and one of my crew didn't show up and I was shaking my head as Tina decided to drop by at that very moment and notice my discontent.  I was asked by the restaurant manager to meet Tina out on the patio for a discussion and complied after things settled down a bit.

She began by telling me that these things happen and it doesn't get her down because she’s more of a people person and she sees mostly gray areas rather than black and white.  She concentrates on happy thoughts and not the negative aspects of the job.  In other words, I need to do what she does and just be positive when things go poorly. 

When she mentioned “Black and White” is when a shiver ran down my back because I had used that exact same analogy when describing how things are in the engineering world during my interview.  If something is wrong then it needs to be fixed – there’s no gray area, it’s either right or wrong. 

Tina was telling me that she and I were exact opposites (in her own way) and that her way was the right way.  Something that I said in an interview had rubbed her wrong and my “cleaning” story had only exacerbated it.  I had become “persona non grata” in her eyes and it all came down to a few wrong turns in a conversation.  I gotta figure out a way to fix this and choose my words more carefully next time.  I hope there will be a next time?

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)