The Chef and the Compliment

Hell's Kitchen

The chef that fired me never liked me. That isn’t some kind of lame excuse, or anything. “Why did you get a D in math, Johnny?” “Mrs. Appleslog never liked me!”

Chef Dean never liked me. I don’t know if it was personal or not. It wasn’t arbitrary, though. It wasn’t just a personality conflict. He was precision oriented, thought that little mistakes were just as bad as big mistakes, and that cleanliness was slightly above Godliness.

I do not share these traits. I can cook up a storm, but I can’t achieve perfection. I work better when I can be fast and loose and make modifications. Plenty of restaurants work that way, and when I worked in those people loved me and thought I was fantastic. Not at this place. This place was very expensive, and that means everyone gets a stick up their ass. Chef Dean’s stick had its own restaurant.

So he never liked me. He never complimented me.

Except for once.

He wasn’t the chef of the restaurant itself. He was the Corporate Chef of the entire restaurant group. He had been chef of this steakhouse until he got a brain injury and couldn’t work the line anymore. Everyone said he ran the place with an iron fist. They said that he had mellowed since then, and that is terrifying.

Everyone was scared of him. My boss, Chef Jerry, lived in absolute quaking fear of Chef Dean. When he found out Chef Dean was coming around he dropped everything and got to work making the place just how Chef Dean liked it. Chef Dean liked things a certain way, and some of these ways were widely acknowledged as stupid.

He wanted us to use just salt and pepper on the asparagus instead of our seasoning blend, even though the seasoning blend was much tastier. So when he was around for an inspection we used salt, and the minute he disappeared through the huge double doors we went back to using seasoning.

I worked as the prep cook much of the time. The prep position at that job was more difficult and demanding than lead saute and grill positions I’ve had at other, lesser restaurants. It involved baking cheesecake and cooking lobster tails and making hundreds of crab cakes from scratch in 20 minutes. There was often 12 hours of work to get done in an 8 hour shift if nothing went wrong. Things went wrong.

One of the big ones was Chef Dean. The restaurant was closed at night, so during the day only the prep cook, Chef Jerry, and the daytime dishwasher/cleaner were in the kitchen. When Chef Dean showed up to these shifts there was no one to deflect him. He watched me like a hawk.

He criticized how I moved around the kitchen. He criticized how I cut the bread. He once flipped out so badly when he found that I had drained the veal stock in a certain way–the same way I had every week for a year and a half–that Chef Jerry intercepted me coming back from the bathroom and told me to just go home to avoid the firestorm.

Mostly, he criticized my cleanliness. I won’t fault him for picking the right target. I worked messier than the other cooks, who were all immaculately clean. I didn’t know how to work cleaner than that. I also got more stuff on my apron and my coats. At the end of the day you could tell exactly how hard I worked. Chef Dean did Not Approve. There’s an old adage that to see how good a chef is, look at his shoes. In fine dining this is a biblical passage. I should never have been in fine dining. I was a walking violation of the Law of Sanctity, and Chef Dean was its high priest.

The days Chef Dean showed up during my prep shifts were truly terrible. I work worse when I’m stressed, and he stressed everyone out. They were terrible.

Except once.

I’m not sure what was different that one day. Maybe my workload was lighter than usual. Maybe I got enough sleep that night. Or maybe I was just hitting my stride on my work at that place. I whizzed through the whole day, getting everything done right and getting it done fast. Even Chef Dean didn’t slow me down, even though he followed me around and kept stopping me to ask questions and make long-winded points, as usual. But I handled it. I handled it with style and we even had a few really good conversations.

As I was leaving that afternoon I said goodbye to Chef Jerry and the other cooks who had shown up for the dinner shift. Then I turned to Chef Dean. “Good evening, chef! Always a pleasure!”

I meant it, too. In that moment. Because I did always learn from him when he was there. It was neat to hear his stories and tap into his vast experience. It was always a pleasure, even if it was always more of a pain. Life is complicated.

“Jesse,” he called to me as I walked out the door. “You’re doing a better job of keeping this place clean. And yourself.”

I beamed.

I don’t know if it was true. I don’t think it was, really. Maybe I worked a little cleaner that day, but I was never a slob. Not really. I just didn’t clean as I went very well. I had to do it in shifts.

No, Chef Dean gave me the only compliment he ever gave me for one simple reason: I complimented him. He meant it. I’m sure he did. But he felt it because of the bond we shared in that moment.

In the fictional version of this story that was a turning point for me and Chef Dean. After that we became friends, and he took me under his wing as his protegé. I took over the restaurant and to this day we laugh about that story over drinks.

That didn’t happen. The next time he saw me it was business as usual for both of us. A year after this he fired me. He was nice about it. He told me I was a super nice guy but I just didn’t fit here. I guess that’s a compliment, too.

But that one doesn’t count.


Rain Through the Window


It is rainy and gray outside.

My friend wrote me an email and told me that he still feels some of the magic from rainy days that he felt in his childhood.

seeing the exact color of the grey outside through the window and having that color seep in through the house, and hearing the patter of the raindrops on the roof and the skylights

I envy that. He is capable of doing that with many things. Just seeing them as they are. He can experience what happens in front of him and nothing more. Mindfulness, you might call it.

I’m not very good at mindfulness. Or, I don’t know. Sometimes I am. I can lose myself in books and movies. I can lose myself in a bite of delicious food. I am capable of pure joy, although I don’t experience it as often as I used to. How can I? The older I get, the more I understand consequences.

In many ways consequences are the enemy of joy. Small children experience pure joy in part because what happens to them means nothing more than it means. They are all texture and no context. They have no caveats.

I’ve walked through the rain too many times. Waited at a bus stop without a shelter while my jeans soaked through and I knew I was going to have to work for hours with soaked jeans that would never really dry until I got home. Just looking at the rain gives me some of that, even though the color is beautiful.

It’s beautiful in this room right now, as the soft light through the window and the soft light of my monitor mingle into a white-grayness, washing over my fingers as I type. But there’s more than just that when I look out the window. There’s also wet jeans.

My friend is not incapable of understanding consequences. Far from it. I think he’s a more consequence-oriented thinker than most people about a great many things. But in some ways he’s like a child. In a good way.

Sometimes I try to practice mindfulness. But it’s hard when thoughts of consequences trigger your anxiety. And it’s hard when you recognize the importance of consequences. Children experience pure joy, but they make terrible accountants.

I don’t think there’s a perfect balance. How can there be? It’s an imperfect universe, and the human brain is the messiest thing we have ever discovered. I know I can’t stop thinking about consequences. And I can’t live without pure, unadulterated, consequence-free joy.

My mind tells me that if can’t achieve balance, then why bother. But that is trap. The quest for perfection is poison to mindfulness. You have to leave the warmth of the fire eventually and trek out into the storm. That’s where the future lies. But you can’t live in the storm.

So for now, I will just sit by the fire, look out the window, and enjoy the rain.

Cold Shower

a frozen kind

“You never challenge yourself.”

I said it to my girlfriend, but it wasn’t directed at her. Not really. It was directed at everyone.

It was 12th grade, and one of the things the senior class did every year at that school was to spend several days at a camp ground. One of the things everyone dreaded about this trip was that we would only get to take cold showers. Like peasants! Like animals!

I was excited. About the trip and about the showers. I knew it would be terrible but I was ready. Ready to face it down. To have to face it down. Other people did not share my view on the subject. It was one of the first times I really grasped that most people try to avoid things that cause them pain and discomfort unless they have a really good reason to face them. I already knew that, of course. In the straightforward sense. In the “stop touching the hot stove” sense.

But I kind of liked pain. And discomfort. And public humiliation. I didn’t really know that about myself, yet. And I didn’t really know that this was an aspect of my psychological makeup that made me different that most people. It’s a difficult thing to articulate, partially because it is complicated and partially because we have a very poor vocabulary for discussing the small differences in our respective mental processing and outlook.

I used to assume that everyone spelled words out in their heads while other people talked. It turns out that’s pretty rare, too. We don’t realize that we have these differences from each other because we don’t talk about it. We aren’t trained to think about it.

Yesterday I read that cold showers have a number of heath benefits. I ran into it on Facebook and I couldn’t believe it. Could something that simple really be that good for you? It sounded like a scam. So I looked into it. And then I kept looking.

It looks legit. Taking cold showers appears to be really, really healthy. I didn’t believe it because it seemed too easy. A health practice that takes balls, but not really any effort? Oh, I am so down.

A lot of the articles talked about how difficult it was. How to psyche yourself up to doing it. How hard it would be at first.

It won’t be hard. Not for me. Uncomfortable, yes. Painful, even. The instant the water hits my skin, I expect that the part of me that cares about the physical condition of my body will pull away, like it sometimes does. Like it did in 12th grade, at camp. It will float above me like a ghost, and stare with detached amusement and excitement at my wet, quivering flesh. It will remember the last time I did this deliberately, which was a long time ago.

“You never challenge yourself.”

Is it a challenge, if it is within your nature to overcome it? If something doesn’t intimate you to paralysis, if the thought of it frightens you less than it frightens others, are you really stepping outside of your comfort zone?

I don’t know. I may or may not be about to find out.



Enough May or May Not Be Enough

I think I am losing my mind

Crazy Thought Induced By Working On Novel Of the Day:

Should each of my characters represent some kind of cognitive bias? And the whole structure of the story can be a metaphor for the brain and the flaws in human thought, and how they emerge to create a functional whole that is both capable of amazing things and unable to understand potentials and limitations of its own capability?

Because, you know, the 8 viewpoint characters and the 3 main plots and many sub-plots all squidged precariously together like a precariously built sandwich aren’t complicated enough.