Sometimes the most beautiful of lessons are contained in the most repetitive of tasks. I worked several years in my twenties as a line cook while I moved around and figured out what I wanted to do with my life. What I didn’t know is that that experience would teach me some of the most profound lessons about life. Although the work was smelly, and alarmingly eye opening as to what passes for good hygiene and food safety, it was one of the biggest growth periods in my life. You never know how ideas, concepts and behaviors will transfer from circumstance to circumstance while you are in it. Looking back, it seems that everything I needed to know about life, I learned as a line cook.
- Go with the Flow
The first time I understood what it meant to be in the moment was in a commercial kitchen. If you take your mind off of the task, things can literally crash and burn, but if you move with it something really magical happens. There is something elegant in the flow of a restaurant, it is a living-breathing storm, and it happens twice a day, every day (maybe three times, depending on the restaurant). The entanglement of people’s lives at a point of intersection, which while predictable, is still very dynamic. There is no room for resistance to the ebb and flow of traffic that accumulates during a lunch rush. If you don’t immerse yourself in the movement, it becomes pure anxiety, but if you jump in and get taken up by it, there are moments of timelessness.
In life, things may not seem to be as under intense pressure as in a kitchen, but in a way, it makes it much more difficult. There are many more things in daily life that are vying for our attention. The tunnel vision that keeps you focused on that next order is busted wide open and the sense of urgency is gone. It becomes easier to move listlessly through existence, maybe even losing sight of where the current is trying to guide us.
- Always be Prepared
You can’t handle the chaos if you aren’t prepared. It is the difference between having a horrible, horrible day or riding a wave. Prep work in cooking is as important in life. Too often we are stumbling through life unready. We make unconscious decisions or allow others to make them for us. One of the best ways to be able to go with the flow is to be prepared. One of my favorite sayings is, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Almost all great things in life arise from the forethought, learning, and planning that came before it. In some ways each moment is in preparation of the next one, but only if you are aware of it.
- Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
While it is important to be prepared, you also need to be able to let go. There is a certain amount of surrender that needs to happen in order to deal with the chaos day in and day out. Working in a busy restaurant you know that you will be uncomfortably busy twice a day, and while you can do your due diligence, you have to give in to the fact that it is totally out of your control. You are part of something much larger than yourself. You never know who is going to show up at your table and what they will need from you that day. You have to learn to embrace the now, and whatever it contains.
- Be Empathetic.
Many of you might not appreciate the animosity that exists between the front house staff AKA the servers and the back house staff AKA the dishwashers and cooks. It is easy in a fast-paced environment to take out your frustrations on everyone around you. Having always worn the hat of both in every restaurant, it was easy for me to see where the miscommunication and system inefficiencies stemmed from. In a perfect world, every employee would have to take a shift in another man’s shoes.
As a customer, you have the opportunity to practice your empathy. You have a fairly self-contained environment that allows you to understand why things are happening the way they do. This isn’t to excuse downright bad service, but it can be a great exercise in empathy. Scan your environment, can you see why people are acting the way they do? In most cases, people are doing the best they can with the information and resources they have at that time. See how giving a little smile or understanding can go a long way.
- Kind People are Kind
You can tell a lot about someone’s character by the way they treat the wait staff. This is a hard one. You don’t want to be too judgmental, but this seems to be a general rule. Having worked with the public for so long, I know we are all prone to ‘bad days’, but people who treat service staff poorly are people to be wary of. As I said, kind people are kind.
- Do Unto Others…
Sometimes things go bad, and you mess up or someone messes up around you. Sometimes customers and life send things back. How you deal with a do-over says a lot about your character. We have all had that experience of sending cold food back to the kitchen, only to have it come back two minutes later knowing the cook threw it in the microwave. This option of the quick fix is overused and it occurs in more than just the food service industry. This is where you see the difference between the cooks and the chefs. Integrity is something that transfers from place to place and being able to handle setbacks without losing it or opting for the quick fix is a test of your character.
There is a big spectrum of opportunity between the microwave and a complete do-over. Just as in life. Life is not a static event where there is only one recipe for success. In fact, it requires you to think on your feet or even better, to be led by your heart. The most important thing regardless of the fix you choose is that your integrity remains intact. As don Miguel Ruiz would say, “Always do your best”. Remember that your best is not a static state either; it is largely determined by the circumstance. So regardless of the situation, align your values with your actions. Ask yourself would you want the microwave quick fix? Do unto others applies to all situations.
People go to restaurants every day, they are a unique microcosm of our larger culture. Within them lie interesting group energy dynamics, high-stress situations, and competing demands, but there are beautiful life lessons in every job, and circumstance. In each moment, there is an opportunity for growth, if you are willing to look for it.