Breaking Out of Complacency
Continuing to push yourself in this industry can be frustrating. When exposing yourself to new stations, ideas, or employers it can often be difficult and disheartening when the challenge of just becoming adequate feels overwhelming. I know what it feels like to see yourself as just in the way or holding your team back; it just takes time and dedication to get yourself in a position to overcome the situations you face. That said, once you grasp the ways of the world it can be boring to do the same thing forever on end. At that point you need to find ways to push yourself- creatively, culinarily, mentally and often times physically. Complacency and boredom are the deaths of great cooks and chefs the world over. With that in mind let me guide you to the resources that often surround us that we may be too blinded to take note of.
Ahhh... Cookbooks. The seemingly eternal reading material of chefs. Personally i tend to break these up into two categories: The Technical Works- focused on something to extreme detail, eg. The Bread Bible, NOMA Guide to Fermentation, Sauces, and the like. The other would be your standard fare- Shaya, The Cuban Table, Heritage. Sadly cookbooks can be expensive. Wylie Dufresne often mentioned spending every spare dollar he had on cook books in his interviews- however there are options you have that he didn’t. Public Libraries, College Libraries, Ebooks- all of these can be to your advantage. Many main branch libraries for major cities no longer just carry an expanse of both types of cook books but also carry kitchen equipment. Hand blenders, stand mixers, cookie sheets. Simultaneously bringing not just the knowledge that can improve your career but also the tools you need to practice. Being a cook can often be low paying so use the free resources to your advantage. When you can spare a little change ebooks- kindle, iBooks, google books, etc.- can be a cheaper option than even a used paperback with the added inclusion of a “search” or “find” function; often indispensable with overly wordy editions or technical books. That said there are other food focused books we should look at too.
Food Writing. Eloquent thoughts that often expound on our industry that can touch the soul of every industry professional. Anthony Bourdain can often be thanked for starting this genre with the release of Kitchen Confidential but we would be ignorant to not keep Rhulman in mind as well. Soul of a Chef, The Making of a Chef, Buttermilk Graffiti- all of these books help make the people both behind the food and on the eating end real. They connect our struggles and our desires in a way that exemplifies our brotherhood in ways that can often be hard to see from the inside. All of them should be reveled in how they can put us right with the world and make our view that much broader.
Magazines and Periodicals
Able to be updated more frequently than books, magazines and food periodicals like Food and Wine, Cooks Illustrated, Wine Spectator, are able to keep us informed of the current goings on in the industry that contain a little more substance. More research, more practice. You know when you pick up a Southern Cast Iron and check out a long form piece that the information is well researched and backed up with more than just personal narrative and a few witness statements. Recipes have been tested at least a few times if not more, and can be generally found to be reliable. Again, $6-7 a pop can be expensive- once again your local libraries may not just have the most recent copy available for free- but may even have all the previous issues back logged online for easy viewing.
Trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong making your Buerre Blanc or Fluid Gels? Curious about what traditional Malaysian street food looks like or what’s going on with the latest in food science? YouTube, Wikipedia and the thousands of culinary blogs both amateur and professional are at the tips of your fingers if you know where to go. Most of which is always free. Even this article here is just the same- trying to nod you in the right direction. Helping you find your own resources. That’s what we exist for. Reddit, other forums, you name it, need help with it, never knew you needed it, and it exists there. In today’s generation of informationally superior cooks we can take pride in knowing how to process the information available to us.
Our Chefs and Mentors
All the best chefs can be found taking pride in being great cooks- TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THAT! Most of us take pride in teaching the next generation. We want to teach and take what we learned and pass it on in order to make the entire team stronger. It’s those skills that you’ll take to your next job or your own place when the time is right. Ask the hard questions, why do we boil certain sauces twice, why is an extruded pasta dough dryer than hand rolled, what makes the perfect brownie so fudgy? When we know it can be hard to remember that someone else may not- remind us. Ask us. Form that relationship and you can reach out to us years later- I still have my mentor on speed dial and never hesitate to still ask him the hard questions- or remind him when he burnt nuts on national television.
If more trial by fire is your style and you need to see things done to keep yourself pushing never be afraid to reach out and set up stages for your days off. You don’t have to be looking for a new job but working for free gives you innumerable chances to make new connections and friends while learning in the process. Interested in how a certain place makes their fish so damn crispy? Or how that tuille is so perfect? Hell, want to see what’s so great about a certain type or food or style of restaurant? Go work. Ask. Be humble. Get shown. Expand your toolbox and you can surprise yourself and your bosses when you pull out a new technique to set off a dish just right. You never know when that chef whose phone number you snagged or line cook you made friends with might run into you at the bar or call you seeing if you want to help with a gig when you start looking for a second job or look to switch places all together. I’ve had friends set up stages with ultra high end spots just to keep themselves in a fine dining mentality while getting paid at the local sports bar. Even as a Chef I try and get a few stages in a year just to keep up with what’s going on- it’s given me contacts I never could have gotten any other way. You just have to put in the effort to get there.
Summed up if you want to continue growing, continue reaching for your highest potentials and up the ladder from dish to cook. Or cook to lead or sous chef or exec sous, cdc, Chef/owner, whatever- you CAN NOT become complacent. You CAN NOT be stagnant. You have to find a way to be pushed and ideally you need to push yourself. Be humble. And keep your mind open. There’s no telling where inspiration can hit or opportunity may come from. Until next time.
Clifford Smith is a Chef formerly of New Orleans but now working and residing in Tennessee. When not working he can often be found reading, working towards improving culinary education for cooks and enjoying time with his family. You can follow his story more closely on Instagram by checking out @chefcliffsmith