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"Are you stupid?" my chef asked.
I just stared back, dumbstruck. I felt like Wile E. Coyote trapped under a piano, utterly crushed.
"Tell me right now, are you fucking stupid?"
I cannot remember what I said next — that's not really the important part. This first incident of humiliation in the kitchen now only serves as a funny story I tell other cooks. Like the time my sous chef spent an entire night screaming at me from the fryer, or the three times my last chef told me to get the fuck out of her kitchen during Sunday brunch. These stories prove we're tough — we have been through the worst and actually, insanely, come back to work the next day. This is just how kitchens are, and we like it that way. Sorta.
Like most cooks my age, I have read books by Anthony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White; I knew when I started that no one was going to tell me how much they appreciated my efforts. I never expected to receive polite constructive criticism. If I'm being honest, this type of dialogue is one of things that attracted me to cooking. I am extremely blunt in real life, and I was raised to value honesty and conscious communication. Most of my friends growing up were boys, and I liked being seen as a person with thick skin. If a coworker accused me of having a case of the Mondays, I wanted to be able to tell them to fuck off without having to have a meeting with human resources.
However, I did not become a cook to tear people down emotionally. But I know I do.
When I first started cooking, I was polite and quiet. I did not even make a peep when I witnessed a coworker brandishing a chef's knife like a baseball bat while another coworker pitched tomatoes at him.
Then my lead line cook, John, left for extended medical leave. I became one of the few people, sometimes the only one, who actually cared during our morning prep shift. At first, I tried being nice. When that didn't work for everyone, I started barking orders or, in very stressful situations, screaming at people. I told myself this was necessary. Our ticket times kept getting longer, food was being prepared improperly, plus this is just how kitchens are, right?
When John came back, he noticed a change in my behavior.
"Kat," he said sadly, "you used to be nice, but now you're a bully."
I was a bit taken aback by this statement, but I just grumbled to myself that John was a shitty grill cook and continued my downward spiral into assholedom.
I became something young cooks had to survive. The more pressure I felt, the higher my standards became, and the worse my behavior got. I told myself my actions were acceptable, because that was how I was treated when I first started. I believed this behavior was necessary. I thought that by nicknaming a 20-year-old "Dumbass Dan" I was toughening him up for the moment when shit really hit the fan. The thing I forgot was that I was supposed to be teaching him to, you know, cook.
All chefs like to think of themselves as special snowflakes, practitioners of a dying art form, the last of the true craftsmen. Most of the cooks I have actually managed to train did not know how to use a knife when they started cooking, let alone make a beurre blanc. What I failed to realize is that not everybody needs to grow up to be April Bloomfield. Maybe it would have been enough for me just to prevent these kids from eating fast food on their days off. I had lost sight of what was really important. (The food — duh.)
At the beginning of my career, I had a few perfect examples of how to teach without being a dick. My culinary school chefs were both very kind and considerate people. My first-semester chef did not bark at me to "get my shit together" when I fell apart during my second exam. He taught me about Maslow's hierarchy of needs and encouraged me to take better care of myself. The chef who taught me pastry never threw a hissy fit, even after my classmates ruined two pounds of very expensive chocolate. She just reminded herself and us that we were all still learning. My first real chef in a restaurant was always encouraging despite all the times I was lazy or stubborn.
I learned far more from these people than I have from the chefs who cursed at me. Unfortunately, when it was my turn to pass on my knowledge to others, I was too busy trying to emulate how I thought "real" chefs behaved. In order to be accepted into the boys club of cooking, I forgot what it really takes to be a leader: patience.
Recently, I moved six hours away from where I began my culinary career, and I want to be different. I want to learn how to lead others without intimidating them. I am too old to care about looking cool in front of my coworkers. I no longer think being mean makes me a badass. I want to help people learn about food and the art of cooking, even if they suck, don't have the focus, or would be better off selling insurance. Who cares? I'm just here for the food.