Credos for the Kitchen Life
“Cooking isn’t rocket science, Jack! If it tastes good, serve it. If it doesn’t, fix it. If you can’t fix it, start over.” Those wise words were spoken by Chef Jeffery Buben at Vidalia restaurant in Washington, DC. It was the first real kitchen I ever worked in.
My name isn’t Jack, but that didn’t matter. If you worked at Vidalia in 2009 you answered to the name “Jack.” And those words have resonated in my head from the day I heard them. Not because Chef Buben was an intimidating figure who would show up out of blue at the end of a shift and start cleaning the kitchen phone with a Q-tip. Not because he would ask you if your prep table was clean and then flip it upside down, say “we own the whole table, Jack,” and then have you wipe the bottom of the feet. Those words are tattooed on my brain because they were the most important thing I learned from him during my tenure at Vidalia. In fact, my entire culinary career and the way I run my kitchen have been shaped by the credos I learned from the chefs I’ve worked under.
Dedication. Determination. Finesse. Focus. Thank you and damn you, Chef R.J. Cooper. I have no idea if he developed this credo himself or read it on the wall of a Navy recruiting center. Every cook who worked at Vidalia knows that saying. It was as mandatory as having your own knives, plating spoons, and an immersion blender. (God, I’m glad the foam trend is over!) I’ve found that those four words just might sum up a path to a successful kitchen career.
I have to be dedicated to my craft. To me, that means putting in the time, effort, and being patient with my approach. Being determined to fight through obstacles, pain both mental and physical, always moving forward. Finesse. You learn not to be a “bull in a china shop”; being 6’ 3” and 250 pounds, I’ve heard this a lot. Be graceful when cooking and plating. Don’t aggressively react to a mistake made by a cook; sometimes a lighter approach yields better results. And focus on the task at hand. Early in my career it started with focusing on a single plate; now I’m focused on the culinary direction of an entire company.
The last – “focus”- was said to me by Chef Nicholas Stefanelli, the chef I worked for at Mio during a discussion that really changed my life. I wasn’t, let’s say, very focused for a period of time. I was living my life like a cook, and not a good one. I was more focused on the life after work than my career path, and I got myself into a bad situation that could have been much worse. He sat me down and talked to me like no other chef ever had. It was on a personal level. What I got out of it was, “Be better than you were yesterday.”
Wow. Be better than you were yesterday. You don’t have to be perfect, but as an adult, as a person, as a cook, you should always be learning from your successes as well as your failures. It really lifted a lot of weight off my shoulders. We get so caught up in reviews, status, and egos, sometimes we need to slow down and understand that a career is not a sprint. Start small and build on it every day. I’m not sure if that’s what he meant, but that’s what I got out of it. I’m now ten years into my professional career in kitchens. I’ve got at least five journals with broken bindings, stained with sauces and oils and filled with recipes and techniques from the kitchens and chefs I worked for, but I rarely have to pull them out. I’ve built my career and my own kitchen on four credos and it’s been pretty good so far. My hope is that my own cooks will remember the things I’ve learned and passed along, shaping their own credos.
First published October 2015