(This is the introduction to my book, Making the Cut: What Separates the Best From the Rest. You can learn more about it at the end of the article.)
On occasion, over the course of the late night into early morning hours, I’ll wander up to the kitchen line and check on the two pigs roasting in the convection oven at a very low heat. Lining the bottom of the oven is a trough of wood chips, into which the pig fat slowly drips over the course of the night. This is far from any sort of ideal smoking technique, but it seems to work when constrained by a small kitchen and limited resources.
During the days and even early nights, the temperature in the office is nice this time of year; it’s the same time of year that equates to just barely barren trees and it’s when chimneys begin coughing smoke into the night sky at dusk. Back in the restaurant, fresh off of the kitchen line — beat up, dirty and sweaty, the office in most restaurants is a welcomed respite for a tired chef to rest their legs. Restaurant kitchens don’t have chairs. Or stools. The thing most resembling an actual chair used by a kitchen worker during a long, hot shift, is an upside-down milk crate — stacked in the alleyway behind the restaurant, right next to a bin of half-smoked, choked down cigarette butts.
The office has plenty of seats, and though they are mostly beaten up rolling chairs that never seem to steady their height quite right, the fact that they exist is enough for anyone on the closing bits of a twelve hour double to seek refuge there. It’s hard to describe the relief that settles into your legs, as you rest your feet for the first time in hours. Aside from a cold beer, a comfortable seat is the next best thing to a nice long soak in a steaming hot bath. Unfortunately, the years under your belt in the kitchen are directly proportional to the number of pain reliever tablets to be ingested post-shift. Your age really hits you the following morning when your achy bones don’t want to budge from bed, especially if you decided to knock off a few rounds of drinks with the crew after work.
Next weekend we’ve got two caterings and and a full house both nights, plus my business partner invited a group of friends, of which he’ll probably comp, and make room for in the private dining room right at seven-thirty. What the hell is he thinking? He’s not damnit. He’s not, because he’s not the one pumping food out for the entire restaurant, plus readying an off-site catering for seventy. Surely they will insist on ordering off the full menu, which should set a nice tone of chaos for the remainder of the evening. Once you get behind in the kitchen during the rush, it’s almost impossible to catch back up.
Fridays are hard, but Saturdays take it out of me — they wipe me clean to the bone and that’s true for just about every other chef I’ve ever talked to that pushes a decent volume through their kitchen’s expo window every night. Three heavy-hitting days on my feet, hell, I feel like I’m getting too old for this at thirty-three. Only thirty-three. If there is anything I’ve learned over my decade of grinding it out, it’s that the industry can take a toll on you. It’ll knock you down, run you over and kick you in the gut as you rise to your feet. If you aren’t careful, it can get the best of and ruin you — that’s ubiquitous in this industry, and it’s why we see so many of our colleagues falling into the same old story of getting hammered after work and then wrapping their cars around a telephone pole on the way home. If they do, let’s just hope there isn’t any weed or coke in the glove-box this time, because chances are you’ll need him or her on the line this weekend — having the lead line cook stuck behind a set of bars in a jail cell is the last thing the restaurant needs. I’ve been there before, I’m just grateful I never hurt anyone, myself or my vehicle.
When I became a restaurant owner and eventually grew into what would be the executive chef of the restaurant, I soon realized I’d be taking the biggest pay cut of my life. I was making more money a week working as a twelve year old at Camp Grasshopper, shoveling six year old kids around for the summer, making thirty-five bucks a week. Those first few years were long, really damn long. I’ll never forget walking that first check over to the bank after a busy Friday lunch service, looking at the check and thinking about how many unpaid hours were stuffed into this one, $750 check that represented three years of unwavering hard work.
So, for those first years of not only not getting paid, but actually having to put money into the business, you can probably imagine I’d need to supplement this expensive habit of mine that is commonly refer to as a restaurant. Unfortunately, this habit also included responsibilities such as pay roll, ordering, rent checks, menu creation, staff management and the list goes on. I think I could have opened my own bank with the ubiquitous overdraft fees that rolled through the mail in those first sub break-even winters. We made it through though, unlike many others and turned the corner, ever so slightly.
I felt owed something. My hard work, dedication to the mission and just by being the good guy that I was left me feeling entitled to a certain level of success that didn’t exist in my career, yet. This left me bitter and in many ways, resentful. I had a relationship that was falling apart — my girlfriend couldn’t understand my life and why I’d chosen this path and neither could my family back home in Atlanta. It didn’t make sense to them, naturally so, because I wasn’t making any money. I needed to get serious, not just about the craft of cooking of which I had come to swoon over, but of success. I needed to somehow map what success looks like in the kitchen , so that I could create it for myself and prove everyone wrong.
So, I started writing this book, with my own pre-conceived ideas of what success looked like in the industry — that has changed slightly, which happened through interviewing dozens of my contemporaries, all of whom are far more accomplished than I. As I started formulating this hypothesis of sorts, I started actively pursuing speaking engagements, in order to bring some awareness to the book (that would soon be out),myself and my mission.
My first talk was at the American Culinary Federation and it was based on a number of interviews with these prized chefs — it’s their stories, which are detailed throughout the book. As it came to a close, I was given a warm applause. I offered audience members the opportunity to keep the conversation going down-front after, so a line formed in front of me. I drank a quick swig from my water bottle to fight the cotton mouth that had developed over the course of my talk, and as I approached the crowd, a young lady stood with auburn hair waited sternly in front. She was maybe twenty or so and I assume was working her way through culinary school. I reached my hand out to shake hers, which was wrapped tightly around her body, crossed with the other. They didn’t budge and her face appeared unimpressed with me — it was like I had just attempted to start a fight during recess on the playground in elementary school. I’ve never been in a fight. Subtly, she just barely met my eyes with hers.
“I came to your talk, because based on the description, I was under the impression that this was going to be an inspiring and uplifting talk, but I think it was trash, all you did was talk about how shitty chef life is and I just felt more discouraged every step of the way, until you stopped talking…”
“I’m so sorr-,” I started, and she was gone. I’ve given TEDx talks, plenty of TV appearances and spoken to various groups in various settings, but this was the very first person to offer me feedback on a presentation for an event that was focused on my target audience. I was blindsided. My goal and mission was just the opposite of what she took away from it. She was hurt. Maybe even felt betrayed.
Perhaps she was right though, in a sense. In all honesty, I hadn’t started formulating this book at that point, and I’m sure bits and pieces of my thoughts and stories were somewhat disjointed, lacking cohesion. Even though it was just one person, it was one impressionable person that I’d lost — I guess you can’t win ’em all, but it sure feels nice to think you can. I’ve lost various others, both quite literally and figuratively, as well. I lost Blake and Chad, but in different ways that you’ll read about in the forthcoming pages — they seem to be martyrs of sorts for this grueling, stressful industry that’s suffered for far too long. The nameless young lady, who I assumed was in culinary school, I had lost her, but maybe not for good. Perhaps I could frame things in a way that made sense to her. I needed to exemplify a mindset that she could buy into that would, in a sense, mitigate the risk of pouring her heart and soul into this industry that’s so notorious for swallowing up people, families and communities, whole.
That day, when I first gave that talk to a room full of chefs, was a good one for the most part, and further opened my eyes to the concept of success and how we all desperately want it. Often, we just don’t know how to get there. You’ve just got to learn to fight through some of the bad, figure out some of the things that don’t work, to figure out the ones that do, and as the great Tony Robbins says, look around for the clues, because success leaves them behind — everywhere they go.
This book is the clues. A recipe, of sorts.
The journey over the next couple hundred pages is a look into the great chefs of the world, who’ve been generous enough to share their stories (the good parts and the bad), so that we can all better understand what success looks like for the greatest culinary professionals of our time. What are they doing differently than everyone else? OR, what are they NOT doing that everyone else is? It turns out, that the same themes threaded themselves through the various stories of these impressive individuals who have created success for themselves and their communities, but more than that, it seemed to carry over into their personal lives. These are successful people, not just successful chefs. It definitely takes surrounding yourself with people that you respect and appreciate, and then nurturing those relationships, but at the end of the day — it’s an inside job. Success starts with who you are, who you want to be, and how you show up every single day. The way each of us answers the important questions of our lives dictates whether or not we are moving close to or farther away from success.
It’s not easy, and every day is a challenge, especially if you’re committed to doing your best work and being better than you were the day before. While my story is riddled with failures, disappointments and not quite having my chef story pan out as I’d hoped thus far, the the book isn’t about me — it’s about them and the lessons we can apply to our lives — every single day.
Damn. I almost forgot about the pigs roasting away up front. They are long overdue for a good basting. I can smell their crispy skin from here, and I can smell the smoky wood that will occupy the restaurant for hours.I’m grateful for restaurants and more specifically, the kitchen.I’m grateful for this industry, as it’s a big part of what has shaped the man that I’ve become.I’m grateful for the chefs you’ll soon read about — their stories and their generosity.
There has to be a better way, though. I’m hope you find that here — I did.
— CHRIS HILL
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Write for a magazine/blog or have a podcast, email me — MakingTheCutBook@gmail.com — I’m happy to setup a time to chat with you. OR come to your city during the Book.