I grew up in this industry. My parents opened a restaurant a few years before I was born. That small Chinese restaurant would be where I spent my afternoons doing homework, the weekends working, where we had family dinners and celebrations, and honestly the only time I would get to see my parents. It paved a way for my family and the hard work my parents put into it is deeply ingrained in me. It felt like a natural progression for me to continue in this industry because I know nothing else. Any other career would seem like work to me. My family enjoys food. Our time spent together is focused around eating, talking about what we ate and what we will eat.
My externship certainly set the bar for me. I did a 5-month externship at Farallon in San Francisco in 2005 going into 2006. I came in at a time when Chef Emily Luchetti was receiving many accolades and she was working on her cookbook. The team there instilled many habits and quirks I still have to this day.
Your team is an important piece of the puzzle. Being able to delegate appropriately and teaching/training properly will determine whether you feel comfortable leaving for the day. The most common reason you will hear chefs say why they haven't left for the day or why they are in on their day off is because they do not trust their team to execute correctly without them. There is no trust because either they haven't built trust or they haven't trained properly, or both. Training is hard. It is time-consuming and forces us to find a common language of understanding with another person. But if done correctly, with patience and understanding, the relationship will be fruitful and will allow you to find trust and ultimately find some work/life balance. Share your knowledge, share your tips and tricks. Holding things close to your chest will not benefit any party. Impart your knowledge on your team; it's why you are there.
I love to ask prospective candidates what their favorite way to enjoy eggs is. The egg is such a humble ingredient that has endless possibilities. How the candidate responds gives me insight to who they are as a person, as a cook and ultimately if they would fit in with the team. I listen for a sense of passion cooking something as simple as an egg. “I love the way the egg white swirls as I poach it, then the way the yolk runs as I cut into my Egg Benedict”; “I love hearing the sizzle of the pan as the egg fries and I'm basting it with butter”, etc. I want to hear the story behind it because I want to know you and what tickles you. Be passionate, even if you are talking about an egg.
The three and a half years I spent at Joel Robuchon Las Vegas marked a milestone for me. It was a goal I had set for myself to spend meaningful time in this kitchen before I felt I was ready to leave Las Vegas. I spent 10 years working in Las Vegas and the longest amount of time was spent at Robuchon. The caliber we held ourselves to was so outrageous, it most certainly would seem excessive and unnecessary to some. But the self-control, focus, and strive for perfection would give you such a high and validation. I learned that no one will ever hand you the recipes to be successful. Doing the work, learning fundamentals and principles, and paying attention to details will set you up for success. I most certainly have loosened up since moving on, but I don't think self-control, focus and striving for perfection only exist within the walls of Michelin-starred restaurants. These are principles I have built upon and I believe have given me a foundation to become a great chef.
I look for candidates that are eager and hungry with passion. This can be an abrasive industry, it is not a one-size-fits-all for everyone. It can be mentality and physically exhausting and you have to be willing to make some sacrifices. Not everyone is cut out for it and they need to have something that drives them every day to be something of a glutton for punishment. But, if you are passionate about this industry, you won't always see it as punishment, just as hurdles you must cross to get to the finish line.
I find inspiration in all things around me. I certainly am inspired looking at work from chefs, including savory chefs. Seasonality of ingredients will always determine the palette you are working with. I am also inspired by many things that are not necessarily food-related. Inspiration can be found taking a walk, observing the nature around you – the texture in leaves, the ripples in the water, the way the clouds float. It can be a day at the museum – the different texture in acrylic paintings, the contrasting colors (or even monotone colors) an artist chooses.
For those that say, there is not enough time in the day, there actually is. There is always time and in fact, 24 hours in a day. But it will cost you. The currency is time. Time you spend with your family, catching up on your favorite TV show, dinner with friends. How much are you willing to sacrifice and pay? If maintaining a work/life balance is important to you, then you just have to do it and make it a priority. Easier said than done, but how you self-manage your time spent at work will determine how much you sacrifice outside of work. If you want to be home in time to tuck your kids in at night, then managing your productivity in the morning is absolutely necessary. Staying organized, building daily timelines and deadlines within your morning, and honestly just hustling to get the most out of your day. Otherwise, you buy more time to complete these tasks by “paying” with time you could be spending reading bedtime stories. You must give yourself hard deadlines to complete tasks during your day so that your checklist is complete by the time you make your exit. If you still have uncompleted tasks at the end of day, you will have a hard time leaving it at work and enjoying your time away. Nothing is worse than leaving at the end of day with an uncompleted task hovering over you the rest of the evening.
Patience, humility, and the willingness to teach are the most important skills to possess. As a chef, your most important role is to be a teacher. As you become a more seasoned chef, it will become harder to see how you are progressing. The best way to continue to evolve is by sharing your knowledge. Being able to look back and see all your hard work in the form of cooks and chefs that are paving their own way through techniques and knowledge you have shared with them. I have seen chefs hold things closely to their chest and it is to their own detriment. There is no success in doing this alone. The sooner you realize this is a team effort, the sooner you will see success. Success in the form of business, in having work/life balance, and general happiness.
Inspiration can be found in your own feelings and emotions. If you are having a bad day, maybe you create with bolder flavors and colors that day: bitter dark chocolate, fiery red beets, and burnt ash. If you are having a good day, you might create with a palette of gold and oranges with sunny citrus and some floral notes of chamomile. Or if you are missing your grandmother that week, you might be inspired to recreate a dish that reminds you of her. Nostalgia provokes such a strong emotion and connection with food. If you can provoke positive emotion in your dishes for your guests, it is the ultimate compliment.