You Own It

Take ownership

I’m feeling at peace right now, if only for a little while.  No, I’m not on a morphine drip, which often sounds comforting.  I’m alone.

It has been rare as of late since the kids were out of school for the Summer, and more recently I’ve been on vacation in a cabin at Minerva Lake.  That sounds comforting as well until you realize it’s with your extended family on your wife’s side.  Good people? Yes.  Is it a peaceful vacation?  Not really.

My friend told me about a scene in a bar recently when he was having a drink(s) with a professional stand-up comic.  Someone asked the comic to tell a joke, and the comic asked him what he does for a living.  The bar patron told him he’s in construction to which the comic replied, “build me a fuckin’ deck and I’ll tell you a joke.”

I get it.

When you’re in certain occupations people expect you to perform your work for free on your off time.  Cooking, serving meals, and cleaning up afterwards is one of those things people do not see as chefs and other restaurant people performing their normally paid-for jobs.  “They do it because they love it.”  No, we often do it because it won’t get done otherwise.

Well, put that expectation to rest.  Don’t ask your mechanic buddy to look at your car, don’t ask a doctor pal to check the weird rash on your balls, and don’t expect free restaurant quality meals from your chef friends and relatives without some sort of payment or trade.  I’m done giving it away to those who do not have an understanding or appreciation for what I do.  I own that talent, I’ve worked hard to develop it, and I do it for long hour on many days.  I don’t always feel like doing it on my off time.

Last week we went to my friend Mehmet’s house for dinner.  He’s a great cook, especially Turkish cuisine.  What a great time we had.  It was so nice to visit with friends that we do not see enough of.  I owe these people a meal.

When I was put in charge of the footwear department at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Syracuse, the store manager Steve Ruskin told me to take ownership of the department and to make it mine.  I did.  It was great advice and I use it to this day.

One of the reasons I’ve had success at The Wine Bar is that I’m allowed to take ownership of the kitchen.  I, of course don’t mean literal ownership, but I am for the most part left to run things as I see fit. As a result, I run the kitchen as if I were the actual owner, paying close attention to costs, quality, and maintenance of the equipment and the cleanliness of the structure and storage areas.

I try to allow individuals to do the same in my kitchen.  Within the basic framework of our layout, I insist that cooks and dishwashers set up their stations in a way that best works for them if it fits into the overall function of the kitchen.  If the results are good, and the set up allows the cooks to work in a clean manner, I’m happy.

Last week Stella and I were driving down Broadway in Schuylerville and she noticed that a small restaurant had moved up the street.  I told her we should open our own restaurant in the vacant spot and with excitement she agreed.  I asked her what kind of place we should open, and she said, “It should be a kind of place that Schuylerville doesn’t have.”  If other owners would follow that logic we might have a little more diversity. She’s seven and has more of a clear idea than a lot of prospective restauranteurs.

Oh’ I forgot to tell you, Dick’s is properly named.


Why?  Because they own the place and perhaps they don’t want to have to get in at 9 am to prepare for the complaining lunch crowd in their place splitting a sandwich and having a glass of house Chardonnay, then leaving a $3 tip for servers who hate the lunch shift.

They ponied up the money to open a business, and it’s their decision.  That’s why.


It’s All About That Base

Many years ago, when I was a competitive long-distance runner there were two competitive seasons.  In the Fall there was cross country and road races. In the Spring and early Summer there was track.  What the two seasons had in common was that they were precluded by a base-building phase that consisted of a lot of long steady runs with minimal fast running and typically no racing.  It was the work required to build lasting strength and a solid foundation for an increasing amount of fast running in both training and in racing.   The same kind of base-building is a requirement in many occupations including those jobs in the kitchen.

This topic floated to the top of my sea of thoughts recently when a young member of my kitchen staff decided, with almost no cooking experience, take a job as a line cook in another restaurant.  Fortunately, he was convinced to stay in my kitchen and learn as much as we could teach him about food and its preparation.  I like the kid, and he has an aptitude for the work, and it’s also what he wants to do with his life.  My sous chef and I will make sure he starts to build a strong base of knowledge and experience before he takes the next step in his career.  Just as the long-distance runner is sure to fail without the base of hours of running, so to will an individual fail when thrown into a position they’re not prepared for.  Not only is this young man avoiding a bad experience, he’s avoiding taking a step that may waste valuable time in setting off into rewarding career.

Being willing to do the necessary base work is what finds a lot of young cooks-turned-chefs producing mediocre food and running poorly managed and even dysfunctional kitchens. Laying the groundwork is well worth the time investment.  Some years ago, I had a young fella washing dishes for me who declared that he wanted to learn to cook.  I told him to go down to the walk in cooler and get a box of shiitake mushrooms that were on the right-hand side, first row on the shelf about waist-high.  He came up with them with great anticipation and was sure he was going to make something with them.  I showed him how to trim off the stems with a paring knife, and to save the stems for stock.  Disappointed, he corrected my intentions by informing me that he wanted to cook, not prep.  I sent him back to the pot sink.

I recall a story told by a famous French chef about how he got his start in kitchens when he was 13.  I simply cannot remember who was, Jacques Pepin I believe, but I’m not sure.  He wanted a job in a small bistro in France and took himself to the back door of the kitchen and asked for a position, so he could learn the trade.  The chef instructed him to return the following day and he would teach him how to cook.  Upon returning the young apprentice was shown a tower of pots and pans with instructions on how to clean them.  He did it, and every day for six months continued to do it at the chef’s instruction.  Finally, the young man asked the chef about cooking.  He peeled potatoes and onions for the next six months.  He never quit, he never complained, and he became a great chef.

Young cooks listen up.  Do the work.  Peel the potatoes, slice the onions, wash the pots, mop the floors.  Do all of it as well as you can.  Construct a strong base of knowledge, experience, and excellence on which to build your career.  It’s all about that base