Foraging for stinging nettle (photo taken by Jocelyn Isaak Photography
I fell in love with food from a young age. I wanted to become a chef because I loved food. It’s often an underpaid job, and so your passion for gaining the skills to cook good food (or being a glutton for punishment) are at the core of why you do this job.
For me, that’s how it started.
Then it took a turn. Then I became a restaurant owner.
I often thought that the integrity of a chef lies in the product that he or she creates. It comes down to what’s on the plate. I don’t believe that to be a lie. But I think it’s a half truth.
A blurry picture of our first day open at 293 Wallace. Photo taken May 1st, 2013.
As chefs, we work extremely long hours, are detail oriented when it comes to our prep (mise en place), and take pride in making sure all of our portioning is exact. We want to work with ingredients in ways that people haven’t experienced before. Therefore, we seek knowledge of different ingredients and cooking techniques.
We want our dishes to look good as well as taste good. “You eat with your eyes first.” You think of how to make the dish look aesthetically pleasing while not distracting it from it’s main flavours. We lean towards the natural color and texture of the ingredients we are using. We take time to think of what shape of plate, bowl, or other vehicle we would use to bring the food to the guest. We use tweezers, tongs, our hands and fingers, to place each impeccable piece of food onto the plate in a way that looks amazing.
We take pride in being chefs who can do it all. Whatever challenge is thrown at us, we can do it. We are unstoppable. There’s something about taking the seemingly impossible and accomplishing it. It feels good.
It makes sense, right?
A dish of freshly picked raspberry, shortbread, meringue, and douglas fir shoots.
But at the core...isn’t this just about ego? If you look at the most popular restaurants of the mass population, are they artistic expressions of the brilliant mind of a genius chef? No. It’s not.
“Well, our food is for the people who get it,” we say. Which makes us feel better. “Those who don’t get it, they can eat somewhere else.”
But at the core, if you look at those restaurants, most of the time, it’s driven by a leader who believes that what goes on the plate is the most important thing. And this leader will sacrifice whatever it takes to make sure it’s perfect.
Ironically, there’s no such thing as perfect.
What the leader sacrifices most is time. Not just of him or herself, but the time of all the staff members that are hired to help this chef achieve the goal.
I remember thinking about it at the 293 Wallace, and it just didn’t fit. Something just didn’t click. Here I was, with a group of staff in a small town who, for the most part, had no desire of continuing on in the culinary field. They were young and just wanted work experience. Sure it was rewarding to watch them learn how to cook for themselves, but there had to be something more. And that’s where it hit me. What means more to these people are life skills, not cooking skills.
Our cooks in the middle of service..
The kitchen is a great place for teaching some amazing life skills. Learning how to use a knife efficiently, to sous vide, to properly cook a steak, those are all great things. But what’s greater is the ability to teach effective communication during periods of stress, to teach strong work ethic, to teach forgiveness and patience.
Those are the things that will really stick, and that can be transferred to whatever life goal anyone would happen to have.
So I tried to focus on those things. And I made a lot of mistakes along the way.
Losing my temper during busy dinner services that were chaotic and didn’t meet the expectations of what I had for the team time and time again, and spending countless hours apologizing.
People over product. That kept coming up in the back of my mind. Surely we were thinking about the guests that we were serving and factoring in all that entails a great dining experience. But would an average guest at my restaurant really be able to notice if a risotto is not seasoned exactly how I would like it? Surely my own palate doesn't display the accuracy of a deity.
So then, is it worth yelling at a staff member for the cause?
I’m not sure what the future holds for me, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be in a position where I am leading another kitchen team. But if I am to be in that position again, I will hold true to one thing.
The product should be the medium, not the purpose.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking, But what I love more about cooking is not the act of cooking, but the act of serving others. The act of cooking something lovingly for someone, and having them enjoy it. The act of being able to allow others to enter into my mind of what food could be. But with that comes an even bigger philosophy and purpose. It’s the purpose of using food as the means to enabling others to grow and learn to be better people.
That’s what’s most important.
A warm and sunny spring day in Hope, BC at our restaurant. Picture taken In October 2018, the month after we closed.