A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Chef John Foster: Having two jobs (teaching, owning a restaurant) means work is always on the mind

As I write this, Sullivan University is on break. I find myself at a loss for what to do as my work often dictates what I do with myself when I’m on break.

I know I’ll be at work in the restaurant tonight, but what to do with the rest of my day?

The answer is complex, and multilayered, nothing as simple as lying in bed until noon eating bonbons (not that I ever did that!). And yes, the answer always revolves around work or a component of work.

Is that the textbook definition of a workaholic, or am I just someone who loves to stay busy and learning at the same time? It turns out that it’s a little bit of both.

In my profession a vacation is research. The coffee shop in the morning is a time for peaceful reflection but also an opportunity to observe service, pace of dining and the obvious pleasure or displeasure of the customer.

It’s also where and when I do some of my best writing, in the moment and as it happens.

See, I’m working again, writing a column about food and the culture that surrounds it. And that my friends is what it takes to be at least moderately successful in your field. When I was younger I thought spending hours at a restaurant would be enough, hopefully, I could soak up vast amounts of knowledge from the people around me.

That’s certainly part of it, and a part that students won’t get in school. I brag all the time on my faculty, their expertise and years of experience. I also confide in the students that you should see my faculty in the real world. The speed and concentration they move within real-time make us all look slow in the classroom. I prefer “measured” as a better word, even-tempered, to better teach the new student, and even the older one the first steps to success.

They also don’t see the work that is being done off campus, not only on break but throughout the semester. Research is an integral part of our lesson plans, and they are constantly changing. It may be a student comment on quarterly evaluations that spurs us to put more technology in the Garde manger lab or less emphasis on a certain country or cuisine in International. It may be the daily reading of blogs, or the government’s proclamations on nutrition that send Ms. Allen back to the drawing board one more time to revamp the pyramid or box or plate or whatever it is now!

When we actively work in the industry, it serves us as well. We can monitor almost every change in the worker demographic, the customer trends and the health of our business daily. We can relate to the students the physical and mental conditioning needed to thrive in a high-pressure atmosphere. We can also network, and we do it with several goals in mind.

The primary goal is inherently selfish. Hey, what are you doing over there? Can I see? How do you attack this problem, how do you take advantage of this opportunity? We have our own solutions which we happily share in return. It makes our business better and by extension makes us better teachers. It also strengthens the ties to the other restaurants in the community which in turn lifts all the boats at once.

While outsiders may guess that we all wish for the others to fail, it does no good to be the last spot standing. Smart business, smart operators, a solid environment to place students in. That is the second goal from a Sullivan point of view; create an energetic environment to fuel the passion of the current extern and stoke the dreams of future students. Keeping the field strong creates a purposive flow for everyone, and the heart of it lies in the continued search for knowledge.

I must pause here to consider if I’m giving some bad advice. Not everyone needs to travel long distances or immerse themselves in research to be successful. I’ve often written that there needs to be some downtime for all cooks. But if you’re like me, the enjoyment doesn’t stop if I happen upon an article about a technique or ingredient. I don’t immediately snap to and delve deeper. The fact that I actually like reading about food doesn’t make me neurotic, just interested, and I can choose how far down each rabbit hole I want to go. I will undoubtedly read a lot during this break, and some of it will be pure pleasure.

Both my jobs require that work will be involved as well. And old habits are hard to break, so each time I stop for a coffee or a quick lunch over the next few days, I will keep an eye out, just one, for what might be a point of interest or education I can share along the way.

I can do that and still enjoy a brief respite from what is shaping up to be a busy fall season.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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