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Chef John Foster: What chefs really want and what chefs get when they choose a culinary career

Imagine if you could, an empty table, clear of food, utensils, plates and napkins. A bare table made by hand, highly polished with light and dark swirls running through the reclaimed wood.

Now shift gears to an empty prep table in a small intimate kitchen. Gleaming stainless steel, highly polished by years of prep work, wiping down and more prep work. Overhead lights that are just bright enough, and in the back of your head, the hum of refrigeration and hoods, the constant reminder that the kitchen is at work, not at rest.

This is the image that as chefs, we try to create, at least in our minds. The blank slates, plural; the two tables connected by one vision.

Ask most chefs what their dream is, and they will confess to their own small kitchen, quiet in the early mornings or afternoon where they can practice, muse and create. The regular rhythms of morning and afternoon prep inevitably give way to service, but for that briefest of interludes, the balance is there, in the kitchen and the dining room, and the connection is complete.

Of course, life goes on regardless, and you’re always a phone call away from a new bit of chaos. But I wonder if that makes the solitude more precious. When you’re a chef, or even more so a chef who owns the restaurant, those moments are few. Simply by nature, you are rarely alone in the kitchen for very long. Outside interruptions are frequent, and the need to communicate is incessant. We even seek out chaos at times to get our creative and combative juices flowing, to get the adrenaline pumping for service. Being solitary and reflective very rarely accomplishes that goal. But what it does give is valuable creative moments when you may have a menu breakthrough or clarity on a nagging issue of service.

Once those moments are gone for the day, we need to re-focus our energies and attention to the minutiae of the service. This takes a different type of skill to accomplish all that needs to be done before the doors open and the table is set. The ability to shift gears takes years of practice and a touch of skill. It also takes the singular, somewhat antisocial quality of isolation.

While a chef must be connected to the staff the entire time, the moments of decision are sometimes by their very nature, solitary. Menu decisions, staffing decisions, in the bigger picture, business decisions are made in the grey areas of every pre-service, and even within service itself. They are made with caution born of the reflection and subsequent insight gained throughout the days and weeks of prep time before the service and assessment after. Within a workday designed to be chaotic at best, a good chef wastes no time.

It’s the type of routine that has been a part of my life for over 40 years. Finding the quiet moments to reflect, the parts of the day that need more focus, and then the crescendo of service where muscle memory and rapid-fire decisions make or break a shift. This is the other side of the career that new cooks never see, but the sensitive ones may feel. This is underlying the current of ego, pride, simmering rage and in most cases relief.

Professionals embrace this balance, it keeps them even keeled and well respected. If there is an occasional lapse in judgment, a wrong decision, a hurtful phrase it is taken in the context of the moment, and not an indictment of the person. This is important enough to point out to students, and remind the seasoned vet.

Cooking is a profession, an art, a craft and a business. All these myriad entities need to coexist to be successful, and for the career to have any longevity. Burn too hot and you’re gone quickly. Fail to find energy and clarity in the quiet moments of prep and this profession will be a long, somewhat painful slog. It is the balance we seek that provides the motivation to grow and continue in a career that is known to chew people up. There are many opportunities to embrace this concept if the person is perceptive and willing.

I’m sure that other careers follow the same arc, some even on a daily basis. What sets the culinary world apart for me is the instantaneous ebbs and flows that can occur each shift. The more heavily involved, the more you see those changes and how they impact each situation. Education may prepare you for some of them, experience should take care of the rest.

Beyond that, it is your willingness to do two things that promise a long and successful career in the culinary field. One is to find the balance each day so that your career and life are not lived at breakneck speed, and some of your thoughts each day are truly born of quiet, solitary reflection. The second is to prepare yourself, both mentally and physically to attack each day, each shift, each issue with as much energy and insight as you can.

The symbiotic relationship between these two points is not coincidental and I believe is the secret to embracing the culinary career.

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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