My Sous + Me: Lessons Learned Over the Two Years We Shared in the Kitchen

When I first became the ‘Chef’ of my restaurant in Virginia, I wasn’t a chef.I had to play the part, though. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and found myself in the midst of one hell of a steep learning curve.

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But that didn’t phase me, as I’ve always believed in my ability to accomplish anything I’ve set my mind on. If I don’t know how to do something, it’s time to figure it out and I’ve found that to be no more true than in the kitchen. Mastering a certain technique after hours of getting it wrong, or over seasoning and then under-seasoning until eventually you understand the proper amounts, and the perfect way to season a piece of meat or fish.

These coming-of-age moments in any career are hard to forget — things click into place, you finally get it and it all makes sense. It’s gratifying, as you’ve invested time and energy into better understanding the craft. When this happens, your perspective and world view relating to your work shift slightly. It’s a fork in the road, and you’re never able to see things the way you once did before. You can’t.

Special moments they are indeed, but seeing and being a part of that for someone close to you? That’s as good as it gets. Eric, my sous chef for two years gave me gratification with a whole host of these moments as I saw him come into his own in the kitchen. For me, this is a perfect and continual reminder as to how much I love what I do.

The restaurant was turning the corner on it’s third year when Eric showed up, and quite honestly, he lacked the skills and the knowledge necessary to excel in a fast-paced restaurant kitchen. I could, however, tell he wanted those things and that goes a long way in my book.

‘He really wanted to be good and honestly, sometimes that’s half the battle — showing up with an attitude and willingness to figure things out. I’ll take that guy or girl over a technically sound, yet uninspired cook any day of the week.’

Over the first couple weeks, he began opening up about his life, which at the time wasn’t a pretty picture: a recent divorce led to less visitation with his daughter, which paved the way for a weight gain of more than a hundred pounds. In those early days, pain was deep within his eyes, and understandably so, but so was a sense of fight and resolve, which are essential qualities for running the line smoothly during the rush.

Hunched over cutting boards, sweating our asses off and pumping food out as efficiently as possible is hard work and stressful, but when you look back over the course of a shift, it feels almost like things are in some sort of beautiful version of auto-pilot. You’re really in the zone. You realize that nearly every movement you made was done so almost effortlessly. You’ve been doing the same things for so damn long, with the same people, that your body knows what to do, where it’s supposed to go and how to react when necessary. Getting to this place in a restaurant kitchen, to me, is the promise land, however, if you’ve never experienced this, I doubt you’re convinced.

It’s sensing the guy working sauté behind you readying himself to scamper over to the dishpit with some hot pans, and moving out of the way before he’s even able to call it out. It’s the gal on the sandwich unit to your right needing to dive into the lowboy cooler around your knees for some greens . Without skipping a beat, she grabs the goods and is out of the way, before you even notice.

Its these examples, but it’s across the entire kitchen, for hours at a time. The rush is exhilarating — damn, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s something most chefs feed off of and live for, but only if they’ve built a team they can trust and depend on. For us, Eric was a big part of that team and our success. Recently we caught up and chatted about the good old days. His journey is chock full of lessons learned, but these three he took from me and our time together — they’ve certainly resonated with me, as well.

1. Success Doesn’t Exist Without Time + Effort

When we set goals and strive for them, life inevitably throws curve balls. Most people use this as an opportunity to give in, so they invest less time and conserve energy . They take the easy way out, because, well, life can be really hard. There are a number of important factors, but two primary indicators for failure or success are— time and effort, and you have control over both. How bad you want something, is directly correlated to how much (or little) time you spend and the amount of actual effort you exert, in order to achieve that desired result. You can mail it in, or you can suck every last drop out of the opportunity to make yourself better, but why wouldn’t you give everything you’ve got — to learn, to grow, to make yourself better. To be the chef you could be requires going all in, and will take all you’ve got.

Anyone that’s ever worked for me or with me knows the deep-rooted determination I have for the goals I’ve set for myself — things haven’t always been easy and I’ve faced my fair share of adversity along the way, but a few years ago I found myself liberated, knowing both my time and effort invested into achieving my goals were things within my control over. This made certain choices in my life easier, and eliminated most opportunities to make excuses. I had a new perspective and I knew what it was going to take to get what I want in life. I hope these principles resonate with you — I know they did for Eric.

Around the end of Eric’s first month working for us, we discovered a heartwrenching truth about where he was in life. He’d fallen behind on bills (which I’ve been as well) and was sleeping in his car, while trying to hold down two full time jobs — us and another restaurant. Soon after, the car was repossessed. He hit rock bottom. At this point, he had a choice to make: sleep on his buddy’s couch all day feeling miserable and sorry for himself, or he could find a way to turn things around — so he did.

Success was out there for him, he just had to keep fighting. In the following months, he pulled himself out of debt, bought a vehicle, lost 80 pounds working out twice daily, and was granted more time with his daughter. He did all of this while working 70 hours a week, to try to get ahead on the bills he was once behind on. His life went from night to day, and he will always be a great reminder of how hard work can and often does pay off.

2. Choose Your Career Carefully — It’s Not Just Your Work

If you’ve ever spent more than fifteen minutes in a restaurant kitchen, you’d most likely agree with anyone that says the life of a professional cook or chef is a lifestyle that isn’t a good fit for most. I kind of like that idea — why would I want to be the same as everyone else?

Our lives as cooks and chefs don’t end, when we clock out and head home after a long night — cooking runs through our veins and truly is a part of who we are. Most of our friends are cooks, a lot of our spouses and significant others are as well, and when dining out, our mind goes to a completely different place than the average person’s.

The fact is your work, whatever you do, is going to follow you around and become a part of you — it’s a big piece you, so I hope you enjoy it, and if you don’t, I hope you have the courage to walk away and start over. If you’re debating a life in the kitchen, know that to truly belong, you have to buy into the culture — not the Anthony Bourdain sex, drugs and booze culture, but the culture of connectedness, teamwork, personal sacrifice, creativity, innovation.

The list goes on, and includes the darker sides as well: sub-par wages, high stress, difficult work environment, long hours. It’s a package deal and you have to be willing to take the good with the bad, but the bad is really more along the lines of challenging, and challenges make the good times so much better. You’re buying into this culture, which allows you to make a living doing manual labor — labor that you can’t imagine living your life without.

It’s been fun to see Eric make his way into the mainstream core of kitchen culture — I think his military background served him well — he’s used to the hardwork, sacrifice and teamwork from serving two tours with the United States Army in Iraq. Of course he’d fit right in with all the ink up and down his arm. Plus, he worked in the desert, fighting a war, wearing heavy clothes and lugging a 50 pound backpack — no wonder he adapted just fine in the kitchen. Plus, as much as usual cooks talk about the sacrifices we make — they are pale in comparison to the kind of sacrifices made by military.

3. People Matter — Everyone Matters

I’ve always taken tremendous pride in being a generous person by nature. Sometimes it comes back to haunt me, and I know I fall short from time to time — my intentions are there, though. If you are a manager of any kind and don’t live by this principle, you’re setting yourself up for failure. If you want to build and maintain a stellar team, you need to EARN the respect and trust of your employees — it starts there.

It’s putting one’s own self interest behind those of your team members — this builds trust and a sense that there are more than just another hire. Your staff needs to know that you have their back, are invested in them, and have a sincere desire in seeing them succeed. Most managers are horrible at this simple, yet profound connection that’s to be made with one’s staff. Most managers don’t groom and mentor their employees, they just try to keep things in order. They are just fine with the status quo, as long as it doesn’t put their job in jeopardy.

Let’s say an integral member of your team leaves for a better opportunity… it’s a chance for them to move up in the world.

Are you proud for them or bitter at them?

Eric’s two year-anniversary at the restaurant came and passed as we joked about how far he had come. Probably a week later, he pulled me aside. He said we needed to talk. Under his breath he said,

‘I have the opportunity to become the executive chef for a new restaurant in town.’
‘Congrats man!’, I cheered.

Sighing with relief, he went on to speak of how hard it was to build up the nerves to start that conversation. He was still petrified tobreak the news to my business partner amd our GM — he was thinking we’d feel betrayed or mad and thought his job with us might be in jeopardy.

Like an older brother seeing a younger version of himself, I looked at Eric, started chuckling, gave him a big hug, and said,

‘Dude, I couldn’t be happier or more proud of you. If you need any help, venturing into these uncharted territories, I’m here to help.’

For me, it’s all about the people, the relationships and leaving the next generation of cooks and chefs better than how I found it. It’s the teaching and personal growth that gives me more gratification than I ever could have imagined, but to be honest, I’d be lying if I said I hadnt learned a number of things from him, as well

Most profoundly, the pieces that hit closest to home, for me, would be this:

Eric’s first stint as an executive chef didn’t go as planned — I’m sure he takes some of the blame, but there were a handful of stakeholders that could probably own a stake in that as well. As things started spiraling out of control, he helplessly stepped aside and parted ways with the first kitchen he could call ‘his.’ He was bummed, and I’m sure he felt like he left me down, or if nothing else, really wanted to make me proud. To be honest, I really am. Once again, he peeled himself off the floor, swallowed his pride and found another job as the sous for a different restaurant. Having been friends and coworkers for some four years now, I’m continually inspired by the perseverance he chooses to embrace. It’s hard getting knocked down and back up, over and over again. I’ve been there before, and there are times when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel and call it quits — it hurts, it’s hard and you feel like you are so backed up into a corner that there is no way out. The only way out, is to fight your through, and my good buddy and sous, Eric is a prime example of that.

So, Eric — to the hundred thousand or so people we served together —cheers to the food we made. We made it with care. To the relationships we built along the way. To the memories that we’ll take with us deep into life — Cheers, buddy.

P.S. Now it’s your turn to find someone to take under your wing…



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