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All I really need to know I learned in … a kitchen

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

There are books and poems that tell us we learned everything we need to know in kindergarten. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I don’t find that to be true. Sure, I learned how to play kickball, to avoid pulling a girl’s hair, and not to bite. But I don’t particularly reflect on these life lessons on a daily basis.

As I look at how I treat people and how I’ve been treated in my life and my career, I’ve observed some areas that have allowed me to succeed in one form or another. I also recall traits I’ve experienced or observed from the über-talented and driven people I have called “chef” along the way. Here are a few:

Patience – Everyone learns differently and at a different pace. Acquire the skills not only to communicate with, but also to teach those around you. Some will know everything the first time; some will not and feel too intimidated or embarrassed to ask. Learn to recognize those individuals and approach them before they fail to approach you.

Work for the best –
I’ve been fortunate to work with many talented chefs. Some were incredibly driven, while others lacked drive but were naturally gifted behind the stove. Find those people. Work for those people. Align with those people. Even if they have one specific thing they do, observe it. Learn it and use it.

Experience other cultures –
Chefs are naturally inquisitive, so traveling to foreign countries should be at the top of any chef’s list at some point in their life. Food is the epicenter of any culture. The most creative chef I ever worked for, Marcus Samuelsson, once told me he was often inspired in his travels by street food in second and third world countries.

Pay attention to successful people – “Everyone has the will to win, but do you have the will to prepare?” One of my all-time favorite quotes—not from another chef or restaurateur— is actually from Mark Cubin, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Much can be learned from every successful person no matter his or her business or discipline.

If you don’t know the answer, find it – Guests will have questions. Cooks will have questions. Servers will have lots of questions about food, ingredients, cooking temperatures, and history of dishes. Don’t make up an answer out of pride just because you don’t know. First, you’ll look foolish. Second, a guest loves when you don’t know the answer but take the time to find it. This shows them a great deal of respect.

Listen – Chefs have lots of ideas. Chefs have many good ideas. We are naturally a talkative bunch, but to truly be effective teachers and students, we must listen: Listen to the cook, listen to the server, listen to the guest, listen to your team.

Outwork the other guy – I come from a long line of hard-working family members, who passed down this strong work ethic. When I was a young dishwasher, a young cook, and a young sous chef, I always got promoted. This was not because I was the most talented, but because I came in earlier, I stayed later, and I offered to cover for someone else. I simply outworked the other guy.

Lose the ego – I’ve had the pleasure of working in other chef’s kitchens around the country. My interaction is always the same. I am in their kitchen. I am in their house. We do things their way. Period.

Remember your beginnings – I always say it’s better to look through the windshield, not the rearview mirror, but I also value reflection. Part of reflection is that while I’m interacting with a young team member, I remember where I came from, what I’ve learned, and how it was sometimes difficult.

Kindergarten is a good place to learn sharing, taking naps, and coloring within the lines, but a kitchen has taught me all I need to know about life. And sometimes that includes coloring outside the lines.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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