By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
We chefs sometimes have our heads down and tend to work, work, work for years, if not decades. Then one day, we wake up and ask ourselves, much like the famous Talking Heads song, “Well, how did I get here?”
I have written at great length this past year about the life of a chef: The leadership and failures; the turmoil and calmness; the stress and success. But that life didn’t come overnight.
As a teenager, I worked in kitchens because you either did that or worked at the mall. The latter seemed dreadful to me.
If you chose a restaurant, that meant you were a dishwasher. And if you were smart enough (or perhaps foolish enough) to seek a promotion to some sort of a cook, it was simply because it paid more.
None of my friends wanted to be cooks, and neither did I. And being a chef was out of the question. In my mind I was destined for some variation of art school and eventually graphic design, or drafting to become an architect.
Somewhere along the way—I don’t know exactly when it happened— I experienced my own paradigm shift. Cooking was something I was good at. And I could hold my own at it alongside older professionals. This was something for me. This was me.
So I worked. But I was obstinate and couldn’t understand why we did things a certain way. But then that inflexible stubbornness morphed into drive and ambition. Most of all, I began to learn open-mindedness (well, that one took me quite a while).
I was immature and brooded when the chef criticized me. But then that lamenting turned to wondering if maybe, just maybe the chef, restaurant manager, or owner actually knew what they were doing.
I failed and didn’t want to try the exercise again because I was frustrated. Eventually, however, that failure made me more curious to learn the “whys” so they could become the “I know whys.”
Then I grew. Not always quickly and not always easily, but I grew. And I found guidance from the most unlikely of coworkers. He wasn’t a chef, or manager, or any leader for that matter. His name was Chauncey Red, an old black man who was one of our dishwashers.
Chauncey had stories and experiences right out of “Aesop’s Fables” and would get me to stop and take a proverbial breath. These moments of pause swiftly settled my temper or emotions with the calmness of a parent stopping his hyper child from running out into traffic.
I was never the most talented cook out there, and I didn’t have the best skillset either. While I learned at a young age a solid, respectable work ethic from my father and grandfather, this still proved to be not quite enough. But as I got older I worked harder and harder, and eventually learned to outwork the next guy.
I remember one time when I was 17 years old I called in sick to go to a concert with friends. That night I was indeed sick. I was sick to my stomach with the guilt of what I’d done. My friends thought I was ridiculous. I thought I was irresponsible.
It hit me one day not too long ago that I’ve had my head down for many years. I suddenly looked up one day and was a chef the way a movie concludes by skipping ahead 30 years.
This article could be larger by 100 fold with stories, experiences and observations. Who knows, perhaps I’ll write a book someday…
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.