Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kanji in the Kitchen

6 ~ Kanji Right Livelihood
“The verdict you pronounce upon the source of your livelihood is the verdict you pronounce upon your life” ~ Ayn Rand

I started mowing lawns when I was 12. My dad, a college professor had impressed on us all the virtue of hard work namely by letting up know early on that his meager salary would barely keep the roof over our heads and if we wanted anything else it would be up to us to provide it for ourselves.
Regardless of how hard he seemed to be pressed to keep bread on the table and the electricity flowing come Christmas or Easter morning there was always a bounty to be found around the hearth of our simple home.
I call it simple but it was really much more than that with the dynamic of four siblings, a highly spirited Cuban mother and a father whose favorite time of his life seemed to be when we were toddlers and would look up at him with unfailing and unquestioning love in our eyes.
No matter how loud it got in the house during the day with the natural sonic disturbance that‟s the daily life of any household, come nighttime, while all the children were packed away upstairs vainly fending off sleep like they were going to miss something, anything, my dad would make the rounds shutting off the lights, banking back the furnace, closing blinds and making sure that his prized Doberman, Pepita, had all she needed to guard us all vigilantly against the darkening streets.
He‟d then, in complete darkness, sit down at his Yamaha grand piano and play. Softly at first he‟d start with old ballads, sweet with longing then, changing the tempo he‟d pound out a honky-tonk and then finally build up to some Aaron Copeland arrangements full of counter melodies and pumping back beat.
I fell asleep almost every night I lived in that house with the sound of my father‟s tinkling ivories dancing up the stairs to sing me off to slumber. It‟s one of the kindest, most serene memories of my dad and our family at 321 Woodmar Ave. Its recollection would succor me through some dark doubting moments, long after he was gone and the piano and gone silent.
I finally got the nerve to ask him why he played at night and not, maybe just maybe, play during the day when I might sing along with him; I so desperately wanted to be with my dad when he played – to be part of that man, shit man that was cool.
He took a while to answer me, perhaps gauging my ability to understand more than his words but more importantly, his intent.
“I do it for me. It‟s the one thing I keep for myself”, he said with a sadness I hadn‟t heard from him before.
“At one point in my life all I wanted to do was play piano in a smoky bar with a tip jar on the top and some sultry dame leaning against my instrument”
Of which instrument he meant I was still a bit wet behind the ears to have even asked.
“But that‟s not the way it worked out and so I keep this for myself to remind me of who I was once and what I aspired to.”
No matter how he complained about the bureaucracy of the intellegencia, parliamentary procedure, tenure, the ignorance of some of his students or the intricacies of working in a university my dad really, really loved teaching. The accolades of his students and for the most part his contemporaries bore this out as he was given the Chair of the Modern Languages department at Purdue University and other awards.
One of his manuscripts is still being used in advanced Spanish classes I understand.
It was perhaps fitting that on a Monday morning during class that he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital emergency room. I was in England at the time serving in the USAF. The old man dodged a bullet that time but it would come back to claim it‟s prize several years later after he had finally come to terms with his remaining years by planning a cross country camping trip with Pepita‟s replacement, the precocious Fina de Casta Van Worlock; or as we called her, „The Little Bitch‟.
He never got to make that trip.
He cast a mighty shadow when he lived and sometimes, when I am quiet enough, I can hear piano music coming from somewhere just out of sight, right around the corner.
So, if all he wanted was to be a honky-tonk piano player, how the hell did he end up teaching Spanish to my high school Spanish teacher?
Why, love, of course.
His ego may have wanted to be a musician for the same reasons that mine did but it was Love that won out in the end.
After he got out of the Coast Guard he went to work at a meteorological company based in Boston, his hometown. Batista, down in Cuba – whether a US stooge or just someone who was getting tired of his country getting its ass kicked every hurricane season, contracted with several US firms, one having just employed a fresh faced kid ready for anything, or so he thought.
The scientific thinking at the time was that if one could lace clouds with silver iodine crystals it would create a natural disturbance within the upper trade winds that would normally steer hurricanes from the warmth of the African coast eastward.
Instead of steering currents aimed at defenseless and desperately unprepared populaces from Bimini to the Gulf of Mexico the silver iodine would create wind sheer, slicing at the heart of the beast and leave it whimpering with a few gale winds and some much needed rain for crop rotation.
Sadly, as it‟s been demonstrated time after time, man‟s attempts to control the normal, nay necessary cycles of the Mother are only so much spittin‟ in the wind.
During the year and half that the experiments were being conducted my father was stationed in Cuba without nary a guidebook nor a how do you do. The chief mathematician of the project, Manolo Lopez, took pity on this gringo that couldn‟t eat because he spent most of his time in the out house. Manolo would invite my dad to his house for the weekend. Manolo was a naturalist, adventurer; quick to laugh and patient
to an outsider. He was also married to the eldest daughter of a family of seven, five of which were women of captivating beauty and a lust for life as it was lived for the fortunate few of the early 50‟s in Cuba.
My dad would hold court in the front room, playing the piano and generally making the women laugh, sing and swoon at the thought of this sophisticated, handsome, single American.
Once, early on in his assignment, my father had called his mother back in Boston and pleaded to come home because he felt out of place and was rebuffed; the old girl had a right to live her life too now that the tyrant of the house had thankfully dropped dead, When he finally did come back state side it was with a heart full of the Cuban people, culture, of a sense of belonging to that witchy island and the Spanish language.
Instead of following through on his meteorological career, one for which he was trained and now experienced in the world and playing piano in his off time he went back to school. This time he would study Spanish, get married and get his Masters in Modern Languages. He had his first child and when his doctorate was almost complete, had his second child, my brother Jason.
Upon Jason‟s birth he sold the watch his father had given to him to keep it all going, all the while dreaming of sharing his passion for the Spanish people, their history and their language.
Why? What could possibly drive him to a life in academia, moving his family, now complete with two new daughters, four times in ten years; each time learning a little more, sharing a little more and gaining ground until we found ourselves in Hammond Indiana and he, apparently, having finally arrived.
He followed his passion and shared it. Kind of what I do, certainly what his grandson Anthony James Lamb does, he teaches middle school; something that he didn‟t decide until his third year of college when it became his passion. My son is doing very well and is highly considered by his kids and fellow faculty members; sounds like someone I once knew. I‟ve given him the plaque that sat on my father‟s desk that says, Dr. Anthony J Lamb, because I know that he‟ll achieve that and more, as long as it remains his passion.
I‟ve cut lawns, delivered papers in sleet and rain, sold Thom McCann shoes, jeans, bussed tables, worked at a summer resort in Michigan every year I was in high school, worked in a steel mill and served in the Air Force.
No matter what I tried I ended up back in the restaurant business. Not because it was easy because anyone in the business will tell you it‟s akin to blood money, but because it has been my passion and I‟ve wanted to share it; with the guests and, especially, the guy or girl on each side of me because together, today, we can make a difference in someone‟s life.
Just because we‟re moved to share our passion.
I‟m a chef but I‟m also a teacher. I come from a strong line of teachers, each of us have chosen what we‟ll teach and to whom.
Who knows but I‟ll tell you this, and this is how I know that this is my right livelihood, I‟d be doing it, even if it never paid.
I think that‟s what my dad tried to teach me.
Just a short postscript: it took me years to figure it out but no matter how busted out my old man would make it sound he‟d wait till the night before Christmas then head out to the all night sales and go into hock for the entire next year building a pile under the tree just to see the look on our faces come the morning; I guess to him that one moment was worth whatever he had to do to make it happen.
Pretty cool, if you ask me.

No Experience Necessary

In order to create sustainable success many other professions require years of schooling, grueling certifications, demeaning apprenticeships, state licensing or other strict requirements usually accompanied by crushing school loans and years of practice unrecognized by anyone save direct supervisors.
It also takes months, years even of carefully planned steps culminating in a critical path which, if one is persistent and has a healthy share of luck, will result in something tangible that may stand for many years for all to behold and wonder on. Engineers and architects work in advanced mathematics, logic and physics only to pass along their brain child to another pair of, hopefully, competent hands, hearts and minds in order to manifest the project into reality.
I’ve heard it said that, given all the complexities, personalities, time and money constraints it’s a wonder that ANY movie gets made let alone be viewed by the public. Anyone working in the Arts or Humanities, or for virtually any professional occupation, has to navigate the slippery slopes of subjective morality, shifting fashions and the nightmare of grant writing in order to see any of their work come to the light of public view.
I know a few of you in the Hospitality Business will be jumping to their feet to protest my simplification but give me a moment to make my case.
Some of my best friends have sacrificed much to attain a certain amount of acclaim or in my case notoriety. I’ve got 23 years in and still learning. Greg Barnhill, one of the best chefs in the west worked through not one, but three year long apprenticeships, each with a different European trained, Michelin rated chefs. I have the honor of being part of the advisory board of The International School of Culinary Arts and know first hand the dedication of the teaching staff and the work that the students put in – all in the name of a title that many, much less deserving, use with impunity.
The true leaders of our industry have given up their children’s birthday parties, anniversary dates and holidays in service to our treasured guests; in the quest of that perfectly plated meal.
All in dedication to an experience so fleeting that most diners are vaguely aware of the hours of daydreaming, planning and experimentation that backs up every plate that hits that window.
‘The Making of Ironman – The Movie’? How about ‘The Making of Beef Milanese Neopolitano’? Now that’s something worthy of 20 minutes of film draped with a voice over from Morgan Freeman!
So I may have misspoke before when I implied that this business is something that can be done by anyone with little or no training – yet there are those out there who believe that. And bless them; I really mean that – it’s for these intrepid souls that I sing this particular song.
It’s for these stalwart, courageous business people that I say, ‘RIGHT ON!’
Here’s to: the contractor who inherits a restaurant because the owner couldn’t pay for the renovations, the public servant who nurtured the dream of his own little diner to retire to; here’s to the business man who, because of prior success in other industries, believes that he knows what his guests really want.
Here’s to the father that wants to build something with his 2 hands because he wants to leave a legacy for his children; here’s the mother, left with an empty nest and her grandmother’s peanut brittle recipe. Here’s to the college student who works summer’s on an oil derrick off the Texas coast and winter’s in Alaska fishing salmon because he has a vision of a restaurant where his crew LOVES to come to work.
Here’s to all the lover’s of life, and food, foolish enough to give this business a try – it’s to you I say, “Come on in, there’s always room for a good idea”. My brothers and sisters are here; ready, to turn your dream into a reality –just because we SAY SO!
Dedicated to the memory of Sean Foley; a gift to all she touched with her food & her spirit!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Profit Paradigm

Statistics from the US Labor Board reveal that 65 % of the working population in this country are employed by small or medium sized businesses, making these businesses the economic engine of our economy and, as these businesses go, so does the rest of the country.
All the numbers in the world won’t change a thing and I’ve never seen a graph or pie chart that will sway anyone’s good opinion or force someone into a considered action.
No statistic will ever be as compelling as working with Wilson will ever be.
Wilson and his wife, both immigrants from a certain third world county less than 90 miles from the east coast of Florida came with high hopes for a better life for their family and a work ethic that wouldn’t be diminished by opportunity, or lack thereof, language barrier, nationalism nor prejudice. The ever present specter of extreme poverty and corruption that they had left behind in their native country was potent enough for both of them to work almost all the working hours in the day in the hopes of distancing themselves from the miasma that was their previous life.
We’d like to think that this is a country that celebrates hard work and dedication but the recent economic crisis has left folks just like Wilson and his wife exposed and vulnerable; the loss of any of their four jobs would leave them hanging at the precipice of financial ruin.
I’ve stood hip to hip with both Wilson and his wife, both perfect examples of why a ban on familial hires are often misplaced and silly, pulling pasta, making bread, separating deliveries and dicing and slicing; all done with their familiar smile of a job well done and a job being ‘of – use’.
A thorough clean up and they’re off, to another restaurant, separately this time, to complete another full shift before either of them can get home, be with the kids, check homework and then, finally, to spend a few quiet moments together in the silence of their shared struggle, only to get up the next morning and do it all over again; often staggering their days, and shifts off untl a whole week goes by without the synchronicity of a single complete day off spent together.
All for, and because of, their family.
But it’s getting increasingly harder for Wilson and other’s like him to keep this type of selfless sacrifice going for much longer.
Everything is going up in this business, everything that is, except for wages. As commodity prices go up, the profit margins are shrinking and more and more companies are cutting benefits, if they ever offered them in the first place and wages are, in some instances being cut – orphans of a disappearing middle class.
Once all these pressures are factored in owners and/or shareholders increasingly forget Wilson’s face and the kind lines cut around his eyes from
years of smiling in face of adversity and refer to him as only, ‘Cook 2’; much easier to axe a position than it is to cut a life.
Profit has no conscious and profit must be maintained.
I understand that the economy must be moved forward and innovation and ingenuity are cornerstones to it’s growth and maturation but the question, at least for me, has always been: How much is enough?
Understanding that you can’t put a food or labor cost in the bank, and the margins the thing – then how much margin does an owner or stock holder need?
Given that everything is equal and costs will rise; uncontrollable costs like commodity pricing, rent, insurance etc. then there’s only one place to look to squeeze out a bit more profit – your work force; and these are the same people who look to you to keep their best interest in heart, to help them help you in keeping our business vital and alluring, and their lives worth living.
And you’re willing to barter that away because you made a poor deal on your lease and you need to wring out another 10% in profits? So that you can make another payment on a boat that you take out twice a year?
Wilson, and his family, deserve so much better

Monday, July 19, 2010

Okay, Okay

I admit that I fell down the rabbit hole there for a while. My last post was in January and, like most of you I imagine, I've had my share of things to deal with - all the while withering a bit more in the process.
I fell into the trap of believing my ego's lies about a lot of what my life is about, what it's supposed to be about meaning and where do I go from here.
I lost my monthly article due to a change in editorial perspective - they wanted to hear from more than just one culinarian about what they were experiencing; completely valid but I chose to interpret it another way.
It seems that the shift that's starting to occur can only be preceded by a winnowing, or stripping back of past illusions, perceptions, self beliefs and self constructs.
The current market conditions and world economy have combined for the perfect storm for transformation - we can no longer rely on the processes, strategies or strength of the past; they won't work anymore - trust me I've tried.
Brute force and throwing one's self about in careless abandon only get's it blown back in your face.
My forehead is bloodied from butting up against the wall
After all that which got us here might not necessarily be the best way to proceed any further.
But, damn - it's hard giving up the skin that I've worn for most of my life!
And naked, what do I step in to now?
I questioned everything
I questioned what kind of a professional I had been; the crew that I was hard on or worse yet neglected in my quest for professional notoriety and while it's true that I did almost make Eddy Lee cry for a simple yet avoidable mistake, there is a battalion of chefs and sous chefs who started out with me and as one so eloquently put it:
'I get it now, thanks Chef'
Humble, mumble, choke just a bit when you see the sincerity in their eyes.
I did make a difference
I did make the world a little better for those willing to listen or watch
I am of worth
I am worthy
Yet in order to move forward there are amends to be made; I've been given a bill that requires payment and nothing short of my integrity will do so I'm about the business of balancing the scales of my life.
"And your permission is all I need to heal..." - Sixx AM
A Caamora to sear the soul and burn out the regret, sadness, self recrimination, guilt and shame.
As Scanlon said, "Pull up your skirt m*****f****, how much longer will you be the Master of your Misery?"
Clearly, no longer.
There is still a difference to be made
There is still work to be done