Thursday, July 1, 2010

Is it a job if it's your passion?

Due to the upcoming holiday weekend, I’m actually not working this week at my new, food-related gig. It’s kind of unfortunate since 14 whole days will go by before I can pick up where I left off; I hope I retain the information I learned on my first day!

I’ve been thinking a lot about my future over the last few months, and to be honest, I go back and forth a lot. I suppose “wishy washy” is a good term; my mom used to tell me that I always miss the boat because I spend too much time actually thinking about what to do, and by the I finally decide, the opportunity has passed me by. She was right- and it’s something I still do to this day. I suppose trying to change that habit is one of the reasons why I decided to take Nike’s advice and JUST DO IT before I wake up, 65-years old and regretting that I only daydreamed about owning a café or wine bar and never taking any steps toward making it happen. Still, as I look forward at all of the things one must learn in order to run their own restaurant- food safety, making relationships with local farmers and vendors, how to and how much to order, how to avoid overspending, how to survive while being “in the red” for at least a year, hiring trusted employees, payroll, insurance, inventory………my head starts to spin and it seems like an impossible dream. My fantasies consist mainly of the creamy, vermouth-scented mushrooms flavored with lots of garlic and thyme piled high on slices of crusty bread and flaky, seasonal hand pies topped with cream cheese ice cream that I’ll put together just so, and watch the faces of the happy customer as they “ooooh” and “aaaaah” over the food. I’m not thinking of what would happen if one of the prep cooks sliced her hand open with a knife or what it would be like to live with no paycheck, day after day, worried about when the business would become profitable. It’s a sobering thought.

I also wonder if turning something I love- cooking- into a job is a good idea. That said, my definition of ‘job’ could change…I’m not saying that running your own restaurant isn’t work (it’s likely backbreaking!), but would having the opportunity to do something you love be classified as a job? I mean, what exactly does that word mean? In my life I’ve only known it as something I do that I enjoy enough and earns me money. Enjoy isn’t the same as love. Like isn’t the same as passion. Someone very close to me makes his living doing what he loves- doing something he knew from a young age he was meant to do. It is a ton of work but it is still something he would do regardless of whether he’s making a living at it or not. He’s certainly one of the fortunate few that can say their passion is also their livelihood. The main downfall, in my opinion, of this is if it fails, it’s heartbreaking, because it seems like YOU failed. If the company I work for goes under, it isn’t a reflection of me personally, but if the restaurant fails because no one wants the mushrooms or hand pies………well, now that’s another story, isn’t it?

You’re probably wondering what on earth is the point of this post, other than me proving my wishy-washyness in print! Honestly, this space is here so I can discuss the entire process of considering a giant career change, and I’m hoping to get some feedback from readers who’ve either thought about doing the same or have actually done so. Doesn’t everyone, at one point, question what they are doing for a living? Particularly in this day and age when media, especially television, makes it so easy for us to believe that it IS possible to have the dream. I can’t recall how many episodes of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives I’ve seen where the successful restaurant owner/chef proudly states that he or she’d never even worked in a restaurant but that a love for food and passion for feeding people pushed their dreams into a reality. I’d be lying if I didn’t get a little burst of joy in my heart every time I see a story like that- yes, even a cynic like me buys into stuff on television and I’m not too proud to admit it! Another reason I think I could actually be successful is because I’ve spent way too much money on bad meals in my lifetime- why I just did last week, and twice the week before! I think to myself, “Is THIS what it takes to have your own place?” looking down at a sorry-excuse-of-a-dripping-mess-of-a-sandwich that I’d just paid $15 for. Who knows- maybe 50 fools like me willing to pay $15 for a sandwich is precisely why some restaurants stay in business. Maybe I’m a fool, period.

Anyway, I only wish my schedule would allow me to spend more time at the deli - they close too early in the day for me to go after my day job. I’m currently trying to find some kitchen prep work a couple nights a week which would give me some experience in an actual restaurant kitchen, so I’ll keep you posted if anything comes up.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 28, 2010

First Day at Work

It’s odd to say I had my first day at work yesterday, considering I’ve had the same job for almost six years now…but it was. You see, it was my first toe-dip into the restaurant business- I got a weekend job at an Italian deli/gourmet shop/café in town and started the new gig yesterday.

I’ll admit, I drove there with a mixture of excitement and nerves- excitement that I may actually get to spend the large part of my day touching food, talking about food, making food (well, sandwiches, at least) and it’s something I’ve thought of so many times over the last few years I can’t even count. I had my orthopedic, black shoes and black pants on and was told I’d get a black shirt and apron- woo hoo, an apron at work! Of course another part of me was scared to death- it had been years, dare I say, only three years shy of two full DECADES since I’d worked in a restaurant, and I’m pretty sure double-shifts as a waitress at IHOP doesn’t exactly qualify me as an expert in the restaurant business. I worried that the pace would be too quick, I worried that the other deli employees would wonder what I was doing there. I guess I just worried about whether or not I was doing the right thing- filling out a job application and reading the mandatory sexual harassment pamphlets..I felt like I was back in high school looking for my next summer mall job.

It was surreal to walk into the deli in uniform and see the faces of the two, young employees who would train me. Both were extremely kind and patient as they went over what was needed before the deli opened in an hour. My nerves started going away when one of them asked me to start stacking an array of cookies and cakes into a display case- look ma, here I am, touching FOOD at my job! I got most excited when I was asked to pipe frosting onto cupcakes before setting them in their place; one of the kids commented on what a nice job I was doing and I instantly felt, at least for that moment, that I’d made the right decision. Food industry, here I come!

After lining up rows of biscotti, lemon bars and assorted pastries the first few customers started coming in and I was told to help with the sandwich line. Again, the food geek in me was literally giddy as the first sandwich order came in and one of the kids (and I say “kids” with great affection and am aging myself, but let’s face it, I’m much older than my new coworkers!) showed me how to make it. Soon after another order came up, then another, and pretty soon I was making Italian subs and turkey subs, meatball sandwiches with marinara and preparing Panini in advance since we knew it would be busy….I couldn’t believe I was actually making food! Sure, I’ve made a lot of sandwiches in my life and it certainly wasn’t rocket science, but just the thought of making food that would be paid for and consumed by a total stranger was such a thrill for me. I also prepped a couple of containers of deli meat, learned how to read tickets (NC = no cheese) and made sure the stations stayed clean. It may sound elementary, but I thought it was super, freaking cool.

During pockets of slow periods, one of the kids and I started talking- he asked how many days I’d be working and was surprised to learn I’d only be in once a week. When he asked why, I explained that I already have a career but wanted to get some hands-on experience and a behind-the-scenes look at a café or restaurant in the hopes that maybe one day, I could open a place of my own. He seemed shocked, laughed a bit and said great- then went on to tell me that he was graduating from college soon and had no interested in the food business. So what did I say? I said, “Wow that’s cool…well, I know I’m the granny in this place,” TOTALLY ignoring some sound advice I’d gotten from my friend Joro telling me to just stop myself before I say anything that sounds like an apology for who I am (and, just so you know, I'm 37, not 67!). The minute that sentence came out of my mouth I regretted it, but also realized that although I was really psyched to be making sandwiches, it wasn’t lost on me that it didn’t take any special love for food, any manic obsession for cooking or reading cookbooks or collecting cooking magazines to be working there. Of course I knew that going in, but I suppose I had daydreams of being some sort of shining star, a beacon of food knowledge to finicky customers whose questions about which brand of San Marzano tomatoes to purchase could only be answered by yours truly and they would give me the “ah, a fellow gourmand” wink. I mean, I’m a home cook….not friggin Eric Ripert. Who was I kidding? Although I did feel some pride in making sure my sandwiches were seasoned with salt and pepper (a step that seemed to be unimportant to most of the staff) it wasn’t like there were any customers returning sandwiches for a lack of black pepper. Quite the contrary: not only did everyone look happy as they ate their food in the shady patio, but I actually heard an Italian grandfather-type tell a woman how much he loved the place. It doesn’t take a foodie (I hate that word, but I can’t avoid it here) to make an Italian sub that is satisfactory to most people.

A full hour before closing, the staff began the process, and initially I was confused since I was working a full hour after close and I figured the extra time was to, well, close the place. Ah, this restaurant novice knows nothing as it literally takes almost two hours to get the deli trays changed, deli counters wiped clean, floors swept and washed, food safely stored, cookies put away….at one point I was even down on my hands and knees, taking a brillo pad to a dirty drain. Espresso machines need disinfecting, wines need restocking and the heavy, rubber floor mats now covered in food need to be washed and hung to dry. It’s no joke keeping that “A” in the window and all seven or eight of us worked the full two hours before everything was ready for the next day’s opening. Phew.

Today, I’m back at my regular job, arms sore from carrying those incredibly heavy floor mats, but looking forward to learning more about exactly how an operation like the Italian deli/gourmet store/café works. I only wish I could work more often- I want to own that POS system, feel totally comfortable talking to customers and memorize every single ingredient in every salad, sandwich and pasta dish as soon as tomorrow. But I suppose a journey that took this long to even really begin requires patience, which I’ll have to remind myself. My only regret is that I didn’t start it sooner….I was always worried that I’d miss the free time on weekends and feel tied down by not being able to make plans with friends if I had a second job, but then my husband pointed out that sometimes “you gotta eat shit” in order to fulfill your dreams, and he’s right. I mean, owning your own business, especially in food, means no weekends, no free time, no outings with friends- so I might as well start getting used to it now. And it isn’t so bad… far!