During my past year in the culinary world, there have been a lot of ups and downs. I’ve written about some of them here. It’s been a rough year emotionally, much different from before, but still pretty hard.
The kitchen is so different from the office. In my work as an office manager, there weren’t many days when I wanted to give up and go home, pondered whether I made the right decision, questioned my skills, or drove home crying. The office is a place where you know what’s going to happen every day. It’s structured, and the rules are clear. You know what you’ll be doing when you get in in the morning.
The kitchen is very different. You never know what you’ll be doing or what will happen. It’s VERY stressful, and things can change from one second to the next. Flexibility has been difficult for me from the beginning; although I’ve made some progress, this will be a major objective for me in the next few years.
When I first started school, my major fear was blood. I was nervous about being around (human) blood, and of course I knew what I was getting into. Part of my OCD was this fear of getting someone else’s blood on me, and I was thankful that during my therapy (before school), I had reached the point where I could even make the decision to go to culinary school. In a way, this decision would ultimately help me with my OCD (exposure to the trigger/fear). Every new day at culinary school was a day for me to practice getting better.
In the beginning, it was very hard for me to watch people cut themselves and bleed. I got nervous and wanted to leave the room, or go wash my hands. I was nervous that those people then wouldn’t wash their hands and bandage the wound properly, and continue preparing food. These fears still exist, but I have become much more relaxed about it. But I’m still way more tense about it than everyone else in the kitchen, or so it seems to me.
Although I hesitate to call what I was doing before culinary school a ‘career’, I suppose I fit into the category of a career changer. I already have a BA in philosophy from a great liberal arts college, and was working as an office manager, and then for a while as a temp after my graduation. Some would say that changing careers is a courageous move, but for me it just seemed necessary to do something else. To find something that had more meaning to me, to learn a craft – do something with my hands. I wasn’t scared about being a student, because I have always been good at that. But I was scared of not being good enough, not being able to handle the stress of the kitchen, not being willing to work 80 hours a week to master my craft.
Navigating the school was a real challenge at first. I don’t mean finding my way around campus (although without a map, that, too, was a challenge). Orientation didn’t answer all my questions, and I was struggling to figure things out. I was so frustrated, and couldn’t understand why the school was so disorganized. It was simply a very different experience from a traditional college. I was used to things going smoothly, there being a directory, a map, a schedule. Here, everything was chaos. I didn’t even get my class schedule or know what my classes were or which group I was going to be in until three days before class. My office manager personality didn’t understand what was going on. It was agony.
The disorganization of the school in turn made me feel disorganized as a student. The online class forum we used in addition to real life classes was full of mistakes and technological hurdles, the syllabi (if there were any) were unclear, and everything seemed a mess. As a person who usually has her day-to-day stuff in order, I really had a hard time finding my way through the first three months of classes (Mod 1). And it was a mystery to me why the other students weren’t as upset as I was about this. But alas, they seemed happy and content.
In Mod 2, our second term at culinary school, I was a but more relaxed about things. My schedule was less cluttered, my transfer credits had been worked out (not quite to my satisfaction, but I let it go), and I had done a really good job in my first term. So far I was doing well as a student, although my organizational self was still struggling. We had our first real production classes (for culinary), meaning we were cooking food that real customers were eating in the restaurant.
At this point, I had come to terms with the fact that all chefs are different, have different temperaments and management styles, and want different things from their students. I was becoming more confident, and I was gaining more skills. Plus, I had overcome the initial hurdles of starting a new career/school/home. I had the OCD until better control and was feeling stronger. Even when one of the chefs threw my food on the floor, I stayed calm and it didn’t really affect me that much. I was trying really hard to not take things personally, and not be too affected by the drama of the kitchen.
At the beginning of the internship, things went great. I was doing an okay job, getting along with everyone, and learning things. I wasn’t the quickest, but I was precise, and my work was acceptable. Things started getting tricky when the executive chef left mid-November. I had started in October, and in November, I was managing my own station. There wasn’t a lot going on, but everyone assured me things would pick up in December. Plus, there would be a menu change in early December, which promised to be exciting.
During November, I started getting bored because there wasn’t a lot of work. I had learned a lot so far about how my station worked, and how things worked in a professional kitchen. Since it was slow, I had more time to think about the internship, and I really wanted to explore and experience all the areas of the kitchen, all the stations, banquets, in-room dining, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and so on. Maybe I could even work with purchasing just to see how that works.
After 60 days, I did a review with my supervisor, one of the sous chefs. He laid out a plan for me to experience lots of different things, and one of the first things was Upper Lobby. (You can also see my posts on this from November and December of 2011.) Af first is was fun, but after a couple of days, it was boring, too. I was just standing around, and this time, I was truly bored. It had been two months, and I hadn’t really made any food, much less learn anything new in terms of culinary. It began to get super-frustrating. Plus, I wasn’t getting enough hours on a weekly basis.
The holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, were rough because I had to work, and I missed my family, and was feeling lonely in general. I felt like I wasn’t really getting what I wanted or needed out of the internship, and there weren’t any friends around. Plus, driving two hours a day for the commute was beginning to get irritating, and things weren’t working out.
The menu change went over okay, but the lack of meetings was disorienting, and nobody had really explained to us what was happening and what the plates were supposed to look like. Mid-December we got a new executive chef, so of course more things changed, and then Christmas came, so everyone was really busy. The New Year came and went, and I finally got the chance to speak with chef about moving me around some more. I told him I wasn’t really happy doing the Upper Lobby, and wanted to learn other things. I think he understood, but he couldn’t really move me around a lot because now was the busy season, and I could be moved after President’s Day (mid-February).
In the meantime, there had been a lot of changes to the staff, but I was still one of only a few women working in a sea of men. And the culture working with lots of men is quite different than what I am used to. There are lots of dirty jokes, lots of unrefined behavior, and generally less professionalism than you would imagine. And when you work closely with people in high-stress situations, feelings come up, things happen, and drama ensues. Let’s just way there were a lot of nights I didn’t want to be there anymore. And yes, there was also crying.
There were many times when I questioned my abilities, and these were real low moments. It seemed like the more time went by, the more I doubted myself. I’m not good enough. I haven’t learned anything. I’m too short. I’m too sensitive. I’m not strong enough. I’m not creative enough. I don’t know anything. I’m too emotional. I’m too shy. I’m not confident. No one cares about me. I don’t want to work like this. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t do anything. I don’t belong here.
All these thoughts went through my head in those moments. It was very upsetting. At the end of my internship, my chef said I was ‘tender-hearted’. And by that I think he meant to say that I was very sensitive. In other words, I need to be tougher. I’m just not sure how I feel about this. I am very sensitive, and on the one hand, this is something I’ve cultivated in order to be more compassionate. But on the other hand, for the kitchen, this is not a very useful tool. The kitchen is a rough place. And I am definitely not ‘kitchen-tough’. I just hope there are other kitchens out there that are a better fit for me.
I never doubted my decision to go to culinary school. There are lots of directions I can take, lots of sub-fields I can get interested in and learn more about. I can become the professional I want to be. But I haven’t found my place just yet. And how could I, after only one year in a new state, a new profession, a new life?
My hope for the next year is to become much more relaxed and confident in the kitchen (and in general). I need to work on flexibility, and not taking things personally. I need to let things go more, and move on, rather than dwell on emotions. What I’d like to find is the ideal combination of tough and compassionate, if that’s possible.
There is a place for me. I know it.