A breath of fresh air, a bright future, a diamond in the rough
I’m happy to report that there is hope yet – on the work front and in the youth of today (la relève). Just when I’d almost given up on finding good help, a young kid blew in to knock my socks off.
What a breath of fresh air. Throughout my weekend of juice in the kitchen, I remained in a relatively upbeat mood and finished elated, thanks to things going off without a hitch despite being short-staffed, but mainly from having my faith restored even for a night. The source of my elation – a teenager who came in to do the dishes. I’ll call him my diamond in the rough.
I saw from his first night how hard working, positive and curious he was. The next night I had him helping in the kitchen, doing odd jobs like peeling cattails and potatoes, decorating plates. He worked diligently, never asking for anything, was poking his nose into my pots, keenly observing and tasting; I could not believe how ‘allumé’ this kid was. And he hails from a backwoods small town, knows nothing about food or cooking or gastronomy or wild plants. I gave him his first taste of Reggiano, alongside a number of artisanal Quebec cheeses, he also tasted duck, scallops, veal cheek, not to mention a multitude of wild greens and roots for the first time. He was thrilled with each bite. He had no idea what a scallop was but asked if he could taste it raw! I'm used to having to cajole or threaten students into tasting anything remotely exotic, let alone raw.. In service, he danced the kitchen dance with ease, never getting in the way, aware, following cues and jumping in, executing any task I’d given him exactly. It was so impressive for a kid who had never been in a professional kitchen or taken a class. I could not have asked for more even from a ‘trained’ cook out of school. It was obvious this kid ‘had it’. This never happens, I’m never impressed, this kid was something else. I began coddling him like crazy - I’ve never been so nice to any newbie. In the early phase, I’m usually annoyed most of the time and more concerned with discipline, starting off on the right foot, laying down the law, seeing if they’re cut out for it before investing too much.
What had me so rapt, what was I so worked up about, why was I being so nice all of a sudden? It was his keen eye, ear and nose, the ability to think on his feet, to catch on quick. An unbridled curiosity, a hungry nature, an open mind, and smart questions (not useless ones, so commonly asked without thinking first - that just break my concentration and sap my energy..) His politeness, hard work and stamina, with no special needs on the side. He was eager to try anything and everything. The pressure didn't seem to bother him, he was sharp and optimistic the whole way through, he naturally knew when to buckle down, when to talk, when not to talk. He evidently had a tough composition, but a sweet disposition. Here was a (smart) kid who was simply happy to be working and learning. Come to think of it, this package shouldn’t be such a rare thing, but trust me, it is, especially so young.
Most restaurants I know are looking for cooks, farmers are equally short of labourers, businesses across the board are in relentless search of enthusiastic, reliable workers at every level. Although there is technically a shortage of skilled workers, among the candidates available, it’s not necessarily that talent is lacking, the problem is more to do with attitude, work ethic, passion, dedication.. We’ve all gotten used to expecting less, having to retrain and retrain, accepting that one out of every ten employees will amount to anything, in this industry in particular. They all want big pay and glory off the get go, too many days off, with no concept of paying their dues.. It’s a common dialogue among chefs, restaurateurs and business owners in general. The times, they are a changing and fast, albeit for the good in many aspects, but we can’t up-end our whole operating order overnight, at least not until people are willing to pay way more for their food. So it’s all about doing your best with what you’ve got, damage control, avoiding the bad apples, making the most of the good eggs. Thankfully, a good egg makes up for a few bad apples.
Back to this good egg, my diamond in the rough. I showed him how to hold a knife for the first time; he was so determined to be able to cut like Jonathan (my beloved apprentice and pseudo kid, now a seasoned cook) - he was intently studying his every move and then going at it with such determination. After we’d cleaned up, he also helped with the dishes, never looking at his watch, never asking for a break.. While his peers are out being delinquents, uninterested in working for minimum wage, he’s happily busting his ass.
He was so proud at the end of the night when we gave him 2 oz of wine to cheers with us (he’s underage after all) and all the staff was complimenting him. He told me how fun he found the kitchen, doing so many different kinds of cool things, being a part of a team, seeing happy customers.. I understand how it would beat cutting grass or strictly doing dishes, but he seemed genuinely pleased, even bitten. And I’m quite sure he didn’t understand how brilliantly he had done. I was beaming for his mother.
I know better than to get my hopes up so quick, but what the hell, a girl needs to find her diamonds wherever she can, and regardless of what happens next, this one made a difference in realigning my disillusioned outlook with respect to kids today.. And I was reminded once again that I really can/still/do love teaching..
P.S. After I wrote this, I couldn’t help but think of Jonathan in his early days as my apprentice at l’Eau.. I wrote about him too a while back (you’ll see some common threads I’m sure). http://soupnancy.squarespace.com/more-food-writing/my-mentor-and-my-apprentice.html