After 10 years in this industry, there was a part of me that was proud to realize that I had become hard as coffin nails. I was as the industry had made me.
I had also become quick: quick witted, nimble in close quarters, and fleet of foot. I could think my way out of any problem and figure out a workaround to any surprise.
I had earned my bones.
I had also closed down my heart and flushed compassion down the toilet. Both had become liabilities to successfully accomplishing the mission. If someone’s issue or problem didn’t directly affect the objective, it had no place in my kitchen or in my mind. I needed to be focused, anything else — sick kids, the death of a loved one, or someone else’s addiction — didn’t matter to me. It wasn’t a complete day until someone cried, and it would never, ever be me.
Working backwards against the clock had become a finely-honed skill. Anything that negatively influenced that timeline had to be discarded, ignored, or forgotten.
Twenty years on, despite a stainless steel heart, late at night, the “hour of doubt” would come upon me. Trying to medicate my adrenaline high, I would sometimes consider the Faustian bargain I had made for my culinary success. I was okay giving up being a "regular citizen” for the life of a culinary pirate. I was a “kitchen dawg,” but was compassion, consideration, or empathy an equitable price to be paid for the intense, instant gratification of the grind?
It had to be, right?
Or was it? If I was good with it all, what was that nagging voice at the back of my brain asking me to look deeper? Didn’t it know I had a kitchen to run, stuff to do, people to please?
Generations of Culinary Culture
As a fresh-faced newbie, full of ideas and grand plans, my chefs had taken great pains, and some measure of perverse pleasure, in breaking me in right. I was eager to excel and listened well. All those lofty ideals would have to go if I was going to be a success in “the real world.” Stripping me of the luxury of my dreams took a while, but ultimately, I came to realize that there was only so much to hope for — everything else was just a detail.
I came to realize that the culinary craft is mostly a generational one. Mostly. Each successive generation builds upon the last and, with the exception of the advancement of technology, our field can be best expressed by “what was old is new again,” albeit reimagined or de- or re-constructed. It’s curious to note that while techniques may have changed the look of “it,” how “it” gets done has essentially stayed the same.
There is a recognizable, and essential, amount of grit necessary to be successful in this business. There remains, as it always has been, very little room for anything else, family, other creative endeavors, or self-care in order to “make it.” Community involvement would often only extend to one’s own immediate neighborhood and only when there was a bona fide, measurable reciprocal remuneration.
No one, not The Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, or Gen Xer’s, have shifted the culinary culture in any sizable way. Not me, probably not even you. Most generations have, by and large, towed the line of the required devotion and single-minded dedication to their craft.
It’s been head down and all “asses and elbows” boys and girls.
That is, until the Millennials starting showing up on the line. They have been described, quite negatively, in the press as entitled, narcissistic, or high maintenance. They will, as I have experienced personally, walk off the line in the middle of a shift without another job to go to, simply because they don’t feel appreciated.
They have disrupted the old order, and some chefs are completely befuddled by this curious lack of desperation, which can always be manipulated for one’s own gain. The tried-and-true practices of shaming, blaming, and generally treating subordinates poorly falls on the deaf ears of Millennials, and if those are the only tools in your motivational war chest, then you may be in for a big surprise.
“Previous generations entered the workplace with different ideas and attitudes but quickly assimilated — remember when the now-workaholics of Generation X were seen as slackers? But as Millennials flood into offices, it’s more likely that the rest of the workers will shift their attitudes to become more like the newcomers, rather than vice versa,” a report in Fortune reads.
By 2020, Millennials will represent over 50 percent of the work force, and they are not playing the game as we did. This tends to anger a lot of the old guard — but not for the reason you might think.
The reason I think that many of these attitudes and aspirations piss off some of the older chefs is that, we too, were once like them. I know I was. We all came into the game with a moral compass. The difference between the Millennials and us, meaning me, is that we were all too willing to play by the old rules in order to get ahead. The pecking order had to be respected or there was a real danger of being outside looking in. I even had a chef say to me, “Lamb, time for you to go look for another job because I’m not going anywhere.” And I did.
Millennials, on the other hand, don’t care about succeeding the old way, the way we are all familiar with: The way which minimizes the importance of anything but work. Millennials are, in short, showing us ourselves as we could have been, if only we had believed that the “who we are” is important as the “what we do.”
The way it could have been if we had been willing to stand by our moral compass.
We had to suffer. Why isn’t fair to ask them to do so, as well? Their presence in our operations, their perceived needs, and aspirations has forced me, and a lot of other smart chefs, to reconsider their way of doing things. Unless, of course, we want to be the only ones on the line for service.
From Management to Mentorship
Millennials want more than a job, a means to an end. They want community, they want connection, they want to be included and, according to Forbes, don’t want a boss — they want a coach. If they don’t find those attributes in your operation, they have no qualms about searching for and ultimately finding them elsewhere.
Maybe now would be a good time to consider shifting your own personal administrative style from management to mentorship?
Maybe now would be a good time to create clear and measurable career and succession paths in your organization?
Maybe now would be a great time to invite in your Millennial subordinates into the decision-making process and treating them as stakeholders, instead of just the mechanism to carry out those decisions?
Maybe. Or you could conduct business as you’ve always done, but be aware of the law of diminishing results. As the article in Fortune continues, “Certainly, it’s better to directly address the needs and understand the characteristics of the Millennial generation than to pretend they don’t exist. There’s evidence that this shift would ramp up innovation and even profits.”
Are Millennials changing the culinary culture? Yes.
Is that change for the better? If you mean that their appearance on the line has forced some of us, kicking and screaming, to open our hearts once again, then, yes, absolutely.
I don’t know about you, but for me the change has reconnected me to that fresh-faced tenderfoot I once was and all those aspirations that I held for me, my career, and for those I would choose to spend my professional time with. And those ideals are worth standing for.