A few nights ago Shuna came to visit my dreams. I'm not sure where we were, somewhere dark. I had hastily put together some dessert components, which she tasted. To each one she said, "Sweet." Not the way my mid-twenties employees might say sweet, but as an accusation, a pejorative. And she was right.
What does this mean gentle reader? I know it was inspired partly by reading "Salt" by Mark Kurlansky. There's a passage which describes the gradual elimination of the sweet from the savory portion of the meal, an unbalancing of the palate as it were, and the shifting of the entire sweet component of the meal to dessert. Certainly many pastry chefs are trying to incorporate the savory into the dessert. I wonder how many of us in the savory world are thinking how to re-balance the meal by bringing some sweetness back into our dishes.
What I really think the dream means is I am just too effing sweet.
One of the most chilling parts of Danny Meyer's "Setting the Table" was his description of what he calls "whelmers". To quote, "Whelmers, sadly, are like a stubborn stain you can't get out of the carpet. They infuse an organization and its staff with mediocrity; they're comfortable, and so they never leave; and frustratingly, they never do anything that rises to the level of getting them promoted or sinks to the level of getting them fired. And because you either can't or don't fire them, you and they conspire to send a dangerous message to your staff and guests that 'average' is acceptable."
Chilling because when I read this to the GM, we instantly thought of one person. Our very own whelmer. Our Steady Eddie. The Republican Sous.
Don't get me wrong. He's a (mostly) nice guy. He's insanely smart, but has to let you know all the time just how smart he is (I unfortunately share his affliction), and he rarely applies that intelligence to his job. He's happiest making puns and bad jokes. He's something of a loner, but not by choice; clumsy socially, he tends to make other people uncomfortable. People who went to high school with him tell me he's always been the same. I feel for him, on a personal level.
On a professional level, he's the perfect picture of Mr Meyer's "whelmer". The GM and I have had numerous discussions about what, if anything, to do about him. But there was nothing to be done. California is an at-will employment state, so I could fire someone for mediocrity, but I don't have the heart for that. I thought about sitting down with him after summer and asking him if he still enjoyed cooking, if there wasn't something out there that was a better application for his intellect, maybe steering him toward something that might, at this point, be more fulfilling.
Last night he gave notice. Oh, happy day! He'll be leaving in a month, going to a place a bit south of us that has big ambitions and big money behind it. He'll also be going somewhere where the chef is more hard-assed and where his qualities might not be tolerated as much as they have been. If he rises to the challenge, it's a good opportunity for him. I hope he does, because I don't want to have to tell him I don't have room for him in the kitchen when he calls a few months from now.
Some diligent readers may wonder if I ever replaced the cook who was leaving to work at a local winery. I didn't, because he didn't get the job. He told me he wouldn't pursue anything else until summer ended, so I'm good shape there. With the whelmer leaving, he may decide to stay. I'm thinking of not replacing the whelmer, rather spreading some of the money I was paying him to the other guys and upping their responsibility. That's a hard call, because it won't leave me much room if anyone gets sick, or needs time off, etc. What I won't do, is hire someone who isn't perfect. Another gem of Mr Meyer's is to not hire someone unless you think they can become one of the top three performers in their job category in your restaurant. Remind me of this when I start screeching about how tired and burnt out I am and a warm body just walked in the door.
I have not really been at work for a week. I made it through most of service last Friday, long enough on the 4th to see it wasn't going to be busy, paying bills on Monday and doing some things on the computer for our upcoming incorporation on Wednesday but other than that I have been out of commission. For me, or any other cook, this is HUGE. I have never in my professional life missed this much work. When I had a kidney stone I missed one day. Ask any cook, you don't take time off. So, I was really, really ill.
When I am ill, it is an 8-12 hour thing. A full day perhaps when it is really, really bad. I had not been this sick for a loooong time. Is my immune system finally letting me down? As it turns out no. The source of the trouble is an impacted wisdom tooth which is creating an infection throughout my body, causing severe pain, making my heart rate go crazy, spiking to 175, hovering around 120, etc. I was supposed to have had the tooth removed, but the lab that took the MRI-like image botched the job and didn't get the whole tooth. There is concern that the nerve might be around the root of the tooth. If the nerve is damaged during the extraction there is a chance that either my lips could go numb, or I could lose taste on one side of my tongue. Most likely temporary if at all, but in rare instances, permanently. Well, I've always been a rare one, so..... Not good prospects for someone in my profession.
I did however manage to do a lot of reading. The sidebar shows all the things I've recently finished, among them "Setting the Table" by Danny Meyer. I won't go into a big description, others have given this book the more than once-over except to say that I extracted a few pertinent gems. I also could have done without as much biography. But then I know who Danny Meyer is, which restaurants are his and roughly when he opened them. Many of his readers will not.
After reading the book and through conversations with the GM I realize it's time for another shift. Not another shift on the line mind you, a shift in perspective, or function. Over two years ago I wrote about becoming an owner. Some of things I wrote about have happened, some have not. The huge difference though is now there is The Sardine. Becoming an owner was easier when the GM had the time to help me devise and implement systems. Now her priorities are squarely, as we both agree they should be, with The Sardine. Summer and illness have reminded me of my physical limitations. I cannot go in, do prep in the late morning, do some quick book work before service and then spend the evening on the floor being gracious without something, somewhere, breaking down. It's how we operated when we opened and it proved disastrous from the financial point of view. My inexperience and burnout led to some mistakes, one of which is still plaguing us to this day.
The very good news is that the loans we took to open the business are nearly all paid, ahead of schedule and we have a reasonable looking lease on the table from our landlord though our lawyer hasn't yet seen it.
So, my after summer task is to do some serious reflection about what my role is, what it should be and what I need to do to define it. If any readers have resources they'd like to share, books to read, questions to ask of oneself, exercises, anything, pass them along. Now however, I have to do what I'm not supposed to be doing. Get moving, assess the damage at work, try to get things ready for one of the cooks to go to the Bay Area (I'm covering some of his shifts) and then upon his return pick my mother-in-law up at the airport, try to get an appointment with the ABC to change our license from a sole proprietorship to a corporation, spend a few days in SF with mom-in-law and make sure a luncheon for a good customer goes well in our absence. Oh yeah, get a new image of my tooth and have surgery.