By: Ryan Hodros, Culinary Arts Student
An interesting thing happened this past week in class. We were halfway through charcuterie week, and I found myself cutting up meat to be ground and pureed into all-natural, all-beef hot dogs. (For those who don’t know, charcuterie is the preparation and preservation of meats, including bacon, forcemeats, sausage, etc. It’s absolutely fascinating and has been one of my favorite parts of the Boulder Culinary Arts program thus far).
As I was cutting up the meat to be ground, pureed, and cased as hot dogs, a classmate of mine came over, saying, “You’d think we were having a knife skills test,” because I was cutting this piece of meat into a pretty uniform large dice. I was tired after both a busy week and a long day, and the task was kind of boring, so I said, “Any excuse to practice” in a snarkier tone than I intended.
I didn’t give it further thought until I was home, reruns on the television while I half-dozed on the couch, and I realized that the little knife-skills challenge I had given myself made the day significantly more enjoyable. The thought brought a little smile to my face, and then I fell asleep because I was exhausted.
But in sitting down to write this blog entry, I realized that making the best of “mundane” tasks is a skill that every culinary professional needs to develop early on in their career. There will eventually come a time when you have to julienne a couple dozen onions, peel pounds of potatoes, slice bags of apples, or dice up a side of beef. Many aspiring chefs (particularly those that skip school and dive straight into an apprenticeship) can expect to do this for some time before they’re given bigger responsibilities.
For those who are getting into the field for artistic and creative outlet, how do you cope? “I didn’t leave my career as an engineer to brunoise carrots all day long!” you might cry. But the reality of being a culinary professional (as with any profession) is that parts of the job are going to be mundane. There will be days where you find yourself neck-deep in a task that is boring, tedious, or downright unpleasant.
So what do you do? I have a number of strategies that have served me well over the years. Here’s what I recommend:
1. Turn it into a challenge.
Like the above example where I was large dicing the beef even though I didn’t need to, I find that mundane tasks are significantly more engaging if you make them into something you have to concentrate on. If you’re peeling potatoes, try to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Time yourself, or weigh the amount of waste you’re creating. Just ramp up the difficulty level so your brain feels like the task is worth its time. You’ll have a better day, and your skills will improve!
2. Keep your eyes on the brass ring
A common saying is “Everyone likes sausage, but nobody likes to see it made,” but it doesn’t really apply if you’re the guy making the sausage. If you find yourself up to your shoulders in something you find disgusting, unnerving, or downright overwhelming, remember what your end product will be. Sure, scooping near-liquid meat out of a robo-coupe, cleaning out sheep intestines, and then combining the two is kind of a gross task if you’re not used to it. But when we finally boiled, grilled, and ate those hot dogs (with housemade buns, mustard, and ketchup no less), It was all worth it.
3. Keep your eyes on the brass ring (but in a different way)
You have to “put in your time” in every profession. When I played football, the freshmen and sophomores cleaned up the scattered equipment after practice. At the YMCA, I spent a lot of time wiping noses, unclogging toilets, and going without showers before I got put in a management position. In the Navy, I spent more than a year sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, and getting yelled at before I got put in a position of any real responsibility. If you’ve held a job, you know what I mean—jobs that the noobs get to prove that they really want the job.
It’s important to keep in mind (especially if it’s your first time doing these newbie jobs) that they don’t last forever. Sure, you might do a lot of scrubbing as an intern at the French Laundry, but you’ll work your way up the ladder eventually. Chances are good the person you’re working for spent a fair amount of his life doing that same “awful” task you hate so much, and the reason they got to where they are is because they learned to make the best of it.
4. Remember it’s not all mundane tasks.
It’s really easy to fixate on the things you don’t like about any task, but if you’re getting into the culinary industry, it’s because there’s a large part of the job you’re passionate about. Keep that in the front of your mind at all times, especially when you’re neck-deep in something you don’t particularly enjoy, because that’s what will keep you motivated. You might not like mopping, but you did enjoy flambéing cherries jubilee an hour before the cleaning supplies came out. You might not like chopping onions, but you will enjoy making the French onion soup they go in.
There are other methods to dealing with mundane or unpleasant tasks to be sure, but I find that these four are the most effective and the most universal. People have more control over how they perceive their day than we realize, and using that ability to come to grips with the parts of whatever job you don’t like in order to get more enjoyment out of the parts you love is how you keep the fire going day after day. If you’re passionate about food, you have something inside you the world will be interested in. Don’t let a pile of onions prevent you from putting it out there!