Monday, January 16, 2012

Once again into the fire

It's time to start a new semester. I'm not nearly so motivated than I was in the past.

Much of this is due to some really unpleasant people - students with unpleasant dispositions who saunter around dispensing insults like evil stepsisters tossing shredded hate confetti.

Part is the realization that other than becoming a great home cook, I may never earn even a pittance in this career, so I could very well be wasting everyone's time. Worse, if every chef I met is correct, even if I do secure work it will likely be neither enjoyable nor creative.

So as the dawn of new classes looms, I look upon tomorrow with trepidation. I recall unpleasant moments from last semester, words spat by three different students at other students, overheard in different situations...

"You need to leave, now."
"You're not wanted here."
"That's my seat. Get out!" (it wasn't).

These and even nastier comments were all uttered by students to other students. The real comments weren't so nice as this, however. I've just blanked out most of what I heard after several weeks of re-immersion in real life.

What was the justification for these comments? I don't really know. It certainly wasn't because someone is striving to create a good learning environment.

Could it come from too much reality TV? Could it be that some instructor at school talks like this, making them think this is the way a professional working environment should work? Some kind of positive feedback for negative actions?

From what source stems these people's superior knowledge and authority? They're at best two or three classes ahead of those they disdain. Were they like that before they came to the program, or were these wicked ways somehow developed during their training? Encouraged somehow, morphed into some strange topology where the most unpleasant peon is superior and only the most adamantly arrogant win? Win what? The accolades of instructors? Which ones? Why? Where is the most beneficial outcome here?

Strange. This can't be mere coincidence, can it? The same intonation, the same snide yet smug barbs spit from sneering lips. Three people, all using the same speech pattern, like they're repeating something they learned, somewhere. If not in the culinary arts program, then where? Its like there's a class, Kitchen Insults 101, where they hone their vitriolic skills before being unleashed into the world. A class whose motto is, "Never praise your underlings when you can belittle them".

And why would they think that creating a negative working environment, deriding others instead of showing them how to improve, slinging petty insults would produce better food? Wouldn't a happy, creative team in the kitchen be a good thing? Isn't a petty, backstabbing, snide pack of hissing vipers something unlikely to function well? Is culinary greatness somehow achieved not by acts of brilliance and leadership, but by grinding the competition, both real and imagined, into the dirt?

After seeing and hearing these unpleasant women in action, I know that I would not want to eat anything they cooked. I'd like to say the nastiness were gender neutral, yet it did not seem to be. Well, this semester could change all that. Maybe this time it will be unpleasant males, or a foul-sounding bitter blend of both sexes chewing away like rats gnawing on dessicated bones.

If a wizard were to gift those arrogant, opinionated and inflexible students with the ability to play musical instruments, put them on stage and bid them perform, it would not be pretty. If they remained true to their natures, each student would strive to dominate the others, to the detriment of the audience. Some might exit the stage, unwilling to put up with the strife, their talents wasted. In the end, there would be one dominant musician; everyone else would be relegated to the background. In life as it is on television. Master Chef, Chopped, Iron Chef. One winner, zero sum. Not variations on a theme but one melody to rule them all.

Kudos to an educational system that underscores the unpleasantness of a new career, even going so far as to insist people volunteer for events and then deriding them for not having a complete skill set. They're students! Get it? Students don't come pre-trained; that's what they're taking classes for. "Oh my God! You ruined that piece of meat! It's trashed!". Right. It wasn't sliced perfectly, but after being held for service, or reheated, slapped on a plate, doused in sauce and accompanied with hastily spooned accompaniments it's highly unlikely anyone would even notice that its edges were more jagged than the norm or the uniformity of the pieces lacking.

Needless to say, I won't be doing a lot of volunteering for special events this semester, at least not without taking a careful look at who will be in charge and who I would be working with.

What kind of effect will these things have on my job prospects? I can imagine a potential employer saying, "You went there, huh? We had to let the last five people go. Three were insulting, one refused to work where we wanted, one decided to modify all our formulas, and all thought they were the chef, the boss, the supreme leader. One even got into a shoving war with an employee. So, why should I think you're different?"

The employer would be right to ask such a question. If I were a chef and saw that kind of behavior in my kitchen, I'd give warnings. If it persisted, probation period over. Fail. Out you go. Or maybe I'd use their speech pattern: "You need to leave. Now. Just get out."


One instructor even seemed to encourage favoritism over learning. Skilled students were told to self-organize into teams that would produce the perfect dessert, leaving the rest to sink or swim. "Part of a normal workplace is self-organization" or something like that.

Remember choosing people for teams as a kid? The best players would be the team captains. They would then take turns picking their team members, going from the best to the worst. Humiliating if you were the last pick, but at least the teams could theoretically come out even and compete on an even basis.

It didn't work that way in this class. Using the same analogy, the team captains would form their own team, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Hah! Losers! Not the best way to spread the excellence.

The whole "best people first" thing was a great way to encourage stress. There were at least two fights, probably encouraged as a direct result of this social setup. I don't think anything got beyond yelling and maybe a bit of shoving, but still. Assault and battery really should not be part of the curriculum.

But. This isn't a group of kids choosing players on a field. This is training for professional food preparation. What newly hired recent graduate could waltz into the workplace and tell people to regroup into favorites and dregs? You get hired. You go where they tell you, do what they tell you and work with everyone. You learn how things are done. Your skills improve. You teach others. You don't put on airs and refuse to be part of the team because you consider someone your inferior.


Call me an idealist, utopian, dreamer, fool - but I still think things can and should be different.

Like a ray of light piercing last semester's foul miasma of oppressor and oppression, and instructor brought in films of great French chefs working in their kitchens. They collaborated, invented, tried dishes that they decided didn't work, slung ingredients, pushed the envelope. Never did they descend into petty individual competitions. They were part of a team, like a group of musicians creating a harmonious symphony. They were not afraid to fail. One even went so far as to say that a dish improved over its life on the menu, and by the time the menu changed, the plate was almost perfected.

I would like to work in that kitchen. I imagine it like a jam session, where some goal is outlined and the kitchen team gets to play with their food, testing variations, failing, learning, creating. Eventually, a new dish would be ready for its unveiling, something that would thrill, surprise and delight the house's patrons.

Why can't we strive for this model, where fun, skill, teamwork, creativity unite? If we're going to work long, hot hours for low pay, couldn't the experience be uplifting and creative?

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