Dropping the F-Bomb — Farewell
An essay by Greg Kuzia-Carmel on departing with dignity.
March 31, 2016
Greg Kuzia-Carmel is a chef, photographer, outdoorsman, writer, artist, man of the people and restaurant guru, in no particular order. He has spent time cooking in some of the worlds finest restaurants (most recently, Quince and Cotogna) while traversing the globe, living in Boston, Spain, New York City and San Francisco. He lives in a quaint little beach community on the Pacific Ocean with his trusted side kick, a rescued mutt named Heath. The below is a semi-fictional twist on reality.
“I’ve just fucking had it,” mutters Ricky, my partner tonight on the fish station.
It’s only loud enough for me to hear. “Camel. Straw. Back. Done. I’m fucking done. Over it.” The expeditor issues a few pleas from his position at the pass, watching us scramble around like Shemp and Curley Howard.
It’s a busy Friday night at the restaurant, and Ricky and I are getting what is colloquially known in the restaurant industry as “annihilated.” The weeds. The crusher. The deep-shits. We are collectively Donald Gennaro in Jurassic Park, unceremoniously positioned in the outhouse waiting for consumption by the proverbial T-Rex.
Perhaps it was the blurb in a popular print publication about our restaurant and its “excellent” seafood program, but the fury doesn’t seem to reach the meat cooks, who are slung on the sidelines watching us go down. “SONOFABITCH,” Ricky screams into his lowboy. He’s scrambling to find his backup of silky artichoke puree, but his station is a mess and he just can’t find it.
We’ve hit a snag. But there’s something else at play this evening, something an outsider doesn’t see.
Ricky has been at the restaurant for one year and eleven months, almost to the hour, but he is planning to celebrate the forthcoming anniversary differently than all of us have anticipated: by leaving. Prior to filing into our stations today, Ricky approached our Chef to deliver the bittersweet tidings; the news, disappointing and personal after so much time, is not taken well. But, the two sides shake, the terms are inked and acknowledged, and they embark on their respective preparations for the evening ahead.
Still, not everything is as it should be. A few hours into service, El Jefe is festering with the news. He’s got sweaty palms, a jukebox selection of negativity, and a nasty case of bloodlust. Tonight is not going to be easy. The crosshairs are beading down on our newly-disgraced Ricky, and as for me, his erstwhile station-mate: collateral.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why, after leaps and bounds of evolution in our profession, is the idea of someone leaving met with such hostility and animosity? We all understand the growing pains of someone new stepping up into a new role on the brigade. We understand the bonds developed in service after service of intense, world-class cookery. We know that after years of commitment to one’s craft and industry, we become more familiar to our colleagues than even to some of our closest family.
But the cold hard fact of the restaurant world is that every single person, no matter how integral and seemingly identifiable to an operation, will most likely leave. In few other career fields is turnover as likely, or as swift. There are entire industries and protocols in other fields devoted to smooth transitions and clean exits, but in our field, we often resort to something much more primitive: rage.
Where loyalty and legacy fork on the highways of professionalism and progression, we are forced to ask ourselves possibly the most difficult of innate human questions: how do we leave those we care about? How do we solicit empathy, professionally, from those who have invested in us?
To this, and to those considering disembarking their current ships, I offer a few pieces of sage advice. First, stay positive, no matter the pressure. Don’t sweat the petty stuff, and remember that you control your legacy. Second, bust your ass. Everybody remembers the guy who hits the cruise control and tries to coast out of a job. People often forget that your leaving also means someone else is coming in — those last few weeks are your only cross-over. You never know who you are going to work with or for someday, so treat every single person like gold.
Finally, be gracious, be thankful, be honest, and be sincere. We are a proud tribe, one that historically leans more bellicose than benevolent, but times are changing. By leading by example, even if from an exiting position, we can steer the ship in the right direction for those who follow us.
“Two more stripers, Ricky, how long?” Chef bellows. He doesn’t ordinarily get this worked up, but tonight is no ordinary night.
“Four minutes,” Ricky responds, matter-of-fact.
A few moments later, “How long?”
Ricky, stoic: “Still about three and a half.”
Chef is now a veritable hand grenade. He is seething with rage. He has stopped what he is doing, and is now standing in proximity to Team Poissonier, his aggression palpable. “I’m going to ask you one. Last. Fucking. Time. How. Long?”
With a snap pivot on his heels, Ricky turns one-hundred and eighty degrees, landing squarely before the commander’s face. Insubordinate or not, he’ll be damned if he’s going down without a word. We’re all watching. “I’m going to give you the two best possible pieces of fish at exactly the first instance that they are ready to be served to our patrons. I have nothing but respect for you and this kitchen. Allow me time and the space to make this nice, and I promise you, I will not let you down.”
BEEP – BEEP – BEEP – BEEP—
A small digital alarm explodes, sending the fighters back to their corners. Ricky silences the device, and carefully removes two delicately roasting fillets of crispy-skinned striped bass from his oven. He collects the side componentry I’ve arranged on a small stainless steel platter for him, and places it back in front of our leader.
Chef inserts a thin metal skewer carefully into the heart of the fillet. He’s looking for flaws: a bit underdone, a hair over, a little uneven cooking that’s rendered part of the skin leathery and unappetizing. But no fault will he find; his beloved understudy has delivered, and in some convoluted way, this seems to pacify the beast.
The last two plates are built — masterpieces — and sent cruising to their final destination in front of a few remaining guests.
“Thank you,” offers Chef, in the quiet wake of the confrontation. “That’s what it’s all about.”
We clean our cockpit and head home.
For a few weeks longer we toil, we joke, we do battle, until Ricky finally departs for his European sabbatical. The orchestra plays on. At the end of the day, it was always just food, a humble fact that — no matter how hard we beat our chests — could not be avoided.