Dear Younger Me — Lisa Nakamura

To be filed away under TRUTH.

June 27, 2016 ● 3 min read

An employee once asked how long I’ve been in the industry.  

 “20 years,” I told him. He asked how I hadn’t assaulted anyone yet.  

After two decades, there are some truths that are constant. If you’re just starting out, here are a few things to remember as you take your first steps. It's what I’d tell the younger me, anyway.

Your employer is not your parent.

While they may listen to your problems, sympathize and even empathize with what you’re facing in your personal world, don’t expect them to fix things you’ve broken, screwed up or neglected. Get used to that no-safety-net feeling. And more importantly, get the job done, the right way, the first time, every time, no matter what.

You will always wash dishes.

If you don’t want to wash dishes, you shouldn’t be in the kitchen. Be prepared to wash everything in sight; plunge toilets, scrub sinks, mop floors, muck out refrigerators, polish utensils, burnish pots and pans, dust off shelves and consolidate, consolidate, consolidate.

Be ready to have total strangers slaughter you online.

Know your heart and soul are going to get ripped out and dragged through the mud by people who haven’t even managed to boil water well. Steel yourself for this, and keep on putting your heart and soul into your food. In a world full of restaurants vying for attention, that ineffable quality is the only thing that can’t be replicated. Let your pride shine on the plate. (Please note: pride does not equal ego.)

Kitchen work is hard, grueling, thankless, and physically demanding.

Younger me, we are now 50-something and still plugging away, in large part because we don’t smoke, don’t drink heavily, don’t do drugs, and have taken care of ourselves through the years. I’m not saying live the life of a hermit, but be mindful of your body now, because it will definitely matter later on in life.  

Get used to the hours.

When you made the decision to become a cook, you signed away normal working hours. The days will loom long before you, but 11 pm always comes around, faster than you ever think it will. Embrace those long hours, because every minute you spend washing lettuce, peeling carrots, polishing utensils and cleaning everything one more time is another minute spent honing your craft. As you graduate to more complicated tasks, know that weekends and holidays off are moving further out of your reach because you are becoming an integral and important part of the kitchen brigade. Take it as a compliment when you ask for time off and the chef freaks out because they don’t know how the kitchen will run without you.

Leave your baggage behind.

Once you walk in that door, you’re on stage. Be upbeat, be positive, and be cheerful and energetic. Don’t pull the wet dog trick — you know, the one where the dog shakes off and gets everyone wet? And everyone now smells like wet dog? That one. Don’t be the Wet Dog. In the kitchen, more than anywhere else, your attitude determines your altitude.

Step outside of yourself.

Greet your co-workers with a smile and a hello. Ask them how they are, and mean it. Listen. Be present.  

No complaining.

Don’t talk about how tired you are, especially to the kitchen crew or your manager or the owner or basically anyone who’s been working superhuman hours. Don’t even go down the road of how long your shift is. If you want praise for the work you’ve done, start by telling someone else how much you appreciate their efforts.  

Your success in a kitchen rests on your shoulders.

You can learn from anyone, if you open your mind. Positive experiences, days you’d rather forget, they’re all important lessons. The things that irk you, chafe your skin, give you burns on your arms and scars on your soul are the things that teach you the most. You can always learn more from the plate that comes back uneaten than from all the praises sung in your name.

Square up your shoulders, and push back HARD against your ego if it keeps you from learning. Move forward, even if all you want to do is sit in a corner and quit. Because one day, you will look around and realize you’re standing on a higher elevation. Yes, many people have helped you up that incline, but you did the hard work. Exult in that moment — and then keep climbing.  

You’re in this business for the long haul. If you want to be around twenty, thirty, forty years from now, guard these words well, and practice them. And as we say in the restaurant biz, if you don’t like something, be patient. In two weeks, it will all change again.  

The one constant is you.           

Lisa Nakamura | Collage by ChefsFeed