Two posts in one: what I’ve learned, and my soapbox.

Whenever I chat with others back at home on my off-days, the most often-ringing question I’ve been asked is:

Well, what have you learned there?

Well.

I’ve learned the virtues of cleaning kilos upon kilos of whelks. I’ve learned that freshly cracked coconut oil is an amazing thing. I’ve learned the best way to de-skin the film on big-ass sepia. I’ve learned two new ways to say “hot, behind you!” in two different languages as well as two new ways to say “yes, chef.” I’ve re-learned that in fact that when you work with chocolate, it is not the chocolate that is messy, it is, in fact, the cook working with the chocolate that is messy.

I’ve learned that no matter how many hours, over how many days you’ve worked, it’ll normally be your brain that gets tired before your body. I’ve learned that whatever a michelin star is, it is only in the eye of the beholder. I’ve learned that Danish cooks are badasses. But I’ve also learned that not every Danish cook is a badass. I’ve also learned that I can keep up with the cooks, whether Danish, badass, or not. I’ve learned that when I prep, I want to listen to the Studio Brussels radio station. I’ve learned that I’ll probably never figure out what a G6 is, and these European kids are no help.

I’ve learned that you can, in fact, overload on nice food to the point where you don’t even want to sniff an amazingly in-season truffle. I’ve learned that there is a fine line between determination and obsession in order to win the Bocuse d’Or, though I did not learn where that line is. I’ve learned that two layers of clothes, plus a pair of gloves, a hat, and a scarf, is only the start of what you need to endure a Danish winter. I’ve learned that the US needs to get over itself and switch over to the metric system. I’ve learned that noma does indeed live up to it’s reputation.

I’ve learned that I’ll never be able to drink all of Belgium’s beer in my lifetime, though I’ll darn well try. I’ve learned that speculoos with a glass of fresh milk is highly addicting. I’ve learned that Dominique Persoon may be the best chocolatier in the world. I’ve learned that Christmas is kind of a big deal up here. I’ve learned that pork and boiled potatoes are a large part of the diet in this part of the world, but the new revelation of sushi (up here) is quickly catching up. I’ve learned that the US Postal Service sucks. I’ve learned that if you want to actually eat out in Europe, don’t wait till Sunday or Monday. I’ve also learned that if you want to eat out in Europe, expect 30 US dollars for a main course to be normal for a middle-end restaurant.  I’ve also learned that if you’re to make staff meal here, don’t make it spicy otherwise you’ll definitely hear the words, “damn Americans” uttered.

I’ve learned how to break down a monkfish without hanging it. I’ve learned there is no good Asian food up here. I’ve learned juicing kilos upon kilos of horseradish is a job often left for the stages (you’ll see why if you ever try it.) I’ve learned that excellent flavors often has more layers than a celebrity birthday cake. I’ve learned that simple definitely doesn’t mean easy, and that I don’t ever want to punch out little circles of parsley, ever. I’ve learned that this industry is so small that even across the ocean, I’ll run into people that have cooked with people that I’ve cooked with. I’ve learned that the Danes do in fact love their ash. I’ve also learned that Danes also do in fact love American Football.

I’ve learned that you can hear five different languages, a whole host of different accents, and the phrases, “oh, that cheese bread stinks so bad,” and “oh my gosh that raclette sandwich smells so good” in less than five minutes of walking around the Bourough Market. I’ve learned that freshly cracked nuts shaved over dishes is just as good as truffles shaved over dishes. I’ve learned that I can endure an entire month of being in the same vicinity with Karen for an entire month without killing each other (or rather, her killing me)(thank you, In de Wulf.) I’ve learned that meeting new people, seeing new things, and finding different perspectives never get old.

I’ve learned that if you really want to be a serious cook, you should stage. Whether it be your hometown, another state, another country, or another continent, if you’re so serious about cooking that you feel like one day, you can be one of the best at what you do. You should go stage.

To stage is to subject yourself to being completely open. More often than not, you’re not even listed on the lowest points of the totem pole, but it also allows for possibly the most amount of learning to happen in a very short period of time. It is a measure of worth, a tool of refinement, and a compass for direction. To work for no money means utter and complete dedication to yourself and the restaurant that you’re in. Either you learn something, or you’re wasting your own time.

So my question is: why is it that so many cooks feel as if they’re above it?

To call cooks boisterous would be an understatement. Many students call themselves cooks, and cooks call themselves chefs, and chefs call themselves executives before they ever really begin to understand the meaning of the word. Which is why I don’t understand many of them when they seem so happy to tread water for their culinary careers for their entire lives. They build their own castles in their own heads, and proclaim themselves kings of the kingdom they’ve never ever even seen.

To note, I do understand that some people do have instances in their lives where they just can’t put aside the money to go out in the world. Some people have childen, some people have helpless family that need to help out. But I’m not talking about these people. I’m talking about the many upon many cooks that I’ve heard of and met from New York, to Chicago, to Bay Area, to Texas that are young, unwilling, and able. They’re unmarried, unconnected, and have all the chance, potential, and ability in the world that they’re not willing to tap into.

I’m not writing this with anyone in mind, though if you do think I’m talking about you, maybe you should think about what I’m saying. You’re in the one industry that travels to any part of the world (and feeds you, to boot) where you can meet new people, learn new techniques, and absorb yourself in different cultures and food cultures.

That’s not to say that the whole process is easy. To go abroad, Karen and I had to have the sort of monetary discipline that you would think would end when you got out of college, and to think we’ve been planning some sort of trip for the past two years and have it end in three months may seem slightly deflating. But I’d like to think we’ve done more in the last three months that many people do in much of their lifetimes.  To save money takes discipline, to plan the trip takes cunning (especially if you’re planning on trying to stay past… alloted times), and to ask politely to stage takes a lot of belief in your own self worth. But you don’t even have to go out of the country. One of the best things about the US is that many great restaurants are close by, whether by car or plane. Of course there are many things to consider before you go out on your adventures, you have no idea how often I wished there were someone to help me out financially, or to tell me how to get from form point A to point B in the easiest way possible, but the biggest obstacle is to get past yourself and just go do it.

To me, going out in the world was like a rite of passage. It’s nothing that you could have ever read in a blog or a book. I will use the kitchen discipline, techniques, and ideas that I’ve learned from Belgium and Denmark for the rest of my career. From the way to try to seamlessly integrate the chemicals and powders that many people are so afraid of into the food so that it works *for* the dish rather than against it, to new uses for nitrogen, to new ways of looking at cuts of meat and pieces of vegetables that I’ve used my entire career, cooking and eating in these two countries really solidified to me that if you’re not walking forward, then other people are passing you. But even more than that, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the relationships that I’ve built from the chefs, cooks, dishwashers, and random friends that have come along the way.

But for Karen and I, this was our time. And I hope before any sort of family happens for us, we can do it again. (I say Japan next, but then again, I’d have to probably go learn Japanese.)

You’re only young, energetic, and full of curiosity for so long in your lifetime. Don’t waste it.

I’ve learned…

that no matter how much I’ve learned, it only shows that there’s so much more that I don’t know.

About Justin

We cook, and bake at Oxheart Restaurant in Houston, TX. www.oxhearthouston.com
This entry was posted in General restaurant thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Two posts in one: what I’ve learned, and my soapbox.

  1. Tucker says:

    Another great post. Thanks for sharing your travels. I look forward to following whatever comes next for you all.

  2. I’ve never understood why cooks call themselves chefs. I would never, ever call myself a chef. My grade 4 level French tells me that chef means “chief” or “head” and a line cook sure ain’t that.

  3. Greenway Barista says:

    This translates directly to baristas and roasters and coffee product distributors. They should see the farms and learn the processes behind their product!

  4. Ruthie J M says:

    Beautifully done, Justin. A must-read for anyone, cook or not.

  5. Mitzi says:

    Great post, Justin. Jerry and I enjoy keeping up with you and Karen through facebook and this blog.

  6. Pingback: The Missing Ingredient (Part 2) | tasty bits

  7. Pingback: 2011: a year in food | tasty bits

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