Door as Metaphor

My colleague Larry and me, Higgins Restaurant 1995

I had the privilege of working at Higgins Restaurant in Portland, Oregon for almost three years back in the mid-90’s … before Portland was the destination that it is today. Greg Higgins helped put Portland — and Oregon — on the map for both food and wine.  I count myself extremely lucky to have been mentored by him and also by his pastry chef at the time, Stacey Philipps.  I plan to write many a Reflection about my time at Higgins Restaurant. It was, hands down, one of the best working experiences I have ever had.  As my mother says, the years I worked at Higgins were “pivotal” and much of who I am today, what I believe and try to practice in my daily life, is the result of their tutelage.

In the picture above, you will see a big, gorgeous wooden door behind my colleague Larry and me. That door leads into a walk-in refrigerator — an extremely popular place for all of us cooks, crammed into the tiniest of exposé kitchens.  For the majority of my time as a Higg-let, I worked at the station I am standing in front of, to the right of that door.  By and large, a wonderful station because of those big windows.  I got to watch Portland seasons unfold, the rain and rainbows, and funky Portlandia walk by.

However, throughout every shift, co-workers would race down “the line,” perpetually in a hurry (comes with the biz), and fling open that door, in a rush to find whatever they had just run out of.  If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see part of the huge metal handle of the door, to the left of Larry. The enormous, heavy metal handle. That hurt like the DICKENS when it hit me in the back.

At first, I was very frustrated about my work-station, and I would try to calmly (remember, we worked in an exposé kitchen — no yelling allowed) ask my co-workers to be careful when they opened the door.  Not to fling it so hard that my back would become the doorstop. Understandably, they only had the capacity to focus on what they were panicked to retrieve. So I trained myself to put my right foot up whenever I heard the door open. To stop it, before it could hit me. It was Pavlovian, I suppose.  Though focused on my work, when I heard the door open, I automatically adjusted my stance to use my heel as a doorstop.

Have I mentioned that I was 24 when I worked at Higgins?  Such a young-un! As a natural hot-head — and no, it has nothing to do with the stereotypes about redheads! — this was HUGE for me to have figured out a way to prevent frustration. Not a way to suppress it, but to work within the situation annoying me (not to mention, causing pain)!

Years later, after I left the restaurant industry and started office work, I realized I was in a similar situation of what seemed like endless aggravation. This time brought about by my exceedingly passionate boss, who seemed to have impossibly-high standards. As I vented my griefs to a co-worker, I found myself telling the story about the door at Higgins.  I heard myself saying, “I realized the door wasn’t going to go anywhere, so if I were going to stay, I would have to find a way to work with the door.”  And then it dawned on me that in my current situation, my boss was the door.  As I had learned to work with the door and my work-station at Higgins, I needed to find a way to work with my boss’ style if I were going to stay. I learned to anticipate his areas of passion and to meet his high expectations (or at least get closer). I learned not to take “no” for an answer from vendors, how to negotiate contracts for more concessions, and how to find a way over-and-around walls. Thus, I learned to really appreciate that boss and his passions and very high standards for excellence … once I learned how to work within them.

Throughout the years, I have found many situations where “the door” has presented itself.  A turning point where I have to ask myself if I want to stay within what seems to be a frustrating environment — whether professional, relational, geographical, etc. And, if so, if there is something I can change in order to stay.  Today I don’t think of it in terms of “the door,” as much as I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer: the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

When I recently unearthed these photos from my time Higgins, tucked into a scrapbook of work-related mementos, I enjoyed revisiting my memories of working there and all that I learned. And reflecting back that this was where, when & how my thought-process of evaluation had begun. The door as metaphor.

My mentor and friend Stacey Philipps and me, Higgins Restaurant 1997



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