It Always Came Back to the Plate!

I have often said that the 20’s are deeply formative, the way our earliest years are. The ages of 0 to 5 are spent learning how to be independent humans — how to feed ourselves, how to communicate, how to tie our shoes, how to mobilize. To me, the years from 20 – 30 are spent figuring out who we are going to be as adults — what our careers will be, what we will value, whose company we will keep.  A lot of time is spent in the 20s planning for the future. Collecting information, taking risks, accumulating experiences, so that we are better prepared for the rest of our lives.  It can be a time filled with insecurities and uncertainty. Now that I’m in my mid-40s, when I interact with people in their 20s and hear their fears, struggles and doubts, I try to assure them that if they can make it through their 20s, the 30s become much better … and the 40s even better.

My early 20s were filled with such doubts, fears and struggles. After graduating from Wake Forest University with a bachelor’s in Speech Communications, I pursued a childhood dream to become a professional chef, and enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute (NECI, pronounced NEH-kee) in Montpelier, VT.  Completing that program is one of the hardest and most humbling things I have ever done. The curriculum was not like the traditional education I had experienced in primary and secondary schools, where students are advanced sequentially and classes are filled with students with similar backgrounds. In culinary school, students with no professional experience are admitted and trained, side by side, with students who have a wealth of experience, who are there to refine and advance their careers. I was in the former category. I remember when my first chef-instructor directed me to get a bunch of thyme from the walk-in refrigerator. I turned to my classmate and asked, “How am I supposed to know which one is thyme?” Prior to NECI, my school course-work and  many other endeavors came very easily to me — I was used to being top in my classes, and a top achiever in my extra-curricular activities. At NECI, I had NO IDEA what I was doing, and had to truly try for the first time in my life. At 22. Which was a bit late to learn for the first time how to handle mistakes and missing the mark.

The curriculum at NECI consisted  of two 6-month terms on-campus, working in restaurants and outlets that served the public — switching classes every three weeks, and switching stations every three days.  For instance, my first class was Breakfasts & Lunches at the cafe, where I rotated every three days among stations such as Soups, Grill, Saute, Desserts, Salads, etc.  Following that class, we went to Bakeshop, that started at 3am … literally.  When the doors opened at 6am, we needed croissants and breakfast pastries available for purchase. Following each 6-month term, we completed a 6-month internship in a restaurant, hotel or resort in the US or abroad. The two terms at NECI and my first internship were painfully difficult for me, being so green and unexposed, and on the steepest learning curve I have ever faced. The constant change was daunting. Others around me seemed to be progressing by leaps and bounds, whereas I felt as if I were still flailing.

By the middle of my second term, I grappled with an identity crisis: had I made the right decision to go so deeply into debt, for a career I had dreamed about since childhood, but was seriously questioning if I would ever be any good at? Thankfully, many friends and adopted family members rallied around me and did not allow me to give up. I took a 2-week leave of absence to ponder my options and do some serious soul-searching.  I decided to return to school, finish the second term, and off to my second internship I went, where I very fortunately landed at Higgins Restaurant in Portland, OR.  It was the perfect place for me to be mentored in cooking, food & wine, and life-skills that reached far beyond the kitchen — by the very patient, deeply principled, and vastly knowledgeable chef/owner and pastry chef. Upon concluding my second internship, I graduated from NECI, and went on to be very successful.  For several years I enjoyed professional cooking & baking, that took me to such places as the Napa Valley, where I got to work for a very brief stint at the prestigious French Laundry Restaurant (many moons before chef/owner Thomas Keller became the culinary rock star that he is today).

As I approached my 30th birthday, I decided to leave the restaurant industry and the life of a classically trained chef.  If you think of all of the times you are out playing … usually on weekends and holidays … there are a collection of people working: the servers, chefs, hosts, bartenders, and dishwashers. And they’ve been working long, long 10-15 hour-days … on cement floors with little padding, in dangerous conditions of slippery floors, sharp knives and 500-degree heat.  Many of the best restaurants are small enough that they can’t offer health nor retirement benefits, not to mention paid sick leave or vacation. These drawbacks began to eat away (pun intended!) at the joy I felt in professional cooking/baking. I just didn’t love it that much. Nor was I good enough to become great, truthfully.  I am proud of how far I came — especially when I look back at almost quitting culinary school — but there are a lot of garage bands whose song will never make it to the masses.

So for the second time in a decade, I grappled with an identity crisis.  If I wasn’t going to be a professional chef, what WAS I going to do for work?  I was extremely lucky to have a friend open a door for me at a job that capitalized on both of my backgrounds in Speech Communications and my time as a chef, and I became the Sales & Marketing Coordinator for a British manufacturer of china dinnerware, supplied exclusively to the hotel, restaurant and hospitality industry.  The plates pictured above are from that manufacturer, and were designed by my BFF Rachel! I had used the product when I was a chef, which made me particularly effective at trade shows with my testimony to other chefs and purchasing agents.  When I wasn’t planning and attending trade shows, I got to help write press releases and coordinate public relations events where we introduced new products.  Managing the logistics of trade shows and these other tasks reminded me of coordinating the logistics of a banquet. I soon realized that my office role utilized many of the skills I had honed as a chef: forecasting, planning, streamlining, and executing multiple projects simultaneously.  Fantastically transferrable skills!  I started making the joke that at first I put the food on the plate as a chef, and now I helped put the plate in the restaurant.

While the job offered many incentives I had never experienced in my working years to that point — health insurance, a 401k, paid vacation & sick leave, and NOT HAVING TO WORK WEEKENDS (!!!) — it did not pay enough for me to live and save. I found a part-time job waiting tables three nights per week after my 9-to-5 job. I extended my joke: at first I put the food on the plate as a chef, then I helped put the plate in the restaurant, and now I also helped bring the plate of food to the guest.

Looking back on that time, I am grateful I worked as hard as I could while I was young, in order to have enough to save “for a rainy day.” However, it was taxing to still be working the same 13 hour days from my time as a chef!  After a couple of years, I took a leap of faith and applied for a job to be a conference planner for a state trade association. My pay increase was great enough that I could quit my part-time job, have enough to live and save … and even afford to buy a house, all on my own!  For almost four years, I led a department of three people as we planned the Annual Convention for 500 guests in destinations such as Puerto Rico, Maui and Quebec City; as well as two smaller conferences for 250 guests; and multiple, smaller one-day seminars. I extended my joke yet again — now I was the person who helped bring the guest to the restaurant and resort, to dine from the plate of food!  It always came back to the plate!

Since then, I’ve worked in a few different areas of office administration, and have gotten to live and work in great parts of the country such as San Francisco, CA and now Rochester, NY.  My work has always capitalized on those same skills that I honed while a chef: forecasting, planning, streamlining, and executing multiple projects simultaneously. I remain enormously grateful to that initial clan who rallied behind me, and encouraged me NOT to give up. I am a better contributor to the general workforce (beyond the restaurant industry), a stronger person, and a fantastic host of dinner parties because of their pivotal influence!  “Thank you” seems a small phrase to express my gratitude!  I picture a few of those friends and adopted family members below, Erika, Peg & Gerry; as well as a couple shots of some of my expanded clan, who are also a source of support and inspiration: Rachel, Cassie & Max, and Mr. Batch, of course! (hover over the photos to expose the captions)

Though not a religious person, I am reminded of a verse that was read at my sister’s memorial service, from the Bible, Romans 5: 3-5. I think it’s applicable here, so I’ll close with a portion of it: “… we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame …” My very deep thanks to all of you who I am lucky enough to count as a friend, pictured or not.  You help me endure, and give me the hope to persevere!  

8 Comments

  1. I’m super excited to follow you, Brenda! Can’t wait to add new recipes to my repertoire. We adopted the term “flexitarians” from some great book – wish I could credit the term to someone. I’m working on setting up my own little foodie/beauty blog, so I’ll enjoy watching you grow yours, too!!!

    1. Anne! PLEASE forgive my delayed response to your kind comments!!! I’m so pleased you found me and are trying the recipes! Let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of help in any way as you cook — I’m a former professional chef, so am more than happy to try to explain techniques, etc. Please also let me know once your foodie/beauty blog is up! Would love to follow yours, too!

  2. Sorry I’m so late to comment on this – I love this one!! Speaking from the 20-something end of the spectrum, it’s comforting to know that even if change remains a constant throughout the next few decades, there are a lot of positive things that can come out of it. My 5th grade teacher used to tell me that “variety is the spice of life”, and I think your experiences reflect that. How boring would life be if we had all the answers upfront? Thanks for sharing and giving a millennial something to look forward to! 😉

    1. Sarah-Love — I’m uber-delayed in thanking you for these sweet comments! I’ve always cherished our introspective discussions, and am so grateful to have you following my blog and continuing our discussions in this forum, too! Much love to you & Mike and hope we can clink glasses soon! xoxoxo

  3. Love, love, love your story. It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? Having worked with you for a couple of years, I know the work ethic that runs through you like a steel support of your life. And then there is the creative, inspiring, beautiful home that is built upon it. The history, warmth, and experiences that fill your home are magnificent, as are your endless talents. Thank you so much for sharing. I miss you. ❤️

    1. JoAnne, my dearest! I just reread this comment of yours and it warmed my heart all over again! I love you and am SO glad we reconnected in-person recently! YOU are SUCH an inspiration to me!!! xoxoxoxoxo

  4. Well written, sister-o’-mine! You and I were in different worlds during most of the time spans you talk about here. But I’m thrilled to have finally caught up with you in recent years! 🙂

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