My mother gave me sage advice years ago while heading off to a remote part of Southern India to teach at a Hindu High school.
She said, "Amy, have fun. If you're not having fun teaching, the students aren't having fun learning."
One day while I was desperately attempting (and failing) to give a lesson on simile and metaphor to a bunch of squirming adolescents her advice washed over me. I stopped my lesson, erased the blackboard, and picked up a rubber eraser on my desk. I got the students out from behind their desks and we formed a circle.
"Now here's what we're going to do..." I told them. "I'm going to start a sentence, throw one of you the eraser, and you're going to finish it with one word using the first thing that comes to mind even if you think it doesn't make sense."
My heart is like a...
(throw the eraser)
The sun is like a...
(throw the eraser)
The sky is like...
(throw the eraser)
Needless to say, the lesson was successful.
This advice stuck with me upon my return to California while I continued my teaching career. When a lesson bombed my Mom, a master educator, would ask me if I enjoyed giving it. Always the answer was 'no'.
At that time I was teaching 4 periods of Theater and 2 periods of Cooking to over 180 kids daily while directing musical theater at night to another 70 students.
My students ranged from the gifted to the physically & mentally challenged to the suicidal to the English Language Learners to the gang corrupted to the normal (if there is such a thing). And they all brought their talents and special gifts to my cooking classroom and to my stage.
'Have fun' became a mantra for my drama students. Before every opening performance I would gather the actors in a circle for notes. And my parting advice was always the same: get out there and have fun! If you're not having fun, the audience is sleeping. If you feel that your performance is diving look within, turn it around, and remember why you're here – because it is your passion and you love what you do. But above all have fun, have fun, have fun...
And now, here I am years later and my advice has been given back to me by a long time reader of this blog.
After five weeks out of work due to a 3rd degree burn, I was hesitant to walk back into the kitchen. My position was filled and other cooks had been moved up the line to cover my absence. I knew that my return would be welcome but worrisome. How could it not be? And what an uncomfortable place to be in.
To top it off my year contract was rapidly coming to a close and my decision to stay and commit for the busy Winter season still undecided.
I spent two weeks as the tournade for the kitchen filling in different positions while cooks took days off for vacation or for rest. For the first week it was great. It's always nice to come back to an old station. It's like coming back to an old friend. The routine and the muscle memory kicks in and the pressure to prove yourself at the station escapes because it has already been conquered.
But then the reality sunk in. Where am I going to fit in here? I don't want to bump anyone off but I certainly don't want to spend a whole season filling in. And what do I want out of this experience anyway?
And the competition. Oh the competition.
On one hand it fuels the drive for perfection and on the other hand it's crippling if you let it get to you. Unfortunately for me, I take things to heart, and I don't enjoy that every-man-for-himself spirit that New York has a tendency to draw out even in the best of us.
I much prefer the cohesive team esprit. I have always been drawn to team environments. The idea that together we can create something much better, much more memorable than we could on our own – that, to me, is as important as 'have fun'.
Finally the chef asked me before service on Saturday whether or not I had seen the schedule for the next week. He always posts the schedule on Saturday night. I had failed to notice during my prep time that the schedule was up and that there was no station next to my name.
"You're probably wondering, now that you've looked at it, why you're not written in." He said as we both turned to his office window facing the kitchen and stared at the taped up sheet.
"I want to ask you if you're going to commit to the season."
I don't know why the decision felt like the dentist pulling teeth without heavy tranquilizers, but I suppose being so worried about where I was going to fit in had plagued my decision to stay or go.
"Yes Chef, I'll commit to the season." I said wondering if I had just sold my soul up the river.
"Good, you're going to be running nighttime Hot Appetizers. You know this is a very difficult position, but I know you can do it. The nighttime position has less mise en place than the morning but a much longer service."
And indeed it is a very demanding position in the kitchen. Running the front of one line and coordinating with the Garde Manger team is no joke at the restaurant I cook at. The energy of the Hot Apps cook sets the tone for half the kitchen. And I have been lucky to work under some very talented cooks at this station who drove hard, demanded perfection, and kept the energy pumping throughout the longest of nights.
Of course this promotion comes with a taste of bitter. The teacher in me, who adores fostering talent, does not like to see anyone set back. But the director in me and the desire to fulfill my own cooking education knows that this position will be a challenge and a great test.
And I have faith in the Chef. After all, he's been there longer than any of us, practically two decades. If he thinks I'm ready then that's that. If i f' up he'll be the first to let me know.
To some 'having fun' might be equivalent to partying the whole night long, but to me it's following your heart and pursuing your passion to its fullest potential. And from what I've learned along the way, it's awfully contagious.