You don’t need know where you’re going to know how to get there

Working in restaurants, Chef’s Table and seeking truth in perfection.

Grant Achatz of Alinea. Watch his episode of Chef’s Table. Genius.

I was 14 when I started my first restaurant job. I began as a dishwasher, moved my way up to busboy, then made it to line cook.

One of the first things you learn working in a restaurant is how to actually work. No one else is going to wash those dishes for you. Or mop the floors. Or clean your station. Or empty the grease traps. If you don’t do these things, you’re fired. Simple as that. (Yes, I was fired from at least one restaurant job. I worked in four between the ages of 14 and 18).

You also learn how to work smart- how to develop a process using the tools at your disposal. My dishwasher tools: a copper Brillo pad and a high-pressure sprayer. Over time, you develop a refined system that will get you to your desired end result more efficiently and effectively.

You also learn what not to do. I had control of the boombox in the kitchen (it was plugged in next to my station at the dishwasher). That boombox got a lot of use. So much so that the power cord was frayed, and I’d often have to jiggle it to get the music playing again. One night I made the mistake of jiggling it with my soaking wet hands. While holding the copper Brillo pad.

I remember losing about 5 seconds of consciousness as my whole body vibrated in massive electric shock. The Brillo pad literally shot 10 feet out of my hands. Everyone got a good laugh at my expense. I got a slightly rewired brain.

But I digress.

If you work in a restaurant that cares about the quality of their product, you also learn something really, really important (besides how not to electrocute yourself):

A great product is a sum of all the steps you take to make it. And then, all the experiences your customers have around it.

Following your own path

Great chefs, like great artists, designers and musicians seek the truest, purest expression of themselves through their craft. They develop a process that allows them to transform the feeling or idea of the perfection they are seeking into reality. Whatever the craft, those who perform it at the highest level have the confidence to be unwavering in every step, in every detail.

They do this by following a process, a path filled with small steps that they know will lead them where they want to go. They don’t always know exactly where that path will ultimately lead them, but they are quite certain about which steps to take.

They are painting a picture. Some parts start in focus, some parts blurred. Some new parts are discovered along the way.

They don’t always know what their destination is. They just have a natural sense of direction that tells them exactly the right way to go.

In fact this really is the fun part. The part that keeps the passion fires burning. It’s the anticipation of what will be discovered along the way, combined with the surprise of where you’ll end up.

Sometimes the end product of that journey will be disappointing. So you go back and start again. With the benefit of hindsight, you might change one small detail or step that perhaps will make all the difference.

All you need to know, you can learn from Chef’s Table

Not long ago, I finally sat down to watch “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. I was hooked immediately. The true revelation for me was one common trait I saw in all of these radically different chefs.

Each of them had an absolute zero tolerance for wavering from their process or deviating from their internal standard. They had the confidence to embrace fully what their heart and mind was telling them.

Perhaps most importantly, they had a complete lack of fear in getting others to follow and embrace their process. They took the time to teach, but they were not afraid of conflict. Those not following the process were called out immediately. There was no acceptance for anything that strayed from the Chef’s vision, path, or process.

This is their genius. The ability to stay on that path. They don’t let the fear of disappointing someone, or making someone mad, or hurting someone’s feelings get in their way. The very best somehow are able to balance staying true to their path while remaining good human beings along the way.

It’s not just about the food

These great chefs also understand that their restaurant is more than just an amazing plate of food. It is a sum of experiences. The way the guest is greeted. The decor. The smell. The lighting. How the staff is dressed. How long someone waits to order. How that food is served. In what order. It is everything.

Their greatness doesn’t lie in just the food. It is in everything that surrounds it. And they are as unwavering on each and every touchpoint around the food as they are on each and every ingredient in their recipes.

Great chefs understand brands.

They understand that their brand is the sum of all the steps they take to create amazing food. And then, all the experiences their customers have around it.

Knowing this is the easy part. The hard part is staying on your path, being unwavering at each and every touchpoint, while teaching and encouraging others to follow you along the way. If you are creating a product of any sort, seeking the truest expression of yourself through your craft, this is perhaps the most valuable lesson. The other is to stay away from frayed power cords.

About me: I’m a Partner/Creative Director at Teak in San Francisco. I’m from Colorado, moved to Chicago for 8 years then settled down in San Anselmo, California (the birthplace of mountain biking) with my wife to raise two amazing kids. I’m a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs, Denver Broncos and Peet’s Coffee.

This is me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read my previous Medium article here.

Owner/Creative/Strategy at Teak in San Francisco + Re-heater of Coffee

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