Home Made

It’s been a weird year…
The understatement of the year.

Coffee and meditation needs are at an all-time high.

Because murder is wrong!

And crying is pointless.

Excuse me while I crawl out of this fetal position and pick myself up off the floor.

I’ve confided some very personal details about myself here over the years, but to be very honest, this post will by far be my scariest. Describing my post pregnancy vagina brought me less anxiety than the mere mention of politics does now. But in order for this to be a timely and authentic log of my experiences in this industry, I must.

I share ownership of my restaurant with two people, my husband and our partner who is an elected official. I can tell you he will not enjoy being mentioned in this blog, perhaps due to the odd number of times I do happen to mention the status of my vagina, so out of respect for him I’ll leave him nameless. But his profession is pertinent to this story. Before we joined into this business union we had our courting period. One night we shared more than our fair share of whiskey, because we agreed that nothing would expose our true selves more than liquor. My husband and I, and our soon to be business partner got drunk! Real drunk! And we spent the better part of one night discussing everything from religion, to taxes, to healthcare and more. We laid it all out. After our hangovers subsided, we said we do. We signed the papers, and just like that, we were three people and a baby. A fresh, new, innocent baby restaurant. Now it must be said, I disagree politically with our partner on nearly everything, but I respect him. I’m grateful for his faith in us. I believe he wants to do what is right.  And just like siblings fight, in the end we feel like family.  Yes, we view politics differently. There was a time when people did that peacefully and I want to believe they can again, perhaps even behind our lead. But times are tough. Our nation now throws insults and hatred towards each other like a new yard game. Friends have become enemies, neighbors now labeled outsiders, dinner tables stifled by the struggle to not obsess over only that with which family members disagree on. Facebook seems to provide the fuel that keeps these fires burning. Anyone in my industry, or maybe any and all other industries, know that it’s nearly impossible to run a successful business without online presence. Our real Olympic event is to monitor our social media pages without being sucked into the drama. But when the drama lands on your doorstep, it’s nearly impossible to avoid. In this heated political climate, for one small business owned by people representing both sides of the aisle in a town that is experiencing political unrest, it was bound to be impossible for us to skate through this year unscathed.  

Footnote… or…. second thought… or newfound sense of calm… or new goal…. I have no idea what to call this, but what matters is this…  I wrote about 2,000 words here describing exactly what’s happened to my business over the last 4 months. I laid out every detail of every hateful message and negative review that was made online out of political retribution to my business for what I consider to be personal, non-work related beliefs. I told you how I feel about all of that, and I stumbled around in search of some hidden valuable lesson or deeper epiphany. And then, when the words felt harder to find, and the sentences ran on longer and longer, I stopped. I turned off my computer and I walked away. I stopped trying to tell my side. I stopped trying to defend myself. I just stopped letting this consume me. And I tell you, something magical happened. Weight lifted from my body. I was suddenly filled with energy. Not that anxious manic need to stay busy so that I don’t have to focus on what’s too hard to face kind. I went for a run, not because I’m worried about my weight or concerned about being prepared for a future run. I just felt like being nice to my body. I watered my flowers. I played a game with my daughter. We made chocolate covered strawberries with sprinkles. I stopped doing everything that felt necessary and I started doing things that felt absolutely nonessential and of zero consequence. I rested. I mean I really rested. That’s normally more tiring than work for me, but somehow I turned my constant need for progress and growth and winning off. Now, with a fresh mind, I see everything in a whole new way, and so I deleted those 2,000 words.

All summer long I’ve felt fearful of what a future in this business might hold. I see so many other small restaurants and microbreweries sharing similar concerns. While the past always taught us to keep politics, and religion, and sex, and every other personal belief out of business, business today looks very different. Online transparency is the new norm. The division between self and profession has dissolved. Who we are at home now equals who we are at work.  That leads to exhaustion because even our personal space may have negative repercussions on our professional goals. There is no rest, there is no break. Preserving a healthy customer base can feel like an impossible task because we, as a society are made up of immeasurable combinations, and if customers are most interested in supporting the businesses that are most comparable to their own set of beliefs and standards, then I fear for the economic health of this country. I especially fear for the success of businesses in small towns. There was a time when we cheered shop small, shop local. We hissed at the threat of big box stores and chains moving into our little communities as small businesses failed in their shadow. But those times are ending. It is harder to uncover the beliefs and intentions of the owners that sit high in their corporate towers than it is to know the owner of the small business down the street. It’s easier to hold your neighbor to a higher standard because they are more accessible. But accessibility to them has historically been what made them worth the higher price than their larger competitor. It is a catch 22, and honestly, I don’t see how in the end the little guy can win in this scenario.

As if all of that doesn’t feel like an impossible mountain to climb already, the effects of social media made it feel like there’s no point in even lacing up our boots. Sprinkle in civil unrest, boiling social issues and a divided political climate, the result is not uplifting. We are all left in survival mode. We are wild animals feeling cornered. We live in a perpetual state of anxiety and defense, saving our energy up for the next fight. But here is where my big aha moment made its debut. I cannot change any of this. No amount of words will make any difference. There’s no point in me trying to convince you to support me or anyone else. My experience, my story, my wishes are not going to change this world, or even this little town. Even more powerful, my desperate and frantic attempts to do just this are actually changing me. I’ve given my adversaries the power. I let them control my narrative. And that needs to stop now.

I am not a martyr. I am not a victim. I am a person living in what is our world today. That’s it. I’m navigating my way just like everyone else with no handbook and a whole lot of obstacles. I’m working with what I have, which is a whole lot more than many. I’m not falling, I’m thriving in a world that is filled with opportunity, and as long as I stay motivated and focused on that which propels me, then I’ll be just fine. It can be so easy to sink into the sadness and disappointment of all that we see wrong with the world. It can actually feel easier to sulk in that darkness. Choosing to reach higher is choosing to work harder. But the reward is so worth the effort. Everything good in our life requires struggle. No pain no gain. It’s scary to say today I’m going to choose to focus only on the good in people, even when it’s really hard to look past the bad. But we must. If we want to live in a peaceful place, then we must. I’m no longer going to hate the people that hate me. I’m going to try to hear them. I’m going to try to understand them. Because my experience is not the same as anyone else’s. We are all products of our own unique story, and that story is completely responsible for the way we behave in all situations. I’m going to consider that their opinions and actions may be the result of an equation I cannot comprehend. And in the end, I can still disagree with them, but I can do so with kindness. I may not get that kindness back, but that’s their burden to carry. It won’t be mine.

I recently heard someone question the use of the word humbled in response to recognition. I had to think about this one, because it’s a phrase I find myself saying often. I feel humbled.

I am a product of a lucky break. Yes I work hard…. to reach higher. I’ve worked extremely hard and made sacrifices to get where I am in life. I write to you as a college graduate. I write to you as a wife, and a mother. I write to you as a business owner.  And now I write to you from the comforts of my own home, because even during a pandemic, I have a safe place to stay, and I have enough money to keep my home afloat even if my work schedule has been reduced to only that with which I can do from a laptop and a cell phone. But someone else has worked just as hard and continues to work that hard not for promotions or lofty goals, they do this just to be able to eat. I am privileged. Not because of what I do or who I’ve become. I was privileged from the moment I was born because I was born to relatively white looking parents in a place free of war and famine. I had opportunities ahead of me, even though I was born into a family of no wealth. The cards were already in my favor for reasons that I had zero control over. I feel humbled because I must acknowledge that even in my success I know deep down that I do not deserve that recognition any more than anyone else. I just got lucky. So while I accept the compliment, to me it comes with slight guilt. I did the best with what I was given. And because I was given more, I got further.

Now I feel like it’s my duty to acknowledge and embrace this information. It’s my duty to move forward in life aware of this, and to consider it at all times, in everything I do. It should guide me into understanding when possible, and it should lead me peacefully out of conflict when not. It should reside in me as empathy. This is my responsibility, one that I can optimistically and enthusiastically embrace. This is how I let go of fear. This is how I look forward to tomorrow.

Gratitude. Humility. And Self Awareness.

This shall be my recipe for survival for the remainder of this strange year.  

Craving

Let me explain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

My partners and I bought a brewery. We renovated the dining room and kitchen, moved our current restaurant into it with plans to open the brewing operation soon. We sold our old building with eyes set on future plans to move our banquet venue here onto our new premises and eventually re-open my craft bar here as well.

Then Covid happened…

We all hid here, after months of hard work, eager and anxious for the glorious release to yell SURPRISE, but the party never happened. The decorations faded and fell. We stayed in the dark, too scared to go outside. Just us, our empty dreams, meandering through a giant dark building, a building that had long forgotten the sound of laughter and the feeling of warmth that it was promised.

After sulking for a while, we decided to make the best of what life had served us. We used the extra time during the quarantine to finish all of the little things that we never seemed to have time to do at our previous location. I focused on décor. I painted and stained and varnished. I tackled the new need for extra safety measure with enthusiasm. I found unique and exciting ways to meet Covid head on. And as we moved forward, our venue actually beamed with the improvements. Old doors installed between tables to protect customers from their neighbors added an extra feeling of intimacy and privacy that the dining room was missing before. Hand sanitizer dispensers and catchy signs reminding customers to be safe added an extra feeling of purity and kindness that was missing in such a commercial space. All in all we were making improvements in every direction. I felt like I had a purpose. I enjoyed being busy, and even more I enjoyed being busy doing something that was important, not just to me but for every person that would eventually grace our door here. Soon Covid rested, and we opened the doors. While there was not a giant party, the buzz was back and I felt happy.…

The buzz… let me explain. If for no other reason than to allow me a precious moment to rest in its memory.

There is a feeling and a sound of a working restaurant. If you aren’t used to it, it can, in the words of my mother, scramble your brain. It is a constant rumble of a commercial hood vent. The clanking of metal on metal. The spray of the dishwasher. Falling ice that crashes from ice makers. The roll of hot grease when it meets cold food. The click of the soda machine. The phone ringing. Broken dishes. The whirl of mixers, blenders, slicers. Slamming cooler doors. Knives rattling on plastic boards. Loud music. The infamous scream of a kitchen printer. Cooks yelling back and forth as they play the team sport that is kitchen life. The echo of laughter. The hum of conversation.
Sound simmers constantly.

Even the most trained ears can need a break from this occasionally. Picture the disheveled cook, sitting on a bucket in the alley behind the kitchen. Cigarette lit between fingers. Eyes closed. Soaking in a few minutes of rest, not just for the body, but for the mind. Tom once commented on how hard it can be to ride home from work with me. I don’t talk. And I don’t really like any sound at all. Some nights I get home, head straight to the bathroom, I strip off the smell of food and grease, and I settle into hot water. I let my ears fall below the surface, and I breathe in the quiet. That is how I recharge. That is my medicine. Complete and total silence.

At the beginning of this move I could feel the energy pulsing through me. I was fueled by excitement to get my new ship in the water. I was buzzing. But we didn’t even make it out of the harbor before I had to return her to the dock.

After a spike in Covid cases in our county we’ve made the decision to once again close the doors to the outside world. We’re back to serving take-out only here. Yes, the kitchen is still running. Food is still being served in boxes and brown bags. But the buzz is missing, and this time my stresses outweigh my reward. I had already brought our cooks back from unemployment once, so I’m trying to keep as many as possible on staff right now. That really isn’t financially ideal, but I’m trying to focus on the long game, because as depressed as I feel in this moment, I’ve got to remain optimistic. I know there will be a tomorrow. I know our tomorrow will be good. But today… today I’m left sifting through saw dust covered boxes of my art bar, a dream that didn’t pan out and never will. The price tag is too high to get the room that I had hoped to use for the new bar up to current code. The return on a business like that wouldn’t cover the cost of creating it. And so, here I sit surrounded by boxes of arts and crafts tools and materials that I’ll probably never use again. I don’t know where to store them, and I don’t quite have the heart yet to get rid of them. When that gets too painful, I move over to catering and banquet space items… again…. things that have no current use… and at the pace of Covid and people’s attitudes toward precautionary measures, combined with the cost that will be required of us to get our banquet room up to code, I fear it will be a long time before that room is ready to host people too.

The restaurant is quiet again. The silence has returned stronger than before.… Covid has taken the buzz from me once again, and my healing has now become part of what ails me. The silence, compounded I’m sure by the recent passing of my father, is now deafening. The quiet is crushing me. I’m obsessing over the fix I need, one more week of noise followed by that release of silence. I want to feel that reward.

Every job is a combination of parts you don’t like mixed with parts you do. If you only choose a job based on the parts you like then you’ll never find the right job for you. Why? Because a job free of difficulties is not actual work. That’s fun, and that you pay admission for. Jobs mostly suck. There’s always something you’d rather be doing than work, and that is precisely why you get paid to do it. Our challenge is to find the bad stuff that we can most easily endure. This, in a nutshell, is exactly what guidance counselors should be telling young people. Find the work you hate the least. For me, it’s this restaurant world. I can handle the hours, I can handle the reviews, I can even stomach the employee drama that for some reason resonates in the restaurant world.  I can handle the heat. I can handle the noise…. But I cannot handle the silence. I did not sign up for silence. Cake is good, but if all you ever give me is cake I will no longer want it. I want to want the silence. And so, I need the noise. I need the perspective the bad parts provide to truly feel balance. Without it, I’m lost. I don’t know how to operate in this new formula, but I’m not ready to give up yet. As I’ve always waded through the sound, I will wade through this silence. I will somehow someway stay the course. Because as I always preach the importance of perspective, I must now consider my own advice here and see the possibility that I’m just being dealt a dosage of perspective I’ve never experienced before. In that case, the reward that will follow promises to be equally outstanding.

So, today, I choose hope.
I choose to believe that tomorrow will be better.
I choose to accept this quiet now.

But be warned.
I’m coming out of this more determined and more ready for my future.

Bring me the noise, and I will revel in it.

Out of my shell.

As bbq is the result of food and history, so is the mighty oyster, and therefore, I think deserves a special place on our plate here at Smoking Mo’s.

Growing up in Oklahoma I had little to no exposure to oysters. Our seafood came cornmeal fried, a technique by the way that I’ve applied to oysters here. It is a true Oklahoma meets Washington story, a genuine reflection of who I am, and that I believe is what a menu should be. These foods we serve should tell a story. Our menu should allow a glimpse into who the creator is and what they’re wanting to say. As my business grows into our new location, it’s time for me to grow as a food provider too. I’m ready to dive deeper into the dishes that I love and the dishes that I want to know better. Thankfully our ample coastline here is making that an easy and enjoyable task. Also thankfully, you make for good company on this adventure!

My college journey led me to the magnificent Low Country of South Carolina. To my complete and total surprise, oyster roasts ruled the party scene there. Shuckin’ was a new way of life to me, one that would honestly take a little time for me to adapt to. I freely admit I hated my first oyster…. Honestly I hated oysters for almost a decade after discovering them. I didn’t like them raw, so I surmised I didn’t like them at all. It wasn’t until a trip back down memory lane a few years ago that the oyster and I were properly introduced. Tom and I had taken a vacation down to Savannah. We found two seats at an oyster bar there, mostly just looking for a drink and some air conditioning. Tom feeling in the spirit ordered oysters, I opted for peel and eat shrimp. Soon though a giant tray of delicious smelling, smoking oysters was set in front of him. It smelled like the best beach day ever. I smiled, beside myself. He immediately got after them with a trio of fresh lemon, cocktail sauce and hot sauce. He kicked one back on a saltine. The next one went down drizzled with some sort of vinegary goodness. Wait…. How did I miss all of these extras? How had I not noticed before all of the fun that accompanies these little sea nuggets. I had to try one now, and Tom enthusiastically invited me to join him. This was a moment I think he had been waiting for, the day I learned to love oysters. These particular oysters were steamed, an option I did not know existed, and one that proved to be a gentle stepping stone as I made my way to the deep end. I loaded my cracker, and I took my first step. Though I had tasted oysters before, I consider this particular oyster to truly be my first. A Hog Island Small Sweetwater. And that’s exactly what it tasted like. Sweet ocean water, a day at the beach, a celebration. I felt happy, genuinely happy. I washed it down with cold beer and moved on to the second one. Tom and I laughed our way through that entire tray, a dozen I think it was. We ordered another dozen, they refilled our beers, and the party continued. To this very day, that remains one of my most favorite and most cherished meal memories of all time.  I fell in love with my husband again. I fell in love with the feeling of the South again. And I made a new friend in the oyster.

Upon our return to Washington State I was bound and determined to find this joy closer to home. Thankfully for me the Hama Hama Oyster Company was up to the challenge. A trip to their newly expanded Oyster Saloon provided the proper backdrop, the oysters and beer provided the rest. It was here that I truly started to learn the nuances and differences in oysters. Yes, to be honest, there are still some oysters I don’t like as much as others. There are some toppings I prefer to others as well. And yes, the East Coast saltine cracker thing stuck with me. But what I always love is the feeling that a tray of oysters brings to any table. The party plate arrives and everyone dives in smiles first. It’s fun to eat oysters!

So as any good food friend would do, I wanted to share that fun with my own customers. We added a small oyster bar to our existing bar area. We met a few local oyster farmers, hired a bartender that could fill in the gaps in our oyster education, and we got to shucking. That was a few years ago, and so far it has been a fun and welcomed addition to our menu. I can also say it feels good to be able to offer a very local food option to our guests. To me it has served as the twine that holds our whole menu and identity together. We are the South, and we are Pac NW. BBQ meets oysters! But as I do, I’m eager for the next adventure. And so for the meanwhile you’ll be able to occasionally find baked or grilled oysters on our special board. I’m having a blast experimenting with what ingredients we have on hand here, and finding new ways to tie my journey together here with you. Pimento cheese and bacon, a traditional Carolina topping favorite last week, this week collard greens and pork, because summer and greens go so well together. I don’t know what I’ll come up with next, but man it sure is fun here in the deep end!

BBQ is my life, and this restaurant is my oyster! IMG_2859

Carrots Cake

I write to you now from an old desk in a new room. My partners and I purchased a giant new building to house all of our growing businesses….. right before the pandemic hit. No grand opening celebration. Instead my month of renovations was concluded with complete and total silence. We are all in quarantine. We are all alone, all fearful of the virus that threatens to hurt us. We’re all holding our children tighter, and scanning for any and all intruders, friends turned into carriers of potential pain. The feeling of doomsday is fueled by the sight of people in masks and gloves. Closed signs. Empty streets. Loneliness. This new building and all of our dreams for it put on hold. That creative space now replaced with survival mode. No time for frivolity. No sports, no entertainment. No time for joy.
Only silence.

A fitting tribute, the world joined together to quietly bow its head to my family’s pain.
Maybe they don’t know it, but I feel it.

My dad is facing the last days of his battle with cancer. The sudden face to face I’m forcing to have with death has been jolting. Finality is something we all know and yet we absolutely do not until it’s too late. The shocking realization that no matter how I live my life, no matter what I do or what I believe, we all will face the same fate. And more terrifying yet is to know that I will watch loved ones meet theirs.

I’m not a religious person. The lack of an afterlife terrifies me. No. Confuses me. It is incomprehensible for me to accept that we just cease to be. And so, I, like everyone else, look to my imagination to complete that final picture. In an attempt to better prepare my daughter, and probably me, I purchased a book that offers possible scenarios that follow death. The idea that life is what makes the body move, and when life leaves the body that body stills. The explanation that both my daughter and I agree is the most comfortable to accept is that the soul returns to nature…. or possibly France as my 4 year old suggested. After discussion with my dad, we agreed the large tree across the street from my house was a suitable location to rest, although he agreed not to rule out occasional vacations to France.  I hear the Eiffel Tower is quite nice.

As we near his final days, as one would do, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on our time together. I was mad at my father for many years. I still am possibly, to some degree. I didn’t think he made me and my siblings as big of a priority as I feel the need to make my child. But even I must admit I struggle with that at times. Parenting is the most selfless thing a person can choose to do. It is without room for error the most important purpose of my life now. My life exists now to ensure my child thrives. That alone sometimes can be overwhelming and honestly irritating. It is human nature to want to make your own joy and well-being your first priority. But once you create a child, they must take that prized honor. I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to share  this adventure with a person I very much love and admire. My mother and father did not share that partnership. I don’t think it was either of their faults, I just think they were a bad combo. Like bleach and ammonia- both strong and capable apart, together explosive and unhealthy. They’ve both since moved on to better and happier relationships. And that’s where my understanding and forgiveness blooms. I’ve realized he did the best he could. Not the best you or I or anyone else could do. The best he was able to, considering his own unique make up and the specific situation he existed in. I’ve come to realize that who we are is so much bigger than whom we came from. The recipe that is us is a staggering combination of our genetics, environment, experiences, wealth, diet, goals, fears, and so much more. We are each complete and total individuals, and not one of us are capable of handling everything the way everyone else does, or the way we want them to. We can really only do our best with what we’ve got and what we are. I think it only acts as damage to yourself if you choose to measure everyone, including yourself, upon the highest mark. Instead we need to consider each unique situation and ability.
I think my dad did his best. And so for that I choose to be grateful.

It’s funny. I’ve spent the last 4 years of my life trying to protect my daughter from anything that could make her cry. And now, for her, I’m forcing myself to face my pain. Perhaps my dad is still parenting me, in his own way. A way that only now as a parent myself can I recognize. His existence, and now departure, is preparing me for my own exit someday, which in turn is preparing my daughter.

Having lived the majority of my life from behind emotional walls, allowing this peace and acceptance to infiltrate my protective guard has been a new and unfamiliar experience. But thanks to a lot of counseling and a determination to improve myself so that my daughter’s story does not mimic this one, I know I must welcome and process this pain. This virus will move on. My dad will move on. And when normality calls me back to work and this new building starts to buzz, baggage, though possibly useful someday in France, cannot weigh me down.

You know, when I first started this blog it was intended to be a log of my day’s events, a glimpse into the life of a restaurateur. But it turned into something entirely different. Life happened. Life, a bizarre collection of events, feelings, relationships, illness and death. I’m not a trained writer. Knowing that I rolled the dice and hoped few people would mind my random and aimless train of thought. Lucky for me, you don’t, and lucky for you, I don’t mind documenting it all here, flaws and all. But words sometimes feel not good enough. I can’t for the life of me encapsulate what life is into a combination of sounds and letters, and I cannot articulate death. What I can see is the tree across the street from my house. I can watch it grow. I can watch it move. I can hear its limbs sway. I can see it through changing seasons. I can feel its stability. I can see my daughter playing in its shade. My daughter, the granddaughter of my father. No words can embody that. But I don’t need them to. I can be at peace with an unexplainable explanation.
I can be at peace with dad’s final peace.

Rest well, dad. Thank you for bringing me into this world. Thank you for creating me, which in turn created my daughter, our Grace. Tell Grandma I said hi if you pass her in the wind. And perhaps someday we’ll catch up in France. I hear the Eiffel Tower is nice.

 

IMG_1725

Painting a tree in our new building.

 

fire burns

This industry is the balance between hot and cold, fear and beauty. On one hand we revel in extreme temperatures, our hair and skin regularly singed by open flame, and we all  share an affinity and respect for sharp blades. We wear our cuts and burns as badges of honor. We compare notes on the pain a particularly long grueling shift can take on our bodies. On the other, we exalt the beauty and preciousness of the delicate flesh of a perfect tomato. Hardened hands that barely flinch at the splatter of hot grease, can so lovingly plate with such pristine and perfection. A fragile leaf of herb, or dainty garish placed with care. We are the balance between the uncontrollable and the desire for perfection. We ride the line, we hold both sides together, and from my rare perspective, it’s the food people that work as the seam that holds the fabrics of our volatile civilization together. We are the beast, and we are the artist.

Like any industry that begins with entry level work, there are people that wander into this field unexpectedly and unenthusiastically. If you start out cleaning restrooms at a tech company, it’s not likely you’ll end your career as the CEO. But, you start out washing dishes at a restaurant, and you have a pretty good chance of making your way to chef before the movie ends. This career always manages to funnel in those that aren’t welcomed elsewhere. Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The kitchen, that’s the real refuge! We welcome you, flaws and all.

For some it will remain a job, but for others, this hot room of loud noises and salty attitudes becomes a calling. Life outside of work just serves as time to fuel up for the next shift. Everything these called upon people do revolves around the kitchen. And maybe we’re the ones who really have it all figured out. We respect our position in the world. While we often aren’t looked highly upon with such esteem as other professions, we know the importance of what we do. We recognize the magnitude of our duty. Life revolves around the kitchen. Food is the thing that binds us all. No matter how big the fight, how wide the differences, eventually we all take our seat at the table. Every society, every culture, every place. We all eat. You make time for the meal, but we set the table. We are the ones that not only face the fire, we keep it burning. And as long as that happens, then there will always be something we can all relate to. The world is wide, but we all sit together at dinner time.

Unless you are one of the lucky few that make it to celebrity status, the average restaurant cook isn’t a highly celebrated position. Perhaps due the gritty attitudes most chefs showcase which is probably thanks to the level of difficulty of the job and the not so appealing route that a poor sap must take to get to the level of chef. Think 8 hours standing on soaked feet from old mop water and hands deep in a cesspool of juices from strangers’ plates. Think plunging toilets full of deposit you didn’t deposit. Ya, working your way to the top of this profession is not easy. But the good news is that when you do reach the top, you’ll probably barely make enough money to pay your bills. The even better news is that you’ll spend so much time at work you won’t really have time to accrue too many bills or spend too much money. See, it’s a win win really.

So, after that particularly glamorous job description, you can see why kitchen folk really do need role models. We need our celebrity-status chefs to look up to. We need decorated winners to best represent our industry, and to give us outstanding albeit mostly out of reach goals to reach towards. We need kitchen heroes. We need to be reminded that what we’re doing matters, and that society accepts us. It is especially important for those that do represent us to represent all of us, the pith and the pits. Anyone can like Rachael Ray, but not everyone could love Anthony Bourdain. And yet, he chose to show the good and the bad, and still people respected him. He made room for a person like me at the table.

Today, I lost one of my table legs. I’m stunned. I was actually physically shaken by the news of his suicide. His loss…. Our loss. The darkness won.

I could always easily describe myself as half Vivian Howard and half Anthony Bourdain. That description is actually so accurate that it eventually defined me. 50% grits and 50% grit, the intro to my elevator pitch. I find acceptance in their flaws because I share those flaws. It actually energizes and comforts me to see them as real people, not just celebrities, because I can see my own potential succeed beyond that with which hopes to hold me back. I get to see people that started in similar common and unsophisticated beginnings soar, while still carrying with them a determination to not be ashamed of their start. You can do both. I see the same insecurities, anxiety and crippling expectations that plague me move forward in the same direction I set a course for. In the same industry that takes joy in cutting. If they can do it, and find contentment at the end of the work, then I can too.

But one of them couldn’t.
One of them succumbed to the darkness that eventually this particular combo of personality and career can bring.

One of my legs broke.

That is why I feel the way I do today. Everyone will speak of his work to connect us to other parts of the world, his ability to find the common ground that connects all people. They will highlight his many accomplishments and accolades. They will discuss his loss on a global scale. And they should, he deserves it. But I wanted to tell you about our loss. The kitchen kids that are working our way through the smoke. His loss has served such a gargantuan blow to my people. We didn’t lose a favorite tv star. We didn’t lose a famous face. We lost the person that made us feel safe to be us.

I wonder what his last meal was. I hope it was created with the passion he deserves. I hope it was simple but memorable. I hope he was comforted by it. I hope it was perfect. And I hope somehow, someway, our consuming need to create one more such meal and experience will be enough to keep our fires lit.

 

Shoofly Pie

I love to write. It’s one of my hobbies. In my life there isn’t much space or time for hobbies, so writing is precious to me because it can happen anywhere, anytime. I try to keep up on this blog, sometimes I even peck away at a someday cookbook, but Facebook is a great avenue for me to drop a quick story. I draw upon my life, usually it’s challenging accounts of parenthood, but occasionally I share a story from work. It’s an unusual job so people like to hear about it, and in some ways I embrace my opportunity to give my industry, one often misunderstood, a voice. Writing also helps me process difficult situations, which usually  delivers me a humorous outcome. That’s important for me. If I can find a way to laugh, I can get through anything.

So here’s the deal, if you are in my life there’s a possibility that someday you’ll directly or indirectly end up in one of my stories. I never name names, and honestly, it’s very rare that I bring any negative attention to anyone specifically. Usually people’s participation is written from a general direction, i.e. difficult customers, parents, hurdles, today’s challenges. I think we all have to embrace the fact that we are all playing roles in each other’s stories. And as long as we are kind, then retelling those stories shouldn’t be a problem. Some of you may disagree… If so, to be brutally honest, I can almost assure you that someday you are going to end up in someone’s stories if you haven’t already!

We’re getting deep here, so bear with me… or in this case bare with me!

Some of you think you are owed the right to only be seen in positive light. That’s just not reality. We have to be responsible for the way we act. And ya, trust me, sometimes that’s hard. Sometimes I’m tired and stressed and I don’t bring my best foot forward. Sometimes I’m accused of being cold or bitchy. Those are descriptions I have to live with. Are they warranted? Sure, I have a Dr’s note that could probably explain all of them, and a resting bitch face with a mind of its own. But that doesn’t matter. We don’t get to go around life defending ourselves. We have to be right with the skin we live in, and if we aren’t, then that’s work for ourselves not work for everyone around us. We are in charge of our own happiness. If I walk away from a situation with regret, then I go back to the drawing board, and almost always the first line says, ‘What could I have done differently.’ Life is real, it happens in real time. We all make mistakes, and thank God, because it would be extremely hard to be friends with someone who didn’t. How we grow from those mistakes is what determines if I particularly choose to be friends with you. I’m assuming it’s one of the reasons you choose to be friends with me. I’m also assuming my desire to turn negative issues into a reason to laugh is another reason you choose to be friends with me.

If I’m being truthful, I have never worked in a restaurant where the staff didn’t share horror stories about difficult customers during or at the end of each shift. Now, if I’m being very truthful, I’ve never worked in any job in any industry where that didn’t happen. Banking, retail, hotels, newspapers. They all had famous vent sessions. Some cramped in back stock rooms, employee break rooms, some go full out over drinks at Happy Hour. You are being reviewed for potential vent session material everything you do everywhere you go. More than likely, you will not make the cut. Congrats. But a few of you occasionally will. Don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger. This isn’t going to change, all I can say is don’t let it get to you. The stories are quickly replaced by the next, they hold no stock. It really doesn’t matter unless you’re a repeat offender. In that case, stop being difficult. That’s all I got, I’m not a counselor, but you might consider seeing one. Anyway, sometimes having this information is helpful. I’m hoping anyway!

What I mean is, we have to choose for ourselves what we allow to be acceptable and where we draw the line for too much.  I sometimes have annoying requests when I go out. I’m not a bad customer, but I can be needy. If I can find a way to add more calories to my food I probably will, usually in sauce form. It’s not unusual for me to order 4 different sauces with fried chicken. I’ve been a server, trust me, I know how irritating that is. I try hard to compensate my server for their extra time, and hopefully that eases the pain. But ultimately I have to weigh the inconvenience I may cause to others to get what I want against the probability that I may be featured in a later vent session. And so do you. Now this brings us to the main point of this whole blog and usually in a round about way most of my others.  Life is about choices from the moment we wake up until the second we fall asleep. And there are many different consequences and considerations involved in making those choices. How big of a pain in the ass are we to others, and are we giving the other person an opportunity to fairly respond. That response may be in conversation, that response may be in their reaction after you leave. We don’t necessarily get to choose. But we do have to choose to be okay with the result. You get to be in charge of you, not how other people feel about you. That doesn’t mean you just get to be mean, that means if you choose to be mean you have to choose to accept another person’s poor opinion of you. If you handle a situation poorly, you don’t get a do-over. You live, you learn, and you move forward wiser and stronger. My extra sauces are worth the potential target later. I make that choice. In the grand scheme of things I like my chances.

This week my chances weren’t so good. I wish I could have a do-over, but like I said, that’s not how it works. I had a difficult conversation with a customer that ended up being part of a later Facebook post on my personal page. To be honest the mention of this customer was really more of an avenue to deliver a laugh about me almost swallowing a fly. It had been a rough day that concluded with me sucking a fly out of a straw. I declared that in fact was the last straw, and from that point on I rode out the storm of my Shit Thursday in the privacy and safety of my home. Long story short, a mutual friend shared that post with this customer and she shared it with the world, specifically in review form of my restaurant. First of all, that’s not fair. I have 24 employees that rely on our business to provide for their families. They did absolutely nothing wrong and affecting their income is misdirected. But, I can’t do anything about that other than try to continue to provide my crew with as positive a place as I can for the time they are here separated from their loved ones. I also offer my sincerest apologies for any aftermath this causes them. They won’t take my apology because I know they agree with me on this whole issue, but nonetheless I am sorry they got drug into the mess. That I can regret. The truth of the matter is this particular customer wasn’t offering me a fair chance in our conversation. She needed me to admit I was wrong, but truthfully my memory proved differently. Using what information and the resources I had available to me, I reached the same conclusion each time, one different from her memory. I’m not calling her a liar. I’m not saying I was lying. Apparently we have opposing views on what may have happened two months ago. That’s all I can say. I genuinely can’t remember the past the way she wants me to. I had photographic evidence, menu sheets and employees that all agree with what I remember. If she could’ve provided me with evidence of her memory, then maybe this whole issue could’ve been resolved more easily. But it really doesn’t matter. Who was right is so really not that important anymore. What matters is I didn’t give in and neither did she. Now before you go and tell me the customer is always right, please know, after seeing and experiencing years of abuse from customers to employees, I don’t blindly agree with that old adage anymore. I care deeply for my employees, I see the the sacrifices they make to be here and I know how hard they work. If a customer is being offensive or rude, I don’t allow it. People are people and they all deserve the same respect, regardless of what uniform they’re wearing. Now this customer wasn’t cursing at me or anything like that. I don’t want to give that impression. I thought she was implying something that later, and I’m actually grateful for this, her review confirmed she wasn’t. She was just adamantly needing me to agree with something that I could not. Now I could go on to mention many things, like this plate of food in question isn’t even on our lunch menu and it was extremely accommodating of the lunch cooks to cook this plate with a kitchen completely unprepared for the majority of the ingredients required for this dish. I could also mention for never making this plate of food they executed it brilliantly. These are things my customer didn’t give me a chance to say, and my defense for my kitchen was probably fueling my stubbornness. But I will choose to say them now because although she thinks it’s unprofessional of me to talk about customers outside of work, I think it’s unprofessional of me not to highlight the great things my employees do. My employees are my first priority. My customers are next. I realize thats an unpopular opinion to hear, but it’s an honest one. And truthfully, any good restaurant owner would agree, albeit whispered out of hearing range from their dining room.

I agreed to be honest a long time ago, friends. No point in backtracking now just because it gets a little hairy.

Now, could I have handled this whole situation better. Absolutely, and I’ve spent the better part of three days considering all the ways. But the only regret I have about my Facebook post is that it was never intended as a weapon but it was indirectly used as one. And that makes me sad. Truthfully, the whole point of the story was to be a vessel with which to offer a shared laugh over a incident with a fly. It was just my way of adding a laugh to the top of a shit pie.
That was it. I wish no ill will towards this person. I did make mention of a crazy man in the story, which she took offense to. I’m honestly not in the habit of speaking badly about my customers. I think anyone that knows me or any other small town restauranteur will agree that our customers are precious to us. I’m making decades old family recipes for them, and I don’t take that lightly. My guests willingness and enthusiasm to receive those dishes gives me a very appreciated opportunity to continue to honor and love my family members that have since left this world. Say what you want about me, but that I most certainly do not take for granted. No, I wasn’t being flippant with insults. Sometimes we arrive at our opinions of people over time, and truthfully this particular person has said some offensive and inappropriate things to my female servers. That has put him on my radar. His interference in my conversation on Thursday had little to do with my assessment. I’m sad that his part in this story makes me look like a mean person. But, again, we have to responsible for what we say, and I did say that. I only get to be in charge of my words, I don’t get to take charge of those words once repeated on. And for that I’ll allow myself growth and peace. I know his actions have been inappropriate, but I also offered that description into the universe without explanation. That’s where I went wrong. I can only be disappointed in myself for leaving that door open.

Do I regret the Facebook post in general? This is a tough one. I didn’t want to hurt my customer’s feelings, though I sincerely doubt she ever cared about mine. But I’m not in charge of what she thinks. I honestly don’t agree with her, but we don’t all have to agree all the time to live in peace. I know she left mad, and I, well, I and a mutual friend, certainly provided her with some material to stay mad longer. That I regret. You could argue that I perpetuated this with the post. Ironically, though, my post was a way for me to get over it. A way to move forward without any leftover discomfort or hurt. And let’s not be so naive as to think she didn’t retell the story again elsewhere in her own attempts to process it and move on. Unfortunately for me, my hobby keeps my version of the events petrified until I press delete. And I could. I very easily could delete my post and delete her review. But I’ve chosen to leave it. Because if there is any lesson or value to come from this whole experience, for both of us, it’s erased as soon as I press that button. No, I’ll stand behind the words I can, and I’ll learn from the words I can’t. What she does is her own business. I don’t get a say, I can only hope. That’s all we can do, friends. Be hopeful, be honest, be brave, and also be realistic. Such is life. Sometimes you’re on the top of the mountain, and sometimes you’re picking a fly out of your teeth.

 

Proof-ing

I’m taking a day off to catch up on work… Anyone in this industry will understand that. Most of us small restaurant owners/operators were not blessed with an office. In my case I’m running a restaurant out of what 100 years ago was a bank building. The whole damn building was office, but now it serves as a dining room, two bars, and a kitchen. The only “small rooms” have toilets in them. I may be desperate, but I refuse to eat my lunch on the toilet. Well, never say never. There may actually be a day when even the solitude of the bathroom could be a welcomed refuge. I know our employee bathroom serves as headquarters for many of my crew’s Clash of Clans battles… just gross. I mean playing video games as an adult. Everyone poops.

Working in a restaurant is really what I would call a hands on job. (There really wasn’t enough space placed between the poop reference and the hands on food statement that followed. Sorry for that!) Of course, in this job there are many tasks that need to be done that are probably best done in a quiet sitting position, like menu costing, marketing, web design, scheduling, catering forms to fill out, bookkeeping, industry updates, on and on all the way to tshirt designs and equipment research. But that all too often gets put on the back burner. And so, once every blue moon, we take a day off from our regular scheduled activities to force ourselves to sit in a chair and do grown up work. Now keep in mind, we chose this career because we’re bad at grown up stuff. We prefer to run around loud rooms with sharp objects, not sit at a desk and God forbid, focus on one thing. Ugh. Shiver. For me, today is that day though. Now, having made the choice long ago to go against the grain of adulthood, I (and probably most of my colleagues) do adulthood my own way. First, I start with coffee. Now yes, that is typical grown up process, but while many people choose to put on pants with real buttons and zippers, I opted for elastic pants… very, very old, barely hanging on, long past their death, yoga pants. I did put on a bra, but only because I’m going to sit on my porch and I genuinely care about the health and well-being of my neighbors. These fun bags are dangerous when released naturally to the elements. Next, I brushed my teeth. I know, whoa, Wall Street, here I come. I had a quick breakfast with my husband and child, off to work the man goes, off to the babysitter’s the child goes. It’s just me, the dog, strong coffee, and a computer topped with a stack of papers. The time has arrived. I make my way outside to my porch. It’s nice out today so I feel like a gentle breeze and sunshine will drive me on my way to productivity. It also kind of feels more like a real day off, so at least I can keep the woe is me, pity party at a low roar in my head. Today I am revamping our website, creating a new page for our new banquet room that we’ve been managing for almost two years, it’s “new” because then I don’t have to feel guilty for not having created a website or even proper signage for it yet. That reminds me, I need to work on signage for my new banquet room. Right now it’s more of a in the know secret kind of place. Mystery, what every customer service business depends on. Sexy. After that I’m going to work on a few new tshirt ideas I’ve been stewing. Then I need to advertise a stove I have for sale- sooner that’s sold the quicker I can pay back my personal credit card which I used to buy the new equipment we replaced said stove with. Ya, your own personal credit will be subjected to abuse in order to keep the wheels on your fancy restaurant. Like run down crappy houses you pass with fancy cars in the driveway, most restaurant owners have shiny eateries with sparkly stainless steel bells and whistles, while at home we cook on archaic pots and pans and drink from the carton. After stove marketing, I’m going to create a flyer and information sheet for a community event that I in a tequila induced craze decided to volunteer for. After that, I need to start work on my own community fundraiser that I host every fall. Time permitting, I really need to spend some time fixing the kinks and marketing our new oyster bar that we launched a couple months ago. It was a trial by fire that has worked fine, but it’s time to perfect the area and the system.
All that to do, and yet here I am blogging…  I’m settling my brain. I’m focusing my energy. I’m stalling…

Here’s what I’m really thinking about and what I really want to talk about…  ACCOUNTABILITY.

What happened to being held accountable for your own actions? What happened to holding others accountable?  What happened to make us think that any of our issues once were not issues, and why do we automatically assume something had to have happened to have changed that? Maybe we are and always have been Screwed Up! Oddly, I find comfort in that.

Back to complaining about how young people fucked everything up…

I’m going to say what I know every successful restaurant owner in the world thinks but is Not Allowed to say… most failed restaurants are not a victim of the economy, or a victim of any troubles in their small towns, or traffic, or taxes, or blah, blah, blah. You know about excuses, they’re like orifices we all got. I get so tired of hearing people make excuses for ultimately what is their own damn fault. Let me please explain. No really, I Really need to get this off of my chest. I spend an enormous amount of time learning. I am not so naïve as to think that once I graduated college I was done exploring new answers. Not even that, that I was done exploring new questions. Far from it. The second I walked across the stage to receive my diploma I embraced the responsibility that not only would the learning not stop, but I felt the pressure to realize that now it was actually my own responsibility to figure out what it was that I still needed to learn. Real life does not come with professors and a syllabus. It’s not what you don’t know, it’s what you don’t know you don’t know. That is the first lesson that every new restaurateur, and probably any new business owner of any kind, needs to remind themselves. That should be your mantra. Find out what I need to know, then find out what I need to know about that. If you do that, then you will not be a victim of anything…  well, theft. You could be a victim of theft, and rudeness, and exhaustion, and bad nutrition, and poor sleep habits…. but your business should still be open if you’ve got good insurance and enough caffeine.  For those of us that take the boring and excruciating time to research every aspect of our restaurant, others that just think they make good soup and have a pile of cash and scoff at how hard can it really be KILL US. If one restaurant with zero concept of food and menu costing arbitrarily prices their menu, usually too low, then those of us with sensible and correct prices will hear about it. “I can get a similar sandwich down the street at who gives a shit’s for half the price.” Now what I’d like to say is, well ya better get as many as you can eat now because they are going to close soon. But I can’t say that. The undamaged, still optimistic, goody two shoes side of me wants to go offer my advice to that new restaurant owner, but I can’t do that either. Because every time I’ve tried to help in the past I’ve either been burned or my help has not been received well. Oh that Mo, she just thinks she knows everything. No, I don’t. I don’t know shit about mufflers, or electric poles, or sail boats. And what I know about court rooms and hospitals I learned from Law & Order and Grey’s Anatomy. But I do know restaurants. I don’t know everything, but I know a whole helluva lot. And what I don’t know I am willing and able to learn, because there is most certainly a right and a very wrong way to run a restaurant. Keeping consistent hours based on your labor costs and extensive research of the most profitable hours in your community is the right way. Opening and closing randomly based on when you feel like it or when you think more people may possibly show up is the wrong way. You will probably only cost yourself more in the long run. Pricing a menu based on actual food costs and expenses is the right way. Putting everything on super sale in order to attract new customers is the wrong way. You will definitely cost yourself more in the long run. I’m not going to give a detailed list of the dos and don’ts of running a restaurant. It’s taken me 20 years to learn what I know and it will take me the rest of my life to learn what I don’t know. In the end this would become a life long commitment to writing a book. As it is, I’m doing good to carve out this 20 minutes to vent. Additionally, I have commitment issues and 20 minutes is really all I can offer of myself to you without possibly pushing you away or developing an unhealthy and unreasonable attachment to you. So let’s keep this platonic and light.
It’s not you, it’s me.

While we’re venting, I also have a bone to pick with the look, they’re doing it, so how hard can it be, people. You have a huge pile of money that you can throw on a whim so you think you’re obviously going to succeed even though you’ve literally never worked one second in a restaurant, or maybe you hosted at an Applebee’s in high school. It’s okay, you can’t really remember because you’re high off the ink from all of your money.  But you know with your superior intelligence and impressive bank account that you’re easily going to put all of us pathetic burger flippers out of business and dominate the food and beverage scene on your block with artisan snacks and pretentious cocktails…     Actually, you guys go ahead and do it. I’ll enjoy a cheap beer at your expense when you come to me to sell all of your barely used equipment at discounted prices because you’ve realized this job’s financial reward does not equal the work required to stay open and you’re desperate to stop hemorrhaging your beloved dollars into a business that you have zero attachment to or passion for.

What I’m really getting at is this. If you think opening a restaurant is a great idea You Are Wrong. It’s an insane idea. It’s a terrible idea. It’s pretty much social suicide and, well, you’re going to kill your body so it may be physical suicide.  Oh and you are definitely going to run out of money so it’s financial suicide too.

YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.

Did I scare you? Are you still willing to give it a try, despite knowing now that you will have no time, energy or money for any kind of social life? Yes? Okay, now that we’ve weeded out the trendy cravings from the truly hungry, let’s get serious. Raise your left hand, place your other hand over your tattered and worn copy of Kitchen Confidential, and repeat after me, “ I vow to work beyond emotional and physical exhaustion. I promise to sacrifice myself for the greater good of my business. I will take full responsibility for the possible failure of my restaurant. I also understand that I may take little to no credit for the success of my business because I appreciate the effort of a staff that I will spend the rest of my life finding and training. I respect my tiny role in a giant industry and understand that together we succeed when we play by the rules and do our jobs correctly. I respect the importance of serving as a community center, event venue, benefit platform, town example and role model, youth center, parent escape, and basically everything for everyone else to the point that the place will not even feel like yours anymore, until everyone leaves and you will have to clean up the mess, which you happily and proudly will do because inevitably you feel useful and full of purpose knowing that in some way you helped make a positive difference. I will not serve a burger dip. Seriously tho, that’s not a thing. Stop it, it’s weird and gross. I will do dishes. I will do dishes. I will do dishes. I will clean toilets. I will dig through trash to find lost silverware and kid’s slimy retainers. I will do dishes. I will swallow my pride and let wrong customers win, a lot. I will do all of this for very little pay, very little recognition, and my dedication to this business will ruin many personal relationships and eventually consume me. I will do all of this and more because I cannot imagine doing anything else.  This is why I was put on this planet, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity.”

Now, go buy a highlighter. You’re gonna need it when you start digging through the piles of city codes and ordinances you are going to have to familiarize yourself with to get permitted to open your restaurant. Oh, you didn’t think you were going to be cooking, did you?

Peanut Butter Bacon

I’m a bad boss…

Not for my employees, at least I don’t think, but I’m definitely a bad boss for myself. What does that mean? It means that I’m sensitive. I’m anxious. I need order, but I crave spontaneity. I’m hopeful but brutally realistic. I’m rarely satisfied. I’m restless. I’m unfulfilled. I’m bitter. And I’m way too busy to do anything about any of this. More than anything, I’m too scared to do or be anything else.

Being the boss is hard, but honestly it’s hard in 1000 ways that people who have never been the boss could understand. When you succeed the whole team succeeds. When you fail, you fail all alone. For everything that you strive to make better, you will have someone mad at you for asking more from them. You can try your best to lead by example no matter the sacrifice, but you will still be expected to appreciate and accommodate everyone else’s struggles. You will rarely be appreciated for what you do right, but you will be resented for what you do wrong. Is this a pity party? Perhaps. But bossland is a lonely place, and if I don’t have the safety of my writing to vent then I fear I will become a poor leader for my employees eventually too. And being a bad boss is something special that I only want to inflict upon myself. Because ironically, I think it may be the very thing that makes me a good person to work for.

I constantly fear people’s disapproval of me, so I spend an enormous amount of energy trying to articulate my wishes and needs in a way that will cause the least amount of friction. I rehearse whole conversations in my head. I consider any and all possibilities, and I prepare possible solutions for all, just in case. I remember everything. My brain plays a never ending loop of my  greatest mistakes, constantly reminding me of what I could’ve and should’ve done differently. And while I know I should turn it off, I’m terrified of not learning the lessons that I’m sure will come with mind numbing examination of every moment of my past, afraid that without those realizations and epiphanies I’m doomed to repeat my mistakes. I weigh risk versus potential. I choose my battles, only after complete and thorough consideration has been given to the best and worst case scenarios.

I’m not saying that I don’t occasionally lose my shit. Oh that happens. But it happens a lot less than it used to, and it only happens after my patience runs out. If you poke at me long enough I will eventually bite. I’m only human. I’m an extremely passionate human.  But I’m growing, and I’ve learned that you truly do get more bees with honey. I want to inspire my employees. I want to encourage them to do and be their best, not just for the success of my business, but because I crave the energy of being around people who feel successful. It’s an empowering and uplifting feeling. And perhaps that’s the very reason that I do snap sometimes. I’m trying so hard to encourage the best from the people around me by trying my best to be the best, so when they disappoint, it truly feels like my own failure. I’m mad at them for making me fail. And if you think my reaction to my employee’s mistakes are bad, let me assure you it doesn’t hold a candle to the torture that I will unleash upon myself. I will relive my mistake over and over again, I will analyze every moment, and I will punish myself with the constant reminder of what I did wrong and what I should’ve done right. I will suffocate on embarrassment, shame and self doubt. And then I will pick myself up, gather my pieces, and move forward determined to never make the same mistake again.

So, now that I’ve defended… nay.  Now that I’ve come to terms with…  even more nay. So now that I’ve made the conscious choice to not only allow this behavior but to convince myself that it is necessary and that I’m prepared to do everything in my power to enable it, I must also figure out a less painful and more visibly sane way to navigate through this grueling cycle, or at the very least accept that it might be worth the pain and ridicule.

Or maybe, maybe I just need to accept and appreciate my opportunity to participate in this experiment.

And just like that, it all makes sense!
Today, meet yesterday.

Allow me to share with you a pivotal conversation from my past when I first truly realized that the real point of higher education isn’t necessarily what happens in a classroom or in a book. I suppose, truth be told, this can happen anywhere, but for me it happened on a park bench on a college campus.

The conversation went something like this. Imagine a naive, directionless, art student, just treading water until graduation. Some days I gave 100%, some days I didn’t, but my entitled youth convinced me that I was deserving of approval every day. At the opposite end of this conversation was my photography and drawing professor, one of the most unique, bizarre, and wonderfully fascinating people I’ve ever met. He was like peanut butter and bacon, two things that shouldn’t work together but somehow just do. He was a delightful mash up of old fashioned and avant-garde. I once saw him dressed in women’s clothing for a campus event, but he didn’t at all look uncomfortable. In fact, he walked into the auditorium as confidently and comfortably as if he were wearing his best suit. I saw him lick paintings. He listened to Devo loudly in his office in the middle of the night. He encouraged great, deep, meaningful, sometimes scary conversation. Generic answers did not go unpunished in his classroom.  He did this crazy thing to illustrate his boredom with a motion like he was slamming his face against the wall, slapping the wall loudly with his hand hidden between the wall and his head to ensure the effect while protecting himself from a broken nose. Risk or not, it was highly effective. You wanted to impress this man. He spent entire classes wildly and enthusiastically drawing circles, loving and cherishing the rare beauty of each one. He spent as much time standing on his desk as he did sitting under it. He wore red boots every day. He made art. He made good art and lots of it. And yet, he sulked through the art department halls like everyone’s grumpy grandpa. He smoked like a chimney. He scowled and he growled. And most importantly, he lived in a world where respect was earned. You could see how this was irritating to say the least for me. We were sitting on a bench outside of the art building after what I considered to be an exceptionally harsh critique. How could he not see how insanely talented I was. Ya, maybe my art did look like a white bread bologna sandwich that week, but did he not notice how deep and bold my intent was. I mean I was dancing around some really complex and mature ideas. That deserved some credit, right? You know how sensitive I am. You know I need people’s approval. He was holding out, and I hated it. The truth is, if I had shown the great potential that I so generously awarded myself then I now realize his disapproval was even more warranted. If I truly did possess the ability and the desire to entertain an exceptionally challenging view that went against the grain, what a disappointment it must have been when I stopped short of the grand finale. I’m not even sure I ever got past the opening credits. I scratched the surface of awesome, but when it got scary and hard I settled for good enough. But good enough is never good enough. On this particular day I was engaged in a twenty-something, ranting, raving, rambling defense of my work, all dressed up pretty in the disguise of meaningful and important life examination. What makes art good? What makes someone qualified to decide if art is good. How come someone else gets to decide if my art is good enough, if I’m good enough. It’s mine. It’s me. He endured my monologue, offering a nod here and there. Then, when I was heading towards loop four or five of the same aimless conversation he’s probably suffered through for all the years he’s been teaching, he let out a long sigh. “Student Monica, what is art?” Now, having entered my final year of college, an art degree within my reach only months away, I should’ve been able to answer this question easily, right? This is the most basic of questions. What is? We figure out the what, then we examine the who, the why, the when. What is art? I sat there, blank… Speechless. Afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid to say the right thing. This question terrified me. This should have been a cake walk for me. Step one. What. The 7,000 steps that were to follow should’ve been the hard part, right? I mean every text book in the world gives a definition of the what in the first page, all the pages that follow break down the why. So how could I seriously not know what the most basic definition of my area of study was, what I had based my entire education upon, the what to my entire future. There was no faking a response. There was no distraction. This hit me head on like a semi truck. I wasn’t prepared for it, and it stung. It downright hurt. I agreed right then and there that I would spend the rest of my life answering that question. Little did I realize then that that determination to analyze, absorb, reflect, and a terrified discipline to not fail would be the driving force behind who I would become.

The true benefit, for me at least, of college was to develop an ability to think beyond the scope of what someone else tells me. To think beyond memorization or common reasoning. I learned to use all of my senses and abilities to absorb new feelings, new information, new possibilities. I realized that my potential was not limited to my experiences, but to how far I was willing to reach for my dream. Life is not a series of comprehensible equations and definitions. It’s endless hypotheses and the constant hunt for answers. One answer that leads to another question that leads to another possibility.  An endless, awesome journey. And don’t forget the struggle is important too. It gives us perspective. It’s the spectrum that we gauge our success and our value upon.

Now, as you know by now, my art degree did not result in a fancy art job. I do not catch a cab to a sharp office surrounded by shiny computers and people looking accidentally cool. I do not walk in designer shoes with matching hand bag to a glossy gallery, and I spend no time in a cluttered city loft that smells of charcoal and paint thinner. I cook. My world is a kitchen. My tools are smoke, fire and water. But I am still an artist, and this is still my studio. I know this… because, lo and behold, I found the answer in this kitchen. What is art? I think the very thought of trying to define art with simple words diminishes the extreme importance of my search for the answer. That’s not a cop out, that’s honestly me showing my respect to the process. My art is not something I make, it’s something I do. Making art is taking part in the never ending journey to define the indefinable. Art has no boundaries, but then again, maybe it is our boundaries. One mark too less and the piece is forever unfinished. One mark too many and the piece is dead. You go until you can go no longer, but if you go too far you must start all over. You learn, and then you try again. But here’s the best part about this journey, all of those steps, all of those experiments, the research, the paper trail of exploration, those are all tasty savory tidbits. And people pay for those! Thank goodness because otherwise we’d all be working in the dark, thirsty, hungry, and smelly. No, the proof of the journey is the best part. But not the answer. They’re not buying your art. They’re buying your waste. The leftovers. The crumbs that fall off the table as you move on to the next attempt. The next generation. The new horizon. As long as you are continually trying to find the answer, you are taking part in art. So when life starts to feel like Groundhog Day, when every day begins to feel exactly like the one before it, we need to stop and remind ourselves how lucky we are to be living a creative life. We are gifted the opportunity to take part in defining, creating, being the what. I have never made a perfect dish. I may never make a perfect dish. Perhaps I hope I never will. Because the exploration of trying new keeps me going. One bad dish makes me determined to make one better. And one good dish gives me the motivation to make one even better than that. The possibilities are endless. There is no finish line. There is no grand perfect. There is only the process, the daily, sometimes grueling, boring, monotonous, unnecessary, liberating, fantastic process.

Ya, I’m a bad boss… to myself. I set impossible expectations. I have no purpose other than that with which I set upon myself. I’m scared to fail, but more scared not to try. I’m unforgiving for the sake of craving the lesson.  I’m making sense where there is no sense. I’m exhausted. I’m tormented.

I am creating art.
And I feel incredibly fortunate to be doing so.

Soul Food

I want to ramble about love for a minute… Maybe I’m feeling a little nostalgic, or inspired, or hormonal. Either way my emotions go to 11 today, and typing is keeping my hands too busy to stuff my face with all the wrong things. So for the sake of any possibility of preserving my post baby body back to what it was… Oh who am I kidding, my child didn’t do this to me, frosting and drive thru coffee milkshakes did this to me. So, for the sake of ever repairing my- I’m not responsible enough to do my own grocery shopping and I hit the cookie aisle a little too hard- body, I need to keep my fingers typing.

Truth be told, I had many reasons to fear having a child, namely the one where somehow the giant baby head was apparently supposed to rip through a tiny hole in my body, a hole that up to now I had been particularly careful with and was not so eager to see or feel be mangled by an alien. Yes, I believe that was reservation number one. But also near the top of my list of concerns was a suspicion I felt that most parents occasionally regretted their choice to be parents. Now everyone calm down, I know you love your kids. But we agreed a long time ago to be completely truthful here, and obviously we’ve agreed to leave our judgment at the door. Otherwise… Sorry?!?!

All I’m saying is I wouldn’t be stressing about putting my own kid through college if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a parent say “Being a parent is not what I thought it would be,” or “Parenting is a lot harder than I expected,” always immediately followed with a, “don’t get me wrong, I love my kids more than else anything in the world.” Share a bottle with a mother, the first half she’ll sip and brag about how amazing her kids are, the second half she’ll gulp and complain about how hard parenting is. I always had a curious feeling that every parent around me was really just trying to convince themselves that life with kids was better than it would’ve been without, because frankly it’s too late to go back. So with all due respect, I was less than eager to join that club. My life was good before I had a child. I think. I mean, I had stuff to do, and I did it when I wanted to do it. I mean, like, when there was time to do the stuff. Like, I worked a lot. So that was cool. Ya know, working all the time. And stuff…

The truth is my life was too busy to allow me any time to consider whether or not my life was good. Perhaps that was by design. I truthfully can’t tell you if I was leading my life or if I was being dragged behind it. I know it all felt fast. Time FLEW by. I was tired a lot. I was stressed a lot. But I felt accomplished… No, that’s a lie. I felt motivated. I was always motivated to reach the next goal, but I spent little to no time celebrating goals reached. In hindsight, that’s extremely depressing.

All that changed one November day… Okay, I’m not even going to try to be poetic right now… I drank copious amounts of tequila in Mexico and got knocked up! Life as I knew it almost instantaneously changed. I say almost because my husband/business partner and I were in the middle of an expansion project at our restaurant when we left for vacation. We were in the process of renovating a space next door to use as a banquet facility. Work was postponed due to the proverbial red tape of city politics and the permit process. So our previously planned vacation happened to land right in the middle of this time. I found out I was pregnant very soon after we returned home, within a month. My husband and I didn’t tell anyone else, but we knew we had to get the work done asap. Our financial needs and my physical abilities were going to be changing fast. So my first two months of pregnancy were anything but relaxing. We were stressed to the max about money and we were up to our elbows in to do lists to finish the room and to get it booked in time for the holidays. But eventually we made it through yet another stressful time. December went by. The room looked lovely and our customers were very pleased with the new addition to our town. All was working… and I was pregnant. At the beginning of the new year I devoted myself to caring for my body to the best of my abilities. I had given little effort to my personal health before that, but now some little bizarre and unusual thing depended on me to be healthy. So from somewhere deep within me, my mind, my heart, I’m not really sure where, somehow I found the motivation to cherish and nurture my body, something I had never been disciplined enough to do before. I cut out caffeine, I ate well, I rested and I made and kept regular appointments to a chiropractor and massage therapist to keep my body in prime condition. I read self help and pregnancy books. Did I mention I QUIT COFFEE?! I spent more time and energy caring for myself in those 7 months than I ever had before. I was disciplined and motivated by an unseen and indescribable force. Was this motherhood kicking into gear? Had it been hiding inside of me all along? Was I really always capable of caring this much for myself? Or was I inspired by a concern for the well being of something or someone that I had never met? I can’t say it was love. At least not comparable to the feelings of love I had ever recognized before. If I’m terrifyingly honest right now, I don’t even know if I “loved” my baby when she was born. I was intrigued by her. I was proud of her, and I felt an incredible responsibility to take care of her. But I didn’t know her. She was a stranger, an enormous responsibility that at the time I truly didn’t know how to care for, but I was confident I would figure it out. Somehow, someway, I knew we would make it work. I loved my husband and my mother, and between the three of us I was confident this child would be well cared for. But she just felt like another responsibility to me, a precious responsibility.

Now anyone that’s been through it can tell you, the first two months of bringing home a baby are pure hell. I don’t know if they will tell you, but they should. Let me be honest about this. The first two months of living with a newborn is horrific. Your baby will find cruel and unusual ways to torture you. You will be pissed and shit on daily. You will not be allowed to sleep. You will not be allowed to eat. Mothers, you will probably bleed, A Lot. You will probably experience your first hemorrhoid. Yes. That happens. And then at some point ladies, you will piss yourself. Yes. That happens too. Your boobs will hurt. A lot. And then a baby will bite down on your sore nipples a million times a day. You will give up on laundry and resort to wearing the same pair of sweatpants and stained tshirt, no bra because seriously what’s the point, for weeks at a time. You won’t have the energy or time to shower, so is wearing the same dirty clothes really that bad if you’re not cleaning the body underneath. Hormones will plague your house. Tears, followed by diabolic laughter, followed by fury. What I am trying to tell you friends is that your life will be horrible for two months. Fake as many smiles as you can for pictures, because someday you’ll want them. Or flip the fucking camera off to remind yourself what to expect the next time you decide to get drunk and test the resilience of a hotel mattress. Whatever you need to do to get through, do it. But I assure you, you will get through it. About month three I started smiling again. I genuinely started to enjoy moments with my child. It was still hard, but we were all sleeping a little better. My body was recovering. And my kid, well, she was kind of awesome. She started showing a little personality. We started to fall into a routine. We finally started to get our feet under us again, and life started to feel manageable. I felt in control, and for the first time in quite a while I was brave enough to think about the possibilities of tomorrow again.

By month 6 I was back at work part time. I felt good. I felt energized and… happy.
Wait, what?

My daughter just passed 8 months old. Life has completely settled down. I’m back to work full time. My husband and I take turns watching the baby and watching our business. With the addition of my mother, this baby is well cared for. We have a schedule. She sleeps mostly through the nights now. We eat at certain times of day, we nap at certain times. We have favorite games and tv shows. We go on family walks. We even make it to the grocery store on occasion. Life is simple and good. And I love it. I LOVE. I love on a level I’ve never experienced before now. It is terrifying and awesome. It is a vulnerability that leaves you completely unprotected and open. Everything my daughter does is excruciating, and amazing. It’s hard to describe. I know it sounds horrible, and maybe in some way it is. To love this much, you must open yourself up to a level of feeling that is truly scary. It is remarkably powerful. I’ve never felt emotion this strong. It’s overwhelming. I am consumed by my love for my daughter. It is an impressive and incredible force. And once you experience this kind of feeling you find that you are now able to feel more deeply for every other aspect of your life. I love my husband more. I love my mother more. I love my job and my life more. I cry more. I hurt more and I hope more. I think I get it now. Being a parent is hard. It’s an enormous responsibility. It is being in over your head all of the time. It’s barely hanging on and somehow at the same time completely controllable. It’s good and bad, but the good is a level of good that is unimaginable until you experience it. It’s euphoric joy and peace. I have found true balance. I still like my job and I still have professional goals. But no matter what happens, I feel content and reassured knowing that ultimately at the end of every day I go home to my family. We are safe, we are healthy, we are happy, and we love each other. That feeling of security has made me braver and more confident. I don’t need to prove anything to anybody anymore. My worth is not dependent on my accomplishments. My value is in the love I feel for my child, and the love I feel in return from her. My purpose in this life is to love, and to be loved. Being a parent has completed my life. It was the one thing I was missing, and it is the one thing I now couldn’t live without. Having a child is most certainly not what I thought it would be. It is harder than I thought it would be. But it is also more amazing then I ever expected. And yes, I love my child more than anything else in this world.

Oil and Vinegar

I’ve been working on a different blog lately, but a thought struck me last night, and I want to give it the attention I think it deserves before it moves on to the next hungry mind.

Is anything worth doing if your ultimate goal is someone else’s approval? What gives them this supreme power over you? And how may your overall experience suffer if your gauge for success is someone else’s opinion?

This epiphany literally shot me out of bed last night. I was suddenly and forcibly struck with the realization that I may be allowing other people to control my life by giving them the power to define what my success is. In order to do that, I have to rely on their happiness to allow my happiness. I do not want to make someone else’s approval my responsibility anymore, and I will not burden myself with their disapproval. I can learn and grow, but I cannot be in charge of other people’s feelings. It’s my job to create and their job to judge. The two must coexist. They can support and influence each other, but do not have to work against each other. My customer forming an opinion is necessary to complete the full effect of my action. It’s what makes my work relevant. But…. Dare I say…. In the end it is just food…

Now grant it I work in a customer service industry. Ideally, it is my job to make people happy. The customer is always right, right? But I may be setting myself up for certain failure if peoples’ opinions are my true scale for success, because not everyone is always going to be happy with me. Sometimes, people are especially unhappy with me when I have to do things that are in the best interest of my business. So what I do must matter to achieve success in terms of profit and job security. But, what I do must not always be considered in the evaluation of my personal happiness and sanity. Is this possible?

I think it’s first important for me to deeply consider what I do, before I consider why I do it. Whew, this is some heady shit. But, the unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates, right before he was sentenced to death… If it’s okay with you I’d like to ponder my life a little sooner!

I work in an unnecessary industry. It’s frivolous. It’s for fun. The world would not collapse if all restaurants closed. Sure, unemployment would sky rocket and life would be less tasty and fun, but the world would keep spinning. Lives would continue. I think it’s important for me to admit this. On one hand it’s depressing to realize that what I work so hard at is unnecessary. But, on the other hand, it kind of makes me feel special. I get to do what I want simply because I want to do it. I am living a blessed creative life. Perhaps daily life would be easier if I remember this. I chose this mountain!

Ok, so what if a customer does not love what I create? It doesn’t diminish me as a person or even my experience. It can, inevitably, help me grow? Good and bad living in harmony? I’m not talking about perspective here. I’m saying that, perhaps, the bad, if properly processed, can help good grow better.

I do believe there is a life lesson somewhere in here, and I do believe we are getting close to it. Do you feel it?

As a young person I always had trouble accepting criticism. I hid that fear under a disguise of stubborn defiance. I’m certain that over the years it has appeared that other people’s opinions didn’t matter to me, but truthfully their opinions mattered too much.  I gauged my success as a human being on someone else’s approval of me, hell, everyone else’s approval. Without realizing the enormity of the power that I had bestowed upon my friends, family, colleagues and mentors, the very people that mattered to me unintentionally crushed me. I allowed them to crush me. Every relationship and every aspect of my life was burdened by this constant need for approval. And what did I do? I kicked it all up a notch. I immersed myself in a profession that thrives on the approval of others. Somehow, perhaps carried by my innate endurance, I survived. But often times that’s all I did. I made it from one day to the next. Time carried me. I felt little control, and eventually I surrendered to chaos. I let life happen to me… until I got pregnant.

This was not the kind of life I want for my daughter. So in order to teach her how to control her life I needed to take control of my own. While I was pregnant I made the bold decision to stop reading my restaurant’s reviews. It’s not that those opinions were suddenly not important, they just weren’t as important as keeping my stress level low for my growing baby. I moved the apps to the back pages of my phone, and eventually removed the apps all together. My nightly ritual of skimming over the positive reviews and stewing over the negative ones was replaced with reading about the miracle growing inside of me. I can tell you sleep came much quicker through pregnancy, and though some of it was due to the pure exhaustion that takes over your body, I also credit much of my new sleep success to a mind free from the toxic feelings of failure and embarrassment that I was always left with after a negative review. I’m ashamed to admit it, but even the most ridiculous and completely unwarranted reviews disturbed me. That’s an unhealthy level of control that I allowed someone else to take from me.  I allowed someone else to hurt me. No, I didn’t just allow it, I sought it out, invited it in and made it cookies.

Now, I must admit that reviews are necessary to the success of a business like mine. The good reviews attract new customers. Without word of mouth we wouldn’t have been in business long. I’m not mad at the reviews, or even the reviewers. As I said before, customer’s reactions are a necessary part of my business. Without their opinion my work is pointless. What I needed to learn was how to make reviews, both good and bad, work for me. And that’s what I am trying to do.

If 10 reviewers complain about the same thing, it would be irresponsible of me to not consider changing that thing. If in the end I do make a change, those “bad” reviews have resulted in a “good” result, and future reviews will probably reflect the positive effect. On the flip side, I do need to give the positive reviews the attention they too deserve to reassure me that certain areas of my business are going well.  These are not comments about me as a person, the reviews become more like little helpful nudges. Oh those sound so less scary when I think of it that way. Cute, little, idea snuggles. That I can live with!

Now not all reviews need to result in any change at all. Consider their idea, process it, and then either take action or politely and gratefully let it go. But I would argue that every idea deserves at least the slightest consideration. I often hear suggestions to make my food taste better. I admit to you right now that there are countless ways to make my menu “better.” There are endless possibilities to add on to current menu items, and countless ideas for new menu items that would complement my current selection. Creativity is wild and unpredictable. When my customers or even my staff or myself are struck with creativity we blurt it out. That’s awesome. It would be devastating to deny creativity this opportunity. While it is the polite thing to consider the new idea, it is not imperative that we implement the new idea. This is what ultimately sets my hobby apart from my job. It is my JOB to pick and choose which ideas are feasible with the space and equipment that I have, our budget, and many other considerations. I know this. It’s my job to know this. It isn’t my customer’s job to know this. So when they judge my work, it is important for me to keep in mind that my ultimate goal is to create something people can enjoy within the realm of what is possible in my life. I will take what I can from people’s opinions, and I will politely pass on what I cannot. I will not let this be a sign of my success or failure, only a passing possibility. And the ideas that I allow to pass by, I must truly let them go. They are just ideas and thoughts that didn’t make the cut. They are not an assessment of me. They are not part of me, and I will not give them the power to control me.

Consider the possibility of allowing people to affect you without giving them the power to or not to accept you. The only person that truly needs to accept you is you, and I have to believe that if you live your life in a way that you can truthfully and consciously accept then I suspect you will automatically earn approval from the people around you. But, if you do not allow others to initiate thought and potential growth, then I would also suspect that you are cheating yourself out of a richer more rewarding experience.  I know I do the best that I can, right now. But if I remain open to feedback from my guests, perhaps I can do even better. If I truly want to live my life to the fullest I think I have to welcome new ideas and possibilities. I think I have to be courageous enough to admit that while I am doing my best, I am not the best. As long as I stay open and grateful for the opportunity to grow, I think can live with that! Now that I’ve learned how to process negative feedback, perhaps I can learn how to accept a compliment!

Maybe!