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where i confess to job performance anxiety

June 21st, 2010 | 5 Comments »

The culinary business is exacting, often meticulous and full of thinly veiled moments where too much time, heat, salt or seasoning could be the difference between a food that’s delightful, edible and sublime and one that is virtually unpalatable.

So there’s no reasonable way to say this…. my career path is full of perfectionists, raging perfectionists that take what they do very seriously and can swing from incredible highs to immense lows over the fate of any one dish they are preparing. We all grit our teeth at the tiniest of faults that means we’ve moved from making amazing food to something that’s just OK. Or worse, so ungodly bad that we need to start over. And I don’t necessarily look to the professional side of this coin when I say this either; read any of the food blogs out there, or the staggering amount of food memoir written and published each year and you begin to see, underneath the manic urge for a perfect chocolate chip cookie, the tearful disclaimers of one’s kitchen faults and foibles and the angst hidden among a food writers description of a much anticipated dish that went horribly wrong, and you see this trait unfold among even the most novice of home cooks. For some reason, we pick up a pan, scan a recipe and assemble our ingredients, and somewhere along the way we lose our ability to accept anything less than 100%. But this is a science, this cooking that we do, and it’s imperfect at best, and thoroughly fault-ridden, even at it’s finest. Nowhere will you find any activity that has the potential for so many things to go wrong.

And I know this personally. No more have I felt this sense of anxiety over what I do than in the past months at my job. I love what I do; I’m thrilled to be there in that kitchen, with the ingredients available to me and working with the talent that is there, but I’ve been puzzled and often driven to fits over the fact that I am filled with butterflies every single day when I drive into the parking lot. It seems to my exacting mind that I am but one slip away from being shown the door, from coming in one day and finding my locker cleaned out, my belongings in a box by the employee entrance, the chef silently shaking his head at me when I come to him, questions written all over my face. I hate that this has become a part of my day, especially when I feel so strongly that most of what I’ve done in the past four years has led me directly to this place.

And what it is, well that’s quite simple; I value where I am- this job, this place, with everything that I’ve got and I want to be good at what I do. This is a pretty fundamental human condition, and for me, it shares the double whammy with that exacting culinary standard. But it’s something else too; it’s the boost to my esteem that I needed on a much deeper level than I ever cared to admit. Something happens to us, to the very heart of who we are when the near relentless pursuit of employment leads nowhere but dead ends. When you’re told over and over “I’m sorry, but you’re not considered a candidate for this job.” It wears at you and erodes your will and drive. And as I discovered, it makes you feel like you’re losing your mind. Then one email changes all that and you land feet first and running hard into a job that feels more perfect than you could have hoped. It’s not just about a paycheck, and I don’t want to minimize how nice that feels, but I’ve discovered in the past few weeks that this job is more necessary to me than just the two pieces of paper it generates each month. At my very core, I needed this job to feel like I was still alive, still able to thrive, to do what I was created to do. I needed this job for me. For my soul.

Add on top of that a keen sense of perfectionism, and you’ve got a recipe -ha! puns!- for sky-high anxiety. Strangely enough, it was slightly more than four years ago, when I was in culinary school and working through a practice for our student competition, that the same chef who happens to be my boss right now told me in no uncertain terms that I was a perfectionist. He was right in front of me, I think even with a finger pointed directly at me as he said it too.  I got slightly bent out of shape at his remark, and he countered with asking me “Why would it make you angry if it was true?”

Problem was, I didn’t know it was true. His remark, a casual observation from an outsider, hit home and opened my eyes to something I desperately needed to see. It was the reason I pushed myself to do everything well, the impetus behind my almost obsessive attention to detail and the reason that I was so hard on myself when it wasn’t my absolute best. It was there, in that flourescent-lit kitchen that I first understood why my heart was driving me in this direction and that I had, in some small aspect anyway, a sense of what it took to be good in the culinary field. You’re not going to succeed without that drive, that desire to make everything the best that it can be. If you give a half-ass performance, you’ll get mediocre food. Period. And we all know that nobody cares about mediocre food. It was a barren, ‘standing alone on a mountaintop’ moment at a time of my life when I was releasing from within me the very thing that I feel I was born to do, and I have never forgotten it. Had I never gone to work for this chef, or ever had another interaction with him, I would have gone to my grave thanking him for that, as odd as it may seem. Because once I did acknowledge that truth, it set me free. I stopped struggling and beating myself up when I made errors, and instead tried to let those mistakes guide me to become better, more focused and less critical. And to let go. I can’t be perfect all the time, and I shouldn’t expect that I can. Nor should anyone else. But in this business, with the work I am doing and the level of dining I help to prepare every day, I can allow for a bit of that perfectionism, and hope that my heart settles down from thinking that one mistake means the end of it all. It’s been hard though, to silence that insistent and percussive echo within the walls of my own mind. Nowhere am I in more trouble than lost in that dread of self-doubt, even if it’s only something that I myself manage to conjure up.

Just recently at work while I was meticulously picking apart Belgian Endive for garnishes, the grill cook wandered over, sighing heavily. I asked him if he was all right and he said something about messing up what he’d been working on. He told me what he had done and really, it was nowhere near as bad as he thought. I had to smile, and told him “That’s the perfectionist in you. We all have it, and it sucks sometimes.” He smiled, nodding, like the light went on in his head for the very first time. Then I saw his shoulders relax slightly, and he sighed heavily again. “Yeah, it does suck sometimes.”

Every day, I know it and feel it, and acknowledging that truth has helped me not only to be better at what I do, but to be kinder to myself on an off day. I know that the work I do each day is highly valued and appreciated, and I need to stop that voice in my head that keeps trying to convince me that I’m not good enough. No one is putting it there but me. And I realize that my anxiety isn’t so much stemming from being incapable of doing my work, but from stepping back into that dead zone of fear that comes from striving so hard for something that never seems to come. Four years ago I graduated from culinary school with a head full of dreams and an intense desire to do well in a profession I never expected to join. And I have days when I look around me, bewildered that I am even there. Am I in a dream?  The work we do each day is hard, physically hard and taxing on the body. I’ve never been so exhausted, yet so exhilarated at the same time. I ache in ways I never imagined, but at the same time, I have little memory of a time recent that I’ve felt so alive and vital. I love where I am, in life and profession. Something of this importance can justify a little anxiety, can’t it?