Common Ground

The other morning I met some new and old friends for coffee, where we lamented the polarizing situations people find themselves in these days. The news (and maybe your facebook feed?) has the tone of a bad reality show: a whole lot of yelling, and not much forward progress. The consensus of the coffee conference was that common ground is desperately needed.

The difficulty seems to be the polarization itself, (over)simply labeled: Conservative or Liberal? Democrat or Republican? Black or White? Northern or Southern? For or Against? Marching or Not Marching? 

It reminds me how much I resent Gordon Ramsay for giving modern chefs a bum rap, and setting wrong-headed expectations for aspiring culinary professionals. He uses his prodigious talent in shaming and berating, separating and alienating, and then people who don’t know better might think that’s the way things are or should be.

For a reality (ha!) check, listen to kitchen godfather Jacques Pepin in an essay for the Daily Meal:

    “In these reality shows, the confrontation and the bitter drama are not conducive to producing good food. There is disarray and pandemonium in these kitchens, as well as in the dining rooms. No one seems to agree on anything, and there are ongoing clashes between the employees, without much evidence of what makes a kitchen work. For the good of his or her restaurant, the chef should be a role model, an educator who probes and advises his cooks, rather than embarrasses them publicly. 

    A good kitchen is quiet most of the time. It is disciplined, well structured, and clean. People who cook there are dedicated and work together. Teamwork is extremely important, as all parts of the kitchen have to work on many of the same dishes. This requires them to work as one unit, like in a symphony when all the parts come together at the end.”

My experience of restaurant kitchens has reinforced my rather meritocratic work philosophy.  Chef is in charge because presumably Chef knows how the work should be done, and the best ones listen and engage. Over the years I’ve worked with many knowledgeable, dedicated, kind leaders. Yes, you can and should set the bar high, but keeping the focus on working toward common goals is the best approach to accomplishing culinary goals, developing culinary professionals…  and for getting along in the world in general, in my opinion.

So the rest of the crew pitches in as able, aspires to learn, and moves up or moves on. The tone of an effective kitchen is competence, and cooperation, not tearing each other down. A good kitchen typically encourages all parties to bring the whole operation up, in their respective roles. If I help you do your best work, we will all shine together. If I help you with your mise, you can do your job better and we all look good. If you help me with this cleanup, we'll all get out (and to beer : ) faster. 

We don’t all have to agree about everything, every day. But when we find common ground in the things that make us human, that relate us to each other,  that are the work we all have to do, we can have a good start on residing peaceably together, and perhaps even finding ways to lift each other up!

The best places you eat are where behind the door, people work hard, mostly get along and take care of each other, and take care of your food because that's their job and their pride. That’s the common ground where they meet and work. They’re not there to stab each other in the back, trip each other up, shame people. And the best kitchens leave strong legacies of mentorship and long-time friendships, and warm memories of great food and welcoming hospitality. Look around. When you find those places, talk them up, celebrate them, spend your money there.

And tell us about them here, so we can all enjoy them. Which are places of warmth, hospitality and common ground? Where have you felt welcome at work (cook friends) or at the table because what was shared was more important than what was different?