Photo: Lester Guijarro
I’ve been working in restaurants for the last five years. It’s a challenging job in a pressure-fueled environment that demands tireless effort for sometimes little reward. I love it.
Though I’m still young in terms of my cooking career, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons that’ve helped me become a better traveler.
I’ve learned to open up to people and allow them to do the same.
A kitchen attracts people from all cultures. Last year a quiet, tireless Afghan man started working at my restaurant. He never complained about getting dishes thrown at him in the middle of a frantic service — in fact, on many occasions he’d just say “thank you” and carry on working. After a few conversations with him I learned a great deal about him. They revealed a bright, funny person with plenty to say. Sometimes all you need to do is sit down and show an interest in someone for them to open up and express who they really are.
The same approach can be applied to locals in whatever foreign land I find myself in. By sitting down and talking to them, I can learn so much more about their country than what the guidebook can teach me.
I can work on the road.
Being a chef has given me the means to travel. Having that skill set matched with the desire to travel allows me to go places and get a (sometimes) decent paying job and save money for further travels.
I’ve learned the patience to move slower.
I’m an impatient person by nature. I’ve traveled before and rushed through places, not really attempting to immerse myself in the culture or place. Instead, I’ve seen the main sights, moved on, and put a mental tick next to the destination.
Since working in a commercial kitchen, I’ve learned how important patience is. My workplace can have a rushed feel to it. For example, someone might shout, “I need that soufflé now!” When preparing a soufflé, patience is vital — too early and the mix isn’t cooked, too late and it begins sinking. This waiting forces me to slow down, take my time, and ignore the instinct to rush. This approach helps when I’m traveling as well — I’m learning to slow down so I can better experience and appreciate what’s around me.
I’ve learned how to deal with stress.
When you have 10 tables waiting for food and you’re a person down on the section, you have to learn quickly to deal with the stress and work through it. This makes missing that train and having to find a place to sleep on short notice seem a whole lot less big of a deal.
I’ve developed a sensitivity to different values.
When working with a Korean chef, I’m forced to act differently than with other chefs in order to maintain a harmonious work relationship. He won’t take advice from chefs younger than him, holding the belief that older knows better. After stubbornly trying to tell him how to do things, I’ve learned to alter my approach when commenting on his work, taking a more passive angle. Since changing my behavior towards him, the work we do together has greatly improved.
When traveling, sensitivity to differing sets of values and beliefs is crucial to being able to communicate with other people. It also helps me understand their ideas about society. By doing this, I’ve gained greater insight into other countries.
I’ve learned that when things go wrong, you just need to keep on keepin’ on.
So you had a bad experience with a street hawker. Then you offended some locals through your own ignorance. In a kitchen, you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. After a bad night when a table had complained, among other moments of chaos, I felt like calling in sick the next day to give myself a break. I didn’t; I came back, and I’m better for it. Now when traveling and things are going wrong, I know not to give up but to get up, dust myself off, and keep going.
I’ve learned how to share with others.
I’m all for traveling solo. After working an 18-hour day, though, when my feet and back are aching, there’s nothing quite as comforting as sitting on milk crates in your sweaty chef whites with your mates who are experiencing similar feelings.
The same applies overseas, not only in tough situations but also when witnessing something beautiful, when someone to share it with makes the moment even more special.
I’ve learned how to take risks to reap the bigger benefits.
To innovate with food and create new, exciting dishes, you have to take risks, try things you haven’t done before, and push your own personal boundaries. The benefits are clear when you cook something you can truly be proud of.