How I Got Started In The Restaurant Business – The Kitchen

Char Siu Bowl from Eats of Asia

Passion. You hear that word all the time. It’s the cornerstone of success according to almost everyone who’s ever talked about climbing their own personal mountain to the pinnacle of their professional or personal lives. Like I said in my last post, there’s nothing wrong with passion. In fact, I am fuelled by it, but the key is not to let it get you stupid. It’s like the hit of nitrous you see in the Fast and the Furious films that shoots the car into a blurred haze. It can rocket you to victory, so long as you can still steer the car and not end up as a burning heap of twisted metal and charred flesh. You can have the fastest car, but if you can’t drive it, you’re fucked.

Before the race, before strapping yourself in, before even getting in the car, you have to understand something. Passion is like love and it comes with all the things that make you feel good, but also all the things that make you mad, frustrated, sad, disgusted, sickened, discouraged, and everything negative as well. Like a relationship with a person, you have to take the bad with the good. You have to ‘like’ what you do and not just say you ‘love’ it. Does that make sense? I hope so, it’s just the rest of your life we’re talking about.

Gua bao - a new menu item for summer - photo by Terry Lo

Gua bao – a new menu item for summer
- photo by Terry Lo

You might be a good cook, hell, you may be a great cook. As you flip that chicken breast in your Jamie Oliver T-Fal to the amazed gasps of your friends, and expertly plate up the evening’s meal like something you saw on Food Network, you’re feeling pretty good. People may tell you all the time that you’d have a successful restaurant and that you should open up a place of your own. As you take a moment to bask in the compliments of your guests and consider that thought, pause.

“Wow, you are quite the chef.”

“Thanks for the delicious eggs benedict, chef!”

Chef is a ubiquitous term. In everyday life, it carries the same weight as when your barber calls you, “Boss”. If you are seriously entertaining the thought of opening a restaurant to feed your ego and expect your friends to come in and make you successful, you’re probably delusional, from the fumes from that T-Fal teflon coating.

I’ve been working in kitchens on and off for over 20 years. Though I spent a big stint of time in the corporate world, I was always brought back to the kitchen. Divorce brought me back to the kitchen. Relationship breakdown brought me back. When I was young, the kitchen was a way for me to bring food to the table, go to school, and buy diapers for my daughter. It was a necessity. More recently, it was a way to get away from the despair of feeling lonely or depressed. It was a way for me to learn a business, learn a cuisine, learn a new language, and earn money. It was my education. I owe my life to the kitchen.

Me, in the kitchen.  - photo by Terry Lo

Me, in the kitchen.
- photo by Terry Lo

The kitchen doesn’t judge you. It doesn’t care about your credit score, your grade point average, or your tattoos. You work hard and you come back tomorrow, you slug it out together as a team and you gain yourself some brothers. There is no place for political correctness or tact in the kitchen. If you are offended by f-bombs, jokes about your genitals, jokes about your sexual persuasion, or your ethnicity, perhaps you should start a nice online business selling scented candles on Etsy. This is just how it is. Anthony Bourdain already said it all in “Kitchen Confidential”. If it wasn’t true, that book wouldn’t be the classic that it is.

All I’m saying is that one of the best ways (and cheapest ways) to learn about a business is to work there. You could go to school and take some courses on small business, get the logic and theory of running a business, but spend an evening after a busy dinner service with the boss, drinking a cold beer (cold beer after a busy dinner service is the BEST tasting beer EVER) and you’ll be surprised how much wisdom you can learn.

Now let’s say you’re a dishwasher or cook at a restaurant. You work a few nights a week, get off work at 11 o’clock, have a beer and take out the garbage after mopping the floor and cleaning the prep surfaces (hopefully not in that order). You’re exhausted. Times that by 10, work 7 days a week and you might have an hint of what it’s like to be the owner of that business.

How passionate do you feel now?

There is a good reason why people with their own businesses tell you how much hard work it is when you ask them. Because it’s true. Jo had no previous kitchen experience before starting Eats of Asia with me, but what she did have was a very long retail experience with exemplary people management skills. In the middle of cowboy country, having someone like Jo with the perspective she has with Asian food was crucial in selling bibimbap and gua bao to people that have no idea what our brand of Asian food was all about. I remember the first market day we had last October. It was the first weekend after taking over the old concession and everything was suddenly changed.

Jo, converting some new fans. - photo by Terry Lo

Jo, converting some new fans.
- photo by Terry Lo

To the locals and regular shoppers, it was a burger and fries joint that changed overnight to a multicultural ethnic street food fest that I billed, The Saturday Street Feast. We were one of five independent vendors that moved in to bring some diversity to the dining choices that were previously in place. We led the charge that day with Curry Laksa, a Malaysian noodle bowl with rice noodles, fish balls, prawns, chicken, and fried tofu in a coconut curry broth. We took a huge chance, but I was confident that the food would be well received. I stuck to the idea that I wanted to make food that I loved to eat. I also wanted to take the best elements of Asian food, bring them together and brand them to be accessible and approachable. That day, we made about $500, but we felt triumphant.

The comments were good. They went from, “This is so goood.” to a local rancher that said, “Tofu!? This is ALBERTA, man!”

I still laugh when I think of that one.

3 Responses to How I Got Started In The Restaurant Business – The Kitchen

  1. Miki says:

    Never stop, Jay-san. Keep the ball rollin’, because I know you and Jo will get very far! :D
    <3 your #1 fan in SF.

  2. KDito says:

    So this is why I haven’t had the pleasure of your cooking videos recently. I’m jealous. Alberta is too far away for me to visit on a regular basis. Say: is there a version of Alberta/loco moco? Alberta/Hawaiian saimin?

    Wait. hungry now. gotta eat. :-)

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