Lessons from the Line: How Not to be a Victim of your Own Success

By Adam M. Lamb

There have been times in my career when I have been my own worst enemy.

“Chef, I can’t keep,” my voice caught in my throat, “I can’t keep doing this.”

I practiced the speech in my mind a dozen times but was taken off-guard by my abruptness. Maybe I was so tired, so close to losing it that my brain couldn’t catch up to the fact that I was speaking out loud.

I felt so close to burning out but hadn’t yet brought it up for fear that I would look feeble. I ignored the feeling for as long as I could, but my body was communicating to me in a way that I could no longer disregard.

I hurt all over.

Chef sat across from me, looking down at the cigarette in his hands. Maybe I was imagining the conversation, maybe he hadn’t even heard me. I bit down on my tongue, unwilling to give any more voice to my weakness. The part of me that once believed I was invincible now felt like I was letting him and the team down.

He looked at me and said with a smile, “I was wondering when you were going to bring it up.”

I had taken a five-month contract position at a large, very prestigious resort in the mid-Atlantic region where my best friend was the executive chef and I had previously worked as the executive sous chef. I knew the property, the chef and internal challenges, so when the opportunity came I jumped at the chance to make a difference and support the team. The resort has five primary restaurants, seven kitchens and three off-property seasonal restaurants, plus an associate cafeteria that serves 1,000 employees on the property. After the first three months, in a weird set of unrelated circumstances, we lost the banquet chef, a chef de cuisine and the pastry chef, all in the same week.

Everything and everyone went into high gear.

The month that we lost the three chefs the resort did a combined food and beverage revenue of $3.5 million. While this number may be small compared to some larger, more complex operations, for many chefs this is like doing a full year’s worth of revenue in just 30 days.

My reputation and career had been built on being a problem solver. I was known as someone who could yield results and bring order out of chaos. Sometimes this meant throwing myself completely and fully into my work without considering my personal preservation, such as getting enough sleep, eating right or exercising regularly. I prided myself on my leadership abilities, but my failure to properly care for myself had me feeling like a victim of my circumstances, rather than a leader.

Despite all my bravado and good intentions, I ignored my personal needs. My ego was fully engaged because I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to be seen as valuable and I wanted the chef and my co-workers to be proud of me.

Sitting in front of the chef having an incredibly vulnerable conversation, these reasons felt more like a recipe for disaster rather than a strategy for career success. Clearly, I had victimized myself, had almost sacrificed my well-being for these wants.

Do you see yourself in my description or recognize a pattern that you’re familiar with? Have you ever made the mistake of not standing up for yourself or not speaking your truth because of how you think you will look or how it will be heard?

I am not suggesting that you initiate a rebellion against management, but I am suggesting that you no longer suffer in silence and say something to someone who can make something happen in a calm, considerate, competent and professional matter. I’m suggesting cultivating an environment of clear, concise, transparent and vulnerable communication where you can seek to understand while at the same time being understood.

If you don’t want your success to turn into the reason you leave this profession, here are a couple of things NOT to do:

Don’t expect or assume that anyone else sees or appreciates what you do.

For a long time in my career, this was my preferred method of self-sabotage: Do the right thing, work hard and make the assumption that everyone else sees and appreciates what you do. When they don’t, you can use that as an excuse to hold them in judgment to justify your martyrdom. The fact is that no one–not the GM, FOH manager or owner–will ever fully appreciate what you do and what you have to go through to get it done. No one other than a fellow culinarian, that is, and even then most other professionals are too focused on their own set of challenges to recognize or give you props for your struggles. If you’re ready to lead your circumstances rather than be a victim of them, start logging your successes such as labor or food cost savings, increased speed of service or guest ratings to use as discussion points with fellow managers.

Don’t expect others to sing your praises if you’re not willing to suggest the lyrics.

Don’t say yes to everything.

Don’t take on every project and every challenge without thought to timelines, the probability of success or congruency with the mission just because you want to be seen as capable and up to the challenge. Be careful that you don’t convince yourself that it’s more important to get stuff done than taking the time to consider if it’s right for you and the operation. Maybe when you’re in for your second back surgery, or you blow out the cartilage in your knees, you’ll finally realize that the only person who is paying the price for your bravado is you. Oh, and your loved ones, they lose out too.

Sometimes things just have to get done, but consider for a moment that just because you can do it, should you? Has there been a thoughtful discussion about it? Have you been a champion for your crew or operation, or just agreed to a task because you wanted to be seen as willing and competent?

Sometimes we are asked to do all sorts of things that will stretch us and our crew, and some of these things will make us better at our jobs. But because you’ve done it before, and successfully, the expectation is that you will be able to continue to do it, whether it’s in the best interest for you, your crew or the business.

Maybe you’re like me and you’re ready to stop being the hero. If you’re not, consider the alternative is that you will continue to play the victim. Just remember that when you finally drop from a heart attack in the middle of service, staff will be stepping over your body to get the dishes out of the pass.

Chef Adam M Lamb Headshot
Adam M Lamb has been a chef for over 30 years. He is the principle of foodwerks inc., which is dedicated to education, empowerment and advocacy for culinary professionals offering coaching, mentoring, consulting and web-based programs. He also is the host of Chef Life Radio, the only podcast for chefs by chefs. Learn more at www.foodwerksinc.com.



3 thoughts

  1. It’s tough growing into this business, even with training and success. You start to instinctively look out for yourself when in reality, it’s not about you. Learning to take care of yourself and your team is unteachable. Take care of yourself and your family, everyone else will follow.


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