Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bushido IV - Benevolence

There are seven aspects to the ethical code by which the Samurai composed themselves - Justice, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor and Loyalty.  I have chosen to spearhead an organization which can help chefs and other service industry professionals to make positive changes in their lives and I believe that those who are looking for change will find it on this path.
Each week we will examine one of the aforementioned virtues and see if Bushido may be a good path for the Order of the Chef to use as a guideline in inspiring industry professionals young and old...

BENEVOLENCE - the feeling of distress

"Rectitude carried to excess hardens into stiffness, benevolence indulged beyond measure sinks into weakness...the feeling of distress is the root of benevolence, therefore a benevolent man is ever mindful of those who are suffering and in distress."  
                                                                                     -Inazo Nitobe

Benevolence - Jin
I think Benevolence is the most complex of the seven virtues and somehow a cog in the wheel of Bushido: a central concept supported by and supporting of the others in a synergistic symbiosis.  It is certainly a concept built into the very nature of restaurants as, at our best, we are here to alleviate your distress in every sense.  A well heeled restaurant staff will immediately attend to your every need without your having to make a single request, they are sensitive people, will notice your slightest hesitation and preemptively resolve any potential discomfort.  They also won't take any shit from you.  At all.

Courage and unflinching righteousness are both prerequisite to benevolence...and before you start, I could easily write volumes on this one, weaving in and out of modern socialist banter, rebuttal after witty rebuttal until the ensuing logic blanket grew to cover the sun and signal the end for generations to come.  Please, spare us all the touchy-feely bullshit - benevolence is a balanced blade.  It is like the nature of water, and like water, should it bend too far to its softer side it will puddle and stagnate, filling the room with flies and stench.  Should it bend too far to its harder side it will crush shorelines, changing the shapes of continents, wiping out entire civilizations.

Zen master to the sword masters, Takuan Soho
We in the restaurant business in general are great at being benevolent servants, bending on our knee to cater to the most seemingly ridiculous requests day after day, night after grueling night.  While this description fits more often and more easily into the front of house (FOH) profile rather than the back, chefs have many opportunities to practice benevolent action and I think that it would serve to polish all facets of our industry if we, as chefs, took every possible chance to practice walking the tightrope of the benevolent dictator.  After all, we are always looking to balance things aren't we?

More than just benevolent action in the service of our clients (which may align more with duty or loyalty), this sensitivity to distress in others is vital to the internal functions of a restaurant.  Every position in the company structure has its own set of pressures and every individual employee has certain reactions to these as well as pressures that may exist for them outside the workplace.  The most successful restaurant owners and managers are those who are capable of simultaneously alleviating feelings of distress both in and out of the workplace while keeping the 'pressure to produce' valve cranked full-tilt.  And we all know that some people are just not cut out for this business - on both sides of the equation!

Somewhere between this.... 
These masterfully benevolent people who reign supreme in restaurants around the world are always ready and able to help surmount the insurmountable in every arena.  They are kind, supportive, empathetic, patient and well informed about a great many things.  They are also hard-wired for combat intensity, intolerant, pushy, always busy and they don't take shit from anyone up or down the ladder.  They can be brutally honest because they have a sincere desire to make the best of things whether those things be clients, employees, recipes, standards of cleanliness, and so on and on and on.  Most importantly, they know when to use the front of their swords and when to use the back.

...and this!
There is a certain difference between the ability to discern a feeling of distress in another and the ability to act appropriately in order to effect the dissipation of another's distress.  One chef I worked for used the term 'striking them with a velvet glove', another always prescribes 'a punch with a hug' in order to create effective changes in people's behavior.  

In general, there is a lot of teaching going on in the restaurant industry and benevolence seems to send a universal message which challenges the most cutting edge technology as a transmitter of understanding.  People tend to absorb more information from a benevolent source, whether they want to or not, they reflect and grow from interactions with benevolent teachers more than from the iron fists of tyrants.  The prism of benevolence collects its light from justice and courage and shines in rays of politeness, sincerity, honor and loyalty.  It is the key to the effectiveness of our path.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Journey from Before to After in the Gulf

Spending time with family is always refreshing.  When life consists of a work-home-work-home eternity, and the hours eventually stretch into months, there is nothing like being surrounded by loving and supportive people at least for a few days at a stretch.  Amidst one such precious getaway, I had the opportunity to hit the wide open bays of Padre Island, TX for an afternoon and found some beautiful trout out looking for a bite.

Captain 'Ron' was nice enough to show us the sweet spots and we brought in several nice keepers despite massive winds that had the Gulf heaving offshore enough to keep us in the bay.  I can't describe the freedom to anyone who hasn't been there, out in the salt on a lovely 86 degree mid-morning, rockin' to the beat of the waves against the motor, cold beer getting warm fast and still tasting like the sweat off a mermaid's breast...divine!  And even reeling in a little perch can be exciting for those of us who don't have the luxury of doing this every day, not to mention a 26" speckled trout!

South Texas is magical when juxtaposed with the alleys and subway tunnels of New York City.  Of course, New York has its own magic and we can all attest to that who have donned the shrouds of her shadowy sunrise and been lulled to sleep by her siren's song (pun intended)...but Texas, oh sweet Texas!  There is something to be known about these humble people filled with love and adoration and coated with a sticky layer of gruff thistles and brush.  Our captain was a solid Texas fisherman, born in Houston and now permanently vacationing in the bosom of the Great State: 'The Valley'.  Arriving on the boat, he was straight to business - in fact, the previous night he asked more than twice if we were sure we would make a 9am dock call, and upon his third inquiry, informed us that we would be receiving his wake up call at 8:30...and that we did!

After cleaning our catch, we met with Ron at a local restaurant where we had our fresh catch cooked right then and there to our delight and sampled one of the Gulf's greatest bounties:  the mystical Gulf Oyster.  Being a part of the whole process of one's meal is an experience that I think more Americans should enjoy on a regular basis.  There is something deeply nourishing about the food that you just caught, respectfully dispatched and then cooked not 20 minutes later (not to say we weren't sampling the provisions as soon as they were cut...we are certainly not squeamish about raw foods from the wild).  I would love to see more Americans becoming more in touch with their food in general and this is certainly a fun way to go about it.

I'm glad we decided to go ahead as we thought it may have been a bit steep to pay what we were asked to pay for a half-day trip into the bay.  Thanks to Mark Musatto at Airline Seafood in Houston for the perspective and advice, I miss you up here in NY, bro!  As an aside, and regarding the character of Texans in general, I would just like to mention that we had not paid Ron for the trip, proceeded to get in separate vehicles and agreed to meet at the restaurant to settle up.  I can't see this happening in many places on this vast planet's surface...take from that what you will.

Fish is becoming more and more of a love of mine, probably inherited from my grandfather Lee Grandison Wiley, who was a sea-faring man for his whole life.  I have myriad fond memories of trips to Galveston, boloney sandwiches (soggy), cans of Big-K grape soda (dented, and slightly rusty), triscuits and cheese whiz (still delicious) and me and my grandpa not catching a damned thing all day.  Those were the formative days of my youth, looking back.  Days that I didn't realize the value of even remotely until now, when we would get back to his Galveston apartment complex, sun-drained and red as Valentine's candies and Christmas ribbons.  Just enough daylight left for a dip in the pool, an old fashioned for him and an ice-cold country time lemonade for was intense.

This last foray into those salty Gulf waters was intense as well.  After passing 20 or more years since those early times, I have a fair amount of perspective, fair enough to see the value of half a day on a fishing boat with a couple of good ol' boys, mixing the spray of the mid-morning wake with the mist off a cold can of Bud Light, bouncing to the rhythm of the big blue heart of the world, squinting into the sun and looking for the sweet spot.  I think we found it, y'all.  I'm sure we did.