It’s OK to Step Away

There are bigger things at play than work

Flaming saute pan in an industrial kitchen
Photo by Frederick Medina on Unsplash

Chaos brought life into existence, meaning life is inevitably full of chaos. That fact is beyond our power to change, but what isn’t beyond our power to change is how we think about things, how we see things, and how we choose to let things affect us.

This is the story of how my mantra manifested, and how it helped get me through so many hard times in an industry known for being laced with stressors: the service industry. I do hope it finds and serves you well.

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Full disclosure: I am no psychologist, therapist, doctor, behavior specialist, or anything of the like. I am, however, decades behind where I envisioned myself at 35, and still unsure of what to do with my life. I am now unemployed (thanks Covid), and am currently trying to tame my inner demons (14 months sober).

The Service Industry Shuffle

Before the pandemic, I was employed in the service industry for 13 years. I used to love cooking. I took pride in my work and loved making quality dishes that made guest’s eyes water before their mouths.

I worked under an amazing team of managers for the first 9 years of my cooking experience before the restaurant decided to turn ultra-corporate. All of our best managers, the ones who cared about the quality and not just the quantity of food, either left or were fired. A new team of managers, purely driven by profit and the tears of their employees, moved in and brought with them a cloud that darkened my life for the next few years.

Overbearing and authoritative, my new kitchen manager believed in solving problems with his “gift of gab.” He expressed this “gift” by screaming and demeaning until he got what he was yelling for.

Set up to fail

About a week before I quit this newly insufferable job, I was working the saute station by myself on a busy Friday night and my new kitchen manager was to be our expo for the night. For those unfamiliar with the term “expo,” it means that he is the person who stands on the other side of the window that the cooks put the food in, and is tasked with putting all the finalized items on a check together before they are sent to their respective tables in the dining room.

Once the volume of orders became unmanageable, I started asking for help. Multiple times I let him know that I was going to start falling behind if I didn’t get said help. Multiple times, instead of putting an apron on and bailing me out (like any good manager would have done), he chose to scream at me for things he was missing.

I felt my stress bubbling up to dangerously uncomfortable levels. No amount of stress is ever comfortable, but when you’re a cook, every shift comes with a certain degree of stress and you come to expect it. But, in the 9 years I had been cooking, I never experienced the levels of stress I was approaching, and that scared me.

I tried to focus on the orders I had sauteing, the chicken I had on the flattop, the plates I needed to set up, and the plates I needed to garnish before walking them to the window. I was in uncharted territory as far as my stress was concerned, so I tried asking for help one last time.

Again, instead of putting an apron on and coming to the rescue, my manager asked me how long it would be for one of the entrees I was sauteing. In disbelief, I gave him an honest answer: two minutes.

Thirty seconds may have gone by before he asked again, and I told him it was going to be at least another minute and a half. He slammed his fists on the metal expo window before he yelled, “what the fuck is going on back there!?”

It was at this moment I knew I had to get off the line or I was going to lose it. I turned my burners off, walked around the corner to our back line, and started taking deep breaths to regain my composure. Before I got halfway into my first breath, Satan himself came barreling around the corner already screaming at me.

I don’t remember what he was saying to me, I only remember beginning to walk toward him before I lost about 15 seconds to a rage-induced blackout. When my soul reentered my body I found myself on his side of the expo window and felt the last of what I can only imagine being a profanity-laced war-cry exiting my mouth. Everyone in the dining room was staring at me through the two open doors that look into the kitchen.

I made my way back to my station and fired up my burners again while I tried to figure out where I left off. My entire body was shaking and I couldn’t get my thoughts to settle on anything but the screen where my orders were. I was reading the lines, but I wasn’t taking in any information.

From the far end of the line I heard our grill cook laughing before he said “Damn, Stanley, get it out.”

Snapping out of it

Hearing our grill cook say this snapped me out of my rage and I started to come back to Earth. He had a point; I had gotten it out, and everybody was OK.

This is when I realized the night was eventually going to end, and I could finally see myself somewhere other than this god-forsaken kitchen. This is also when my mantra manifested itself in the form of: “every night comes to an end.” Saying these words strung together in this order was enough to make me see things on a more cosmic level, and ultimately calm me down.

In the grand scheme of things, cosmically speaking, I was just cooking food to pay my bills. I wasn’t performing brain surgery — where everything had to be precise or the patient would never be the same again. If I messed up, the guests in the dining room were just going to have to wait a few minutes longer for their dinners. Why had I let it affect me in such a way?

My perspective had been altered

I started to feel like Peter Gibbons from the movie Office Space after he was hypnotized. I stopped caring how long my food was going to take; I was doing everything I could to get the food out, and if my manager didn’t want to listen to my cries for help, there was nothing I could do about it. And after all, every night comes to an end, meaning no matter what happened the rest of my shift, I would soon be home.

What I Learned

Every now and then you need an escape. You need to be able to step outside your life and remember what you are; just another conscious body in a sea of souls traveling through space on a planet you were fortunate enough to be born on only because that planet was able to maintain an atmosphere that made life and evolution possible.

Now, before you call me a hippy and curse yourself for getting this far into the article only to read this “flower child” -ish conclusion, I want you to ask yourself one question: When was the last time you went outside just to be outside?

A quick exercise in humility

Go outside, take a look around, feel the air on your skin, the breath in your lungs, look out into the world, and think about how big the planet is, and how small you are. Of course things aren’t always going to go the way you want them to, how could they? As grim as this may sound, this is what makes it so much better when things do go your way.

Being Thankful

On any given day, there are so many quadrillions of events happening and so many possibilities for anything to go wrong at any time and for no reason at all! How lucky are you to be able to experience good days? And how lucky are you still that even on your bad days you weren’t completely erased from existence!

We have to remember, it’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to be depressed, it’s OK to feel any way you find yourself feeling on any day of the year. No matter what you are feeling, this period of your life, just like every night, will come to an end. In the meantime, it is so important to take a step away from everything going on in the world and think about yourself every now and then.

Important things not to be forgotten

  • There is more to life than work.
  • Don’t spend your time away from work preparing for more work.
  • Your job does not define who you are.
  • You are your own worst critic.
  • Give yourself a break, you’re trying really hard!
  • Spend time outside with friends and family. Or even a book if the first two things aren’t your cup of tea.
  • Take time to think about how you’re really doing, and be honest with yourself.

Conclusion

How are you, really?

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