November 05, 2005

Food Insecurities

I like to think that I'm a pretty smart and accomplished guy. I've graduated from high school. I received an undergraduate degree in English, a Master's in International Relations, and hopefully next year I will receive a Ph.d in Political Science. I've been the executive director of two not-for-profit organizations. I've also worked a number of labor-style occupations -- I loaded lumber trucks in high school and was a security guard in college. I even washed dishes in a restaurant when I was 16.

So why is it that this new part-time catering job that I took to bring in some extra money has me so flustered? Why is it that every time I go into work, I feel that no matter how much I check and double check details that something will be wrong in the end? Why do I end up leaving the job feeling like such a dumbass?

The latest calamity in my catering misadventures happened yesterday. I arrived at the restaurant at 5:00 a.m. for a breakfast catering. It wasn't a big catering -- about 35 people having French toast and breakfast burritos. I had worked the day before for an hour and got all the materials ready, the two chafers, the plasticware and napkins, the paper plates, the serving utensils. The caterer, Albert, a short and slight but animated man of Italian heritage, told me to find a container for syrup, and a carafe seemed to fit the need to both carry the syrup and keep it warm. So I arrived on the day of the catering very certain that no stone was left uncovered. I assisted in getting the food ready, amusing and annoying Albert with my apparent clumsiness in burrito wrapping (I had never gotten the hang of wrapping burritos despite the fact that I lived in San Antonio, Texas for five years and now in Albuquerque, where Mexican style food is very commonplace).

When the food was ready, we loaded it into the hotbox and Albert and I left in the van for the catering gig. As we drove, I went over the details in my mind. I had checked and double checked the materials. I was certain that it would go fine.

We arrived and began to set up. I opened the large reinforced plastic box with all of our materials to find an unholy mess. Syrup had spilled out of the carafe and into the plastic bag that I had wrapped the carafe in. From the plastic bag it had spilled out into the box. Luckily I had put other materials in Ziplock bags. But, the result was there was no syrup, and a big mess. Albert kept his cool. But I was extremely flustered by this point. We set it up as best we could. I was really embarassed, flustered, and in my haste to get out of there I didn't secure the materials on the dolly, with the result that as we exited the building, the hotbox fell off the cart. This prompted a tonguelashing from Albert who had warned me about properly securing food.

"What would have happened had the hotbox been filled with food?" he growled.

All I could do was hang my head, secure the box, and continue pushing the cart.

We got into the van, and Albert said "Let this be a hard lesson about properly securing food. Wrap everything in plastic. The carafe seemed to be cracked, so wrapping it probably wouldn't have mattered. But you should exercise extreme caution on everything. The lucky thing was that this was an understanding customer I've worked with before. But if this had been someone's house, it would have been a major disaster."

I asked Albert how they responded to mistakes in chef school. "They wouldn't be talking to you like I am right now," he responded. "If something like that happened there, it wouldn't be uncommon for them to make you lick all the syrup out of the box. If you screw up a batch of Super Sauce and it tastes like shit, you would end up drinking the batch."

"How did you survive?" I asked, conjuring up images of Nazi-like prison camps run run by vicious-looking men in chef hats.

"I excelled," he replied.

When we got back to the restaurant, I raced in, grabbed a container of syrup, raced out and drove back to the catering to leave it with them. The woman who ordered the catering, Deanna, was extremely nice and told me not to worry about it, that accidents happen. "Don't worry about Albert," she said. "He's such a perfectionist. He'll get over it."

"How did it go?" asked Albert after I returned from delivering the replacement syrup. "Did you apologize 150,000 times? Did you wipe up any spilled syrup we missed?"

I told Albert what Deanna had said. "She knows me," he replied with a slight smile.

The hard thing for me about this is that I'm 41 years old, and possessed of reasonable ability. I've excelled at many things. Yet this catering thing seems to get me completely unglued. I can count on one hand the days I've done something without an mistake, and I need two to count the days where there have been mistakes. I feel like I am methodical, yet plates have been left behind, napkins have been left behind, not enough garnish has accompanied me.

Perhaps it's the "be thorough but be fast" atmosphere. Every day we are against a deadline, and a lot of the food has to be ready to go at the last minute. In the rush to get everything out the door and set up on time, I have to also be aware of all those things that I may forget. Ordinarily, when I'm methodical, I'm slow and I take lots of time. Here I don't have the luxury of time. I have to be a rapid perfectionist.

I suppose that at my age, new challenges are good. Yet I don't like feeling like a dumbass. These experiences are dredging up all the old tapes that play in my head about my inadequacies. These tapes were instilled during my childhood and adolescence, when my father's alcoholism got progressively worse. He did a lot of the skilled things he was good at by himself. When he wasn't drunk, it was because he thought I should be a kid and play. When he was drunk, and decided he wanted to teach me, he would get impatient with me and berate me for my lack of ability and send me away. Sometimes he would call me a dumbass. My mother compensated for his alcoholic behavior that she couldn't control by maintaining tight control over her household. She asked for me to help with chores, but would often belittle my efforts because they didn't meet her standards. As a result, I developed a lazy attitude in spite of them, acting like I didn't really care how it reflected on me.

I had thought that I had shed myself of many of those old feelings. However, I find that this part-time job has dredged them up again. Only this time, I do care how it reflects on me. I don't want to be that dumbass. I would like to do my job quietly, efficiently and effectively. However, I find myself increasingly doubting my ability to do that. And I find that I am holding on to these failures in this job as if they are defining my current existence.

"Are you sure that you really want me in this position?" I asked Albert, after I had broken the catering down and brought the materials back in to the restaurant.

"Mike, you're my project." he responded. "I suppose I could resort to kicking your ass -- a little pain reinforcement."

"Yeah, I suppose you could," I replied. "Look, I'm sorry about the screwups today."

"It didn't do any real damage to our reputation," he answered. "Are you available Sunday afternoon?"


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