Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Farewell Comerç 24

Late one night almost a year ago, while I was cleaning deep in the corner beneath my Cuarto Frio section, a piece of broken tile fell off the wall. I picked it up and went to throw it in the bin... then paused for a moment and concluded that it could be put to good use. "This", I reflected, "will be the souvenir that I'll be able to look at once in a while, many years from now. I'll show it to my grandchildren when I tell them about my adventures training as a chef in Catalunya. With this tiny piece of yellow ceramic, I'll always remember my time at the restaurant where I cut my teeth and grew from a naïve young catering graduate into a professional chef." I took a photograph of the tile fragment and uploaded it to my testbed under the draft heading "Farewell Comerç 24". "I'll post that one day", I thought to myself.

A memento of an amazing year
So, as you'll have realised by now, it is with great sadness that I announce my departure from Comerç 24.

To be quite frank I can't exactly say I didn't see it coming, but nevertheless when the time came it was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make. Initially I'd been planning to stay until the end of the year, to see off the Christmas rush and festivities along with my friends and colleagues. But over the last three or four weeks of my time at Ç24 I began to feel increasingly tired, underwhelmed, frustrated and bored to the point where continuing would have been, if not impossible, in no-one's interest.

I don't think it would be too bold of me to say that, after a year on the Cuarto Frio section, I'd reached a point where I'd seen absolutely everything there was to see and done absolutely everything there was to do. Twice over. It's probably no bad thing that I'm not planning on getting married, because I'm just not the kind of guy who can stick it out when the mind-numbing and monotonous daily routine begins to chip away at one's patience and, eventually, one's will to live. The problem is this: when you've done something soooo many times that you've arrived at the stage where you've worked out the quickest, cleanest and most efficient way of doing it - and then you carry on in that manner and do it another four thousand times - you begin to do it without engaging your brain at all. And that's when the real significance of why you're actually doing the task gradually begins to disappear from your memory.

A screaming argument mid-service
There was an evening not so long ago when Head Chef Arnau and I engaged in a screaming argument mid-service, in which we were apparently expressing our opinions so loudly and flamboyantly that even the people in the café next door were taking sides. That night after service we had a long conversation - for an hour at least as I recall - and we tried to settle our differences man to man. What he explained to me, and I hadn't until that moment got to grips with, was that I'd arrived at a point where I had perfected the section. Those aren't my words, in case you were wondering. That's exactly what he told me.

"I know why you've been losing your patience so often recently", he said, "and I know why you're bored. To put it simply, you've mastered the Cuarto Frio. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you do every single thing perfectly every day, because that's impossible. One day you might make a bit of a hash of the chives because you're not concentrating and another day you might make the guacamole a little too spicy because you rushed it. But essentially you've perfected the section - organisation of your mis en place, control of timekeeping, delegation of work to your subordinates and general working system for always keeping the section one step ahead. Now you've got to a stage where you're at the top of your game, you couldn't organise that section any better than you currently are, because there is no better way. And because of that, you've stopped in your quest to constantly find ways to improve your organisation. Your motivation to do better and be more efficient is no longer there because you've reached a position where you're at the top, you've moved sideways for a while, and now the only way is down". No sooner had what Arnau had just said to me settled in my mind than I realised I had to leave.

It had originally been planned that I would change over to the hot Plancha section at the beginning of October when chef de partie Michael left, spending my last three months learning what is essentially the polar opposite of what I'd been doing previously on the cold section. Although the thought of such a big change made me admittedly quite nervous and apprehensive, it also gave me a real feeling that I was progressing within the kitchen, moving forwards and ready to take on a whole new set of responsibilities. Also, I'd been on the Cuarto Frio for practically a year by then, so it really felt like I was facing a new challenge - one that would reinvigorate me and further enhance my ambition to self-evolve.

In the zone, focusing on the task in hand
Let's now skip forward to a Wednesday morning two weeks before Michael's departure, with everything thus far going to plan. That morning, Arnau told us that he'd decided not to go ahead with the planned swap over after all, because we happened to have a lot of work that day and it would be best if everyone just stayed where they were to avoid getting ourselves into trouble. So we carried on as normal for the rest of that day, and that was that. Then the following day we arrived, Michael and I having both prepared ourselves mentally for the handover task ahead of us, only to discover that the swap was again called off. Later that day when I enquired as to what was happening, Arnau told me that he wasn't going to move me because it wasn't worth the hassle of Michael training me to take over the section knowing that in three months time I would have to train someone else before I left.

So what Head Chef was saying was that three months wasn't a worthwhile investment for him and I was going to have to stay on the Cuarto Frio until I left in December. Right then I thought to myself: "Do you have any idea how many bloody commis chefs I've had to train since I've been chef de partie? How many times I've had a new stagière put with me only for them to leave or be moved only two weeks later? Do you know how many times I've had to explain to some twerp about every bloody dish on the section and go through the whole tutorial routine all over again just to have them disappear after a few days? Yes I think you do! Then I'm sure you're aware that I'd give my right arm to have a commis stay with me on the section for three whole months and to be able to develop and mould them into the perfect worker and build a working rapport and a level of trust with them like my chef de partie had with me."

Go on, Clarice, move me onto the Offal section
That moment was soul-crushing. After a promising glimmer of hope that I'd be moving to the Plancha where I'd be discovering another dimension of a kitchen I was already so familiar with, I felt as though this vision had just been snatched away along with any motivation I had to move forward and progress. I guess it was from that point on that I began to lose interest in what I was doing. I was working each day knowing that there was nothing to look forward to. Knowing that nothing new would happen from that moment to the day I would leave. It started to make me feel like I wasn't contributing anything to the kitchen. I was going nowhere and would simply be carrying out my duties during the remaining weeks feeling like a man on death row. OK, maybe that sounds a bit dramatic looking back now, but it's exactly how I felt. And when you don't have the motivation to improve and to evolve, to impress your boss and more importantly to impress yourself each and every day, there's no value in continuing any further.

It's sad really that things had to end in the way that they did, but everything must come to an end eventually and this is my time to move onwards and upwards. I have some very clear ideas as to where I want to go next (and for the two steps after that), but it will take good luck and good timing for me to follow those planned steps. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to everyone at Comerç 24 and my time there is something I will always cherish and look back on with great fondness. I learnt so much at Ç24 that will always stay with me and underpin my development as my career progresses. Much pleasure was derived from being a part of a team producing creative and delicious food and a dining experience for customers who, in overwhelming numbers, really enjoyed it. But if the truth be known it wasn't the food that was my most important learning experience. Foremost in my mind, when I look back in the years to come, will be the experience of working for Marta, my last chef de partie.

Emulating Marta in the kitchen
To be quite blunt, Marta was the kind of woman who wouldn't take any crap from anyone. She was what you'd describe as a "no nonsense" kind of boss. Marta would tell it to you straight. The funny thing was that she had been moved over to the Cuarto Frio in January, by which time I had already been working as the commis on the section for four months. As we worked together we were really both learning from each other. Since I knew the section better than she did, I could advise her about the technical things like how many bunches of coriander we would get through in X amount of days and how often she needed to order dried shiitake mushrooms for the infusion soup. At the same time she was teaching me how to work faster, to learn to put pressure on myself and generally to organise myself and my time to be as efficient as possible. But essentially the most important thing I learnt from Marta was the self-discipline, dedication and focus needed to not just run a section, but to do it well.

I suppose Marta derived some comfort in the fact that she knew she could ask me to do certain tasks that were still quite new to her, safe in the knowledge that I had done them many times before and could be trusted to do whatever was required properly and in a sensible amount of time. After a while working together, it was noticeable to Head Chef Arnau that the Cuarto Frio was running like clockwork. In Marta he had a chef de partie who was the most reliable, responsible and organised leader you could imagine and in myself he had a commis who knew what he was doing and didn't need to be told twice. For a while we were the perfect partnership - Comerç 24's answer to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid! Then the day came when Arnau told me he was going to move me to the Snacks section, so I could also help out with the desserts whenever necessary. He announced the proposed change to Marta and myself in words that still ring in my ears: "You guys are too good together. It's making the rest of the kitchen look bad". It was my second proudest moment of my time at Ç24, second only to my promotion to chef de partie.

Marta and I in the zone were like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
In the end the move to the Snacks section never materialised. Personal circumstances caused Marta to leave the restaurant quite suddenly, leaving me in charge of the section. By this time I had been working on the Cuarto Frio for seven months, so I had a fair amount of experience and confidence in what I was doing. But as Marta had upped and left so unexpectedly, I had never been officially trained to run the section myself. I knew pretty much how everything was done, just from being delegated work every day for over half a year, but I had absolutely no idea how to organise the section myself. And, of course, I'd never been trained to be someone else's boss. I was only twenty years old, for crying out loud - and I was being thrown right into the deep end. Those first few weeks were what turned me from a boy into a man. They were my culinary rite of passage.

Now that I had become a chef de partie for the first time, I strongly felt that I had to emulate Marta. Like her, I had to be understanding and patient when it was necessary but not tolerate stupidity, lack of logic or most importantly lack of respect from anyone working under me. I felt like I owed it to her personally to be representative of everything she taught me in the way that I worked, the way that I taught and disciplined others and the way in which I was strict with myself when I was struggling to keep up and could easily have cut corners and not done things the way they should be done. I taught myself to organise the section in my own personal way, but never to have tunnel vision and to stop looking for new ways to do things even more efficiently. I got myself into the mindset that, if I didn't do these things, I would be letting Marta down as well as letting myself down. I truly hope that I conveyed a little of that pride and respect to my own trainees.

When I started at Ç24 just over a year ago I was a fresh-faced kid straight out of culinary school and still wet behind the ears. In those intervening months I've not only learnt an immeasurable amount, but I've changed so much as a person. Looking at myself now, I realise just how different I am from that boyish stagière who first arrived in Barcelona back in September 2007. A lot has changed since then. Comerç 24 has been my coming of age.

The very first job I was given when I first entered the kitchens of Ç24 on Tuesday 2nd October 2007 was to cut a julienne of green asparagus, for the Sopa de Fideos dish. So it was only fitting that on Tuesday 28th October 2008 the very last produce I touched at Ç24 was green asparagus tips, as I decorated what was to be my final Autumn Salad during lunch service that day. I never got to finish that salad. It was my Sagrada Familia.
Gaudí's Sagrada Familia - reaching up to the skies like a bunch of asapargus

Postscript: While I was working at Comerç 24, I had neither the time nor the wherewithal to even contemplate socialising with the restaurant's owner and Executive Chef Carles Abellan. So it was an immense pleasure for me and my friends to sit and chat with him and his family the other night at Koy Shunka, Barcelona's hottest new Japanese restaurant. And an even greater pleasure to discover, at the end of the evening, that Sr. Abellan had picked up our drinks tab (which by that time, after Cava and some very high quality sake, was pretty sizeable). One day I hope it will be my own great pleasure to invite the man who set me off on my professional career to sit and dine with me at my own restaurant.

Asparagus courtesy of the wonderful Haalo of Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once.

31 comments:

Alan said...

Trig, change is terribly hard, but you're young and ambitious, and you know you're doing the right thing, because you're also surprisingly mature. So good luck to you. I wish you all the best. Keep us all up to date, though. I'm sure we're all very eager to know what happens next...

Alan.//

dan said...

Trig,

great post. It resonates with me as I am in exactly the same position now. I've learnt the job, got it running how I want it and I can't see what improvements I could make.....

Where do we go from here?

Ben said...

Quite a post, Trig. I still think fondly of the meal I had at Ç24 in the summer and the beers we shared afterwards. Good luck in your search for something new. If you stay in Barcelona I'm sure I'll see you there.

Cheers. Ben.

Lara said...

Trig -

So sorry to hear that things ended that way, but it sounds like you gained an invaluable experience there. I'm looking forward to hearing what you will be doing next.

Good luck to you!

- Lara

catering equipment said...

Good Luck

The Boston Foodie said...

Funny how life shakes one up when one least expects it but it isn't necessarily a bad thing. One thing I've learned is to never keep any opportunity too far off the radar no matter how happy I seemed in the place I was. People who seem to make it big seem to jump around a lot, and quickly, at times. Passion is restless. I think this is a good thing but I understand your mixed emotions and I am so glad you wrote about it honestly.

Paulina said...

Trig

Great post! I really enjoyed reading it.
It made me say that whenever, and wherever you will one day have your own restaurant, you will have me there for at least a meal.

I wish you the best for the next step in your professional career.
I'm looking forward to know where...

Good luck!

Helen said...

Wow! It's the end of an era - for you and for us! Well I can't wait to see where your career takes you next, it sounds like you made the right decision and will be much happier moving onto the next stage - good luck. Helen.

Chennette said...

Hey Trig - I can empathise with reaching a point in a job where you're not going to learn any more and leaving is the best route - my first legal job I stayed on months after that point and I was suffocating and running away from clients by the end :-) (not good for business you know). I am sure there's going to be lots of brightness and challenges on the future to balance off the sadness of leaving.
Good post.

Trig said...

Guys - thanks for all your comments. I'm neither sad nor expecting sympathy, because I had a great time at Ç24, learnt a huge amount and really developed as a person. There comes a time for all of us when we need to move on and I simply arrived at that point about 8 weeks earlier than anticipated. I need to broaden my experience now, with time on other sections learning different skills. Barcelona is a great city and I've no plans to move anywhere else yet. As it says in my profile, I'm about to take up an exciting new challenge here in fabulous Catalunya. That's not a cryptic clue. Wherever I go next will be an exciting new challenge because I wouldn't go anywhere else. Keep tuned for the next episode.

MarkF said...

Wow, quite a post and quite a journey to date. I'm really looking forward to the next episode and the challenges ahead. Good luck !

John said...

Good stuff!

A little recommendation, I found these to be so delicious and useful in my kitchen: bajoseasonedsalts

Cheers.

John

Pete said...

Shame I never got to C24 while you were working there. Good luck for wherever you choose for the next stop on your journey. They'll be lucky to have you!

James said...

So right - it's when you stop learning it's time to move onwards.

Damn cold section - as soon as they get someone that can do it efficiently and with a passion they never want to move them. My 1st real cdp had been doing it 27 years and he's still at it 12 years later.

A 3 - 4 month rotation system would be so much better - it keeps everyone's interests fresh, everyone keeps learning new things and also if anyone suddenly leaves, there's plenty of people who can take over straight away. And if everyone has a better idea of each other's sections it should make for better team work, easier kitchen politics. It's a somewhat futuristic idea....

Oh good luck for what's round the corner!

Columbus Foodie said...

I think you picked a good time to move on, Trig. When you're at the point when your work becomes soul crushing drudgery, change is what's needed. Here's hoping that your next assignment is exactly what you're hoping for.

And although your posts of the last year have been infrequent, I have definitely noticed that the tone of such have been that of someone who grew up a lot during that time.

Paalo said...

All the best for the future Trig, your reasoned decision making is to be applauded.
Would love to see a new profile picture to judge if you have aged at all!

Who Has Time To Cook? said...

Good luck to you in your future endeavors. I'm sure you will do well whereever you go. -- Jean

Chef F said...

Wish all the luck!
I'm tunned for the next episode :9

Lilandra said...

I hope you find new adventures wherever you go

Krista said...

Stay philosophical and open to new experiences. You're going places, kiddo.

Tennen Parman said...

Hi, I am Tennen Parman from Japan.
I visited your site sometimes so far. You have a cool site.

thank you!

H.Peter said...

Great Post.
My long term prediction: Your own joint in Las Vegas, Nevada or NY, NY.

It may take some time, but let me know when it happens.

Oregano said...

Trig,

I have not visited your blog for a while but I think you have developed it a lot further!

It seems like Commerc24 has been a great experience.

Much success in the future.

O.

nicisme said...

Adding my good wishes for you next venture Trig.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your Comerc 24 exploits and am looking forward to your new challenges.
All the best,
Nic

Vanessa said...

It is so satisfying to acquire new skills, master them, and then move on and start over...I'm sure you'll do this your entire life. Good on you.

Trig said...

Mark - thanks and I agree with you about Prop 8.
John - I make my own in the kitchen.
Pete - Contact me before hand if you pay a visit to Barcelona and I'll take you out for a great meal.
James - I think the problem is that many chefs don't have the delicate hand required for cuarto frio, so head chefs stick with the ones who can do it.
Becke - it's been a struggle to post this much, but it's worth it. I can hardly recognise myself after a year.
Paalo - I'm visiting a photographic studio next week for a new profile photo wearing my chef jacket with flags on the sleeves. Watch this space.
Jean, Chef F, Tennan, Oregano, Nicisme - many thanks for your kind comments.
H.Peter - NY quite possibly. I've been there before and loved it. Vegas - unlikely.
Lilandra - wouldn't mind opening up a restaurant in your part of the world one day.
Krista - I see you've been enjoying yourself with food bloggers in London. I couldn't make those events, but I had lunch with Niamh over here today.
Vanessa - there are many more skills for me to master yet. But like a certain chap over in your country, I hope to get a grip on them quickly. Doesn't that woman put you off ever eating game again?

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Good luck with your next move. Can't wait to hear where you'll be. Just don't leave Catalunya yet or I wont hear the end of it.

p.s. I like your piece of tile!

Trig said...

Amanda, I've no plans to leave here in the near future. And my dad promises to pop over and meet yours in Skipton next month.

eatlikeagirl.com said...

Hi Aidan,

Great post and very brave move. It takes most of us longer to reach that realisation and longer again to act on it. It's a great shame that I never got to eat in Comerc 24 while you were working there but I shall be sure to make it to your next employer, for I am sure they will be great!

It was lovely to see you in Barcelona last weekend, I shall post about it soon.

Niamh

Jeanne said...

Great post - and good on you for realising that it's time to move on and acting on it immediately. Thanks for all the wonderful experiences you've shared with us in your time at Commerc24 and we look forward with great anticipation to seeing what you do next.

Trig said...

Niamh, Jeanne - thanks for the kind words. Hopefully I can give you some news soon.


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