Sometimes if you are very lucky, your job is more than a job. It becomes “home”. This does not mean necessarily that you do not have a life beyond work. It means that you are comfortable there, that it is second nature to your being.
Back when I worked for Martha Stewart Living, the television studio was home. For six years I had my parking space, keys to everything, my crew. The years there were interwoven threads sewn into the fabric of my life.
When the studio closed due to Martha’s sentencing, I lost my job. It was very sad and a life-changer for myself and the rest of the folks whose lives were affected. Back then though, I was focused on my next move. I was in the process of opening my own business and so in some ways I was ready to get pushed out of the nest.
This brings me to this lifetime, a good dozen years after leaving Martha’s. When my baby graduated high school it was the same year that I sold my house, closed my restaurant and tied up all the loose ends in Connecticut. I moved into a little place in Manhattan with my dogs and embarked on the phase of my life where I became a teacher.
The first time I walked into Star Career Academy I was a little overwhelmed by the commotion, the noise, the movement. I was hired as a culinary instructor. I started as a sub, then was part-time and then when a fellow instructor was a no-call, no-show for his class ( classic drinking problem), I inherited it and became full-time.
These chefs that I shared the office with were all fascinating in one way or another. Each one had a story, and like me had lots of battle wounds. It was a great place to go for those of us who still had energy and passion but were done with the industry bullshit and restaurant life.
After coming from Connecticut where my world was fairly homogeneous, I was thrown into a student body that was very diverse. Certainly a lot more black faces there than my white one. I derived energy from them. They taught me as much as I taught them. Sometimes I was very tough, but most appreciated it and we grew together.
We laughed a lot in that chef’s office. It was the place where we could let off steam. Whether it was about our students or our boss, we let it rip. In between shifts was rush hour. It was not only our office, but served as a locker room. Male and female, there was always someone in their underwear, yakking it up. Joking, bragging, bitching, if you actually wanted to get work done you were in the wrong place.
During a particularly turbulent time there, I among others was fired. We disliked our boss, there was favoritism and a lot of ugly politics so in some ways it was not surprising. It did not make it any easier though because I loved the work. I made some lasting friendships there and kept contact with some of my students. Life went on and my resume grew.
After a series of events and new management was in place, I was welcome back to Star. It was three years later now and much had changed. Yet, much was still the same. The first night that I was back in that chef’s office to prepare for my class, I was struck by how comfortable I felt. It was mostly different chefs now changing their clothes, talking and joking but the energy was still the same. I felt like I had come home. You really can go home again. It was wonderful.
Except for minor changes, I knew my way around still. It was all so familiar. I took on my new students with a sense of renewed energy. I was grateful and more that anything else I was humble. I knew what it was like out there in the world. I knew what a real shit-job was like again. I had an appreciation for having a job that you love at a place that you love.
I became the Department Chair before long. I dug into the job with gusto. I spent many, many long hours there. I was working restaurant-like hours but it didn’t feel that way because I loved what I did. I was never, ever bored. I was pushed to my limits sometimes and had enormous challenges but everyday brought something new.
I had keys to everything, knew where all the tools were, how all of the equipment worked and what needed fixing. At peak I had five kitchens that I managed along with roughly 15 faculty and 300 students for my two departments.
Though I had my own office and was no longer in the chef’s lounge, I would still go in there to hang out a bit. I respected their privacy though, knowing that it was their place to vent and sometimes that included venting about me too and I accepted that.
This time around the management was very corporate. The school had transitioned from being independent, then two schools, then a chain of them. The logo had changed along with all of the branding.
I have never done well with corporate politics. But the new and humble me did my very best to try to uphold policy and do right by the bosses. My style of management is to lead by example. I will roll my sleeves up and get a job done. For the instructors, I tried to always have their backs. Whether they were being challenged by a student or by upper management I always made a point of listening to their side of the story and usually defending them.
Two things seemed to happen at once. Corporate did not believe in advertising so we had no brand awareness by the average consumer. We were a great program available for those who could not afford the pricier culinary schools. The quality of the student was changing and the demands on the instructors were growing. By quality, I mean many were unable to fully commit to school. They had too many life issues or did not really want to work, they were collecting state benefits if they could prove that they were enrolled in a trade school and not because they were passionate about the profession. Consequently we had an enormous amount of drops. When you have drops, you don’t have tuition. And when you don’t have tuition, well…
Corporate’s answer was to turn to the teachers and say, “What are you doing?” to hold on to your students.What were they doing? Severely underpaid, they were working over and above to hold on to their students. It went way past cooking technique. We counseled, we listened, we fed them. Instructors took money out of their own pockets sometimes to give them car fare so that they could get to school. Corporate’s answer was to give us more paperwork and more forms to fill out. Redundant, time-consuming forms that was not going to do anything to help a student who had three kids and no childcare to come to school.
During my busiest days there, from the moment I walked in the door I was bombarded with issues. An irate chef complaining about the mess from the evening class leaving the kitchen messy, someone’s mise en place was missing or their meat did not come in on time. A student hoping that I might have an extra uniform handy because they forgot theirs and their teacher would not let them into class without it. A student fight, maybe someone so out of control that security and I would have to escort them off premise. A refrigerator is down and all the product was lost. Another irate chef claiming that their personal equipment was stolen. Attendance meetings with the administration, then being pulled in to a dessert buffet in the catering class so I could compliment the students on their work, and of course taste everything. Everyday brought something new. Some good things, some not so good. We had lots of fun events, we even sent a student to Belgium on externship. Sometimes we got pissy with one another but we also laughed a lot.
I always said, it was never boring. I thrived on that.
There were warning signs and conflicting messages from management. We were stopping enrollment and laying people off, but no- we are NOT closing. This was the corporate byline.
So we all continued to do our jobs. One by one, we said goodbye to those whose jobs were eliminated. We did a lot of spinning to make a positive environment for the students who were left. Though my job was not quite the whirlwind it was before, I made it my mission to give love and discipline to every remaining student and to lend support to my instructors who were left.
Afternoons were the worst because you could hear a pin drop. When at one time you could barely make your way through the crowded hallways, there was no one. Every kitchen was empty. All that equipment was humming away but there wasn’t anyone in there using it. When I placed food orders I was challenged to have enough items so I could make the minimum to get deliveries.
We had one more start, and being that I was just about the only full-time instructor left they became my class. I had eighteen fresh faces to mold into professional cooks. I jumped in with gusto. Being a manager for all that time and observing other instructors and getting a new perspective had made me a better teacher. My students were loving school. They were getting the beginning of the education that they were promised and I was delivering everything that I could possibly give them.
So when the day came, and the announcement was made that school was closing for good it was a shock. We knew that the patient had been on a respirator for a while but the death was sudden. All of the branches closed that day. Students all received a text that there would no longer be classes.
Of course they went nuts, they had every right. There were news trucks parked outside of the suburban schools filming them crying, angry, confused. Our New York branch had more of a quiet death but still I had texts from bewildered students on what to do next. At least our campus tried to help out our small population to process their paperwork so that they could move on. A little dignity and respect never hurts.
There was no news truck to capture my pain though, along with all the other loyal employees who worked with 100% of their being. We did it not for the company, we did it for the students. I was supposed to meet my class the next day to take their food handler’s certification at the Board of Health. That was no longer to be, it was cancelled along with everything else. I just kept thinking about all of them, hoping that they knew that I had never lied to them. I had been a victim just as they had been.
When you have a home, it is very difficult to find a new one. It does not happen overnight. It takes time to make those relationships, to get to see the cracks in the foundation and how to lovingly care for them. To learn the ins and outs, or how if you jiggle this wire the fan in the oven will work.
If one more person tells me that “when one door closes, another door opens”, I may explode. I know that. I’ve lived that. I just need time to grieve and figure out next steps and to hope that somewhere out there will be another home for me.