What I Learned from my First Job

I was cooking over Thanksgiving and my father-in-law noted that I crack eggs with one hand. It never really struck me that this was a big deal. My high school and college job was as a line cook in a breakfast/brunch/lunch restaurant. I could actually crack two eggs with one hand which is pretty awesome but a little risky. I learned a lot more than that over the course of that job. Some had to do with cooking but much didn’t. It’s just proof that much of life is a learning experience and everyone has the opportunity to grow if they look for the opportunity.

Look ma. One hand!
Look ma. One hand!

The first thing about showing up for work is showing up for work. Punctuality is key. Early every morning, we’d need to do prep work in the kitchen in order to be ready for the day. Customers were coming one way or another and there needed to be enough grated cheese, diced tomatoes, chopped onions, cooked potatoes, and the like. Showing up on time means work gets done. That’s important for business but it’s also important for life. Everybody’s late at some point and most people get over it. If you’re late or disappear when there’s something to be done, that gets noticed. You’re either reliable or not.

On that note, clean up your own messes. There’s only so much space in a kitchen. That space is only there so people can work and if you’ve left a mess then others can’t use it. And since they’ve got jobs to do, they tend to not appreciate it. Reliably getting the job done is important, maybe even more than punctuality. If it’s your responsibility and you don’t complete it well, guess what. Someone else has to do it for you when they have their own work to deal with. Teamwork is important, especially in a crisis or under fire. When you eat at a busy restaurant and your food comes out right quickly, you may not notice. If it’s painfully slow or the food comes out wrong then it’s obvious the kitchen’s teamwork has broken down. A meal order is dependent on multiple people to cook and serve at the right time. When there’s a fever pitch during a busy hour, there’s either a flow or there’s not. Much of the time, a good leader makes or breaks the performance as they orchestrate the team.

Clear expectations, preparation, and people executing their jobs are all critical. Clearly this extends to many careers. A presentation delivered by a team which is smooth and natural took practice to get that way. A publication which looks professional out of the gate had a lot going on behind the scenes. Side skills which make teamwork better are knowing the right order to break down a task and efficiency. Every job – from cooking to construction to software implementations – has key steps which have to be done in order or take much longer than others. Starting late on a task which takes a long time and has other dependencies can really be a mess. Why make a quick pasta sauce before starting water to boil? You’ll just delay the meal and have to reheat the sauce. Being efficient is similar. Repeatedly performing the same task over and over when you can do more at once equates to more time taken and distraction.

Lastly, building core skills you can branch out on in life is a terrific thing to do. I haven’t cooked for a job since college. Still, when my wife and I were dating, there were plenty of times we cooked together. We still do and we keep trying new things along with some of our favorite recipes. Learning to do more is part of the fun. Of course, our kids happen to like my French toast which is a side benefit.


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