Nasty, brutal, and thankfully short

About 2 years ago, Jim and I took a last minute trip to Portland in the late fall.  It was a long weekend, we spent it exploring the city and eating…lots of eating.  It was for us the start of some very long and very hard conversations.

Over coffee, in the middle of a rainy Thursday afternoon, we made the hard choice to start trying to make some changes in our life.  We were both mentally and physically exhausted from running both spots and knew that for us the time had finally come to start thinking about what life post-restaurants might look like.

We came home with a little rest under our belts, but mentally taxed.  Lots of conversation means the brain goes into overload, and our brains were both reeling – were we really starting to think about life without restaurants?  Could we do that?

About a month later, a troublesome employee that we had been vacillating over firing prior to our trip, came to me and quit.  It was a heated, uncomfortable, explosive, and one-sided conversation.

As was my custom on most Tuesdays, I was working solo in the basement of OHS while the ATH crew had family meal and set-up for service.  With OHS closed, it was about an hour of peace and quiet each week for me to sort through orders, to-do lists, and upcoming projects before I headed into my first dinner service and launched into the frenetic pace of the week.  It was about an hour to digest whatever path the week had in store and get my head set for whatever was to come.

He chose his time and place so that I was isolated and solo – and it was in all senses of the word, an assault.

It was twenty minutes of accusations, name calling, rough language, and threats.  He was hostile, aggressive, and unhinged.  I later learned he had already exploded at ATH before charging across the street to confront me.

I sat on a box of potatoes listening.  I paced a bit.  I tried to understand the verbal diatribe as he just unloaded.   It was nonsensical, rambling, and went back months with accusations and wild interpretations of his reality.

At some point he stopped.  He left.  And I sat back down on my box of potatoes.

I’m a crier.  There is absolutely no argument or denying it.  I cry when happy, I cry when sad, I cry at commercials with sappy music.  I didn’t cry here, not at all.

I literally remember watching myself, like someone else standing there.  I finished putting herbs into tubs with dated labels.  I stacked, broke down, and took out the cardboard recycling.  I made to-do lists for all the cooks and wrote notes for early morning vendors on upcoming needs.  I left the pastry chef a note for the next morning’s bake, and I turned off the lights, locked up, and walked back to ATH not sure what I was walking back into.  I felt like I was moving in slow motion, it was 30 minutes after I had left.

In the hours, days, and weeks that followed, ATH shook out.

As is inevitable in any situation where you spend 10+ hours a day together, most of it in elevated stress conditions, there are crews that mesh and work well together, and there are those that don’t.  I had just spent 6 months helping OHS reset its’ crew, and this confrontation was the first step in a process of resetting ATH’s.  The result, on both sides of the street, ended up being some strong teams made up of really great people, and led to an incredibly busy, but rewarding and congenial summer – everyone worked hard, and I was proud to be a member of both teams, let alone their leader.

But, this was the start of the reset, and it was nasty, brutal, and thankfully short.

It led to one of 3 decisions that I made in the course of 10 years that I regret.   It managed to break me down just enough that I failed to stand up for myself, my business, and the way I knew was right about a week later.  I let myself be spoken to poorly and made a decision that would take weeks to undo.

Cumulatively we had over 200 employees between ATH and OHS in the course of 10 years of operation.  In the 4 weeks including and following that day, I fired or accepted the resignation of 2 employees who were among the most toxic that ever set foot in the building in the course of that time.

About a year later was the first time that I talked to anyone about that day.  I spoke with a woman whom I regard as a mentor in life and whom I respect greatly, and she just listened.  A day later she sent me a link to an article.   I clicked the link and read the entire thing.  Then I read it again.  Then I closed my computer, walked away, and for the first time in a year I cried.  I cried because I was relieved.  Any small inkling of doubt that I had had lingering over the confrontation was gone – the article was titled, “Your talking to a sociopath.”

I’ve written and talked at length about one of the hardest parts of being a functional, contributing part of this industry – the fact that this industry attracts, employs, and is often a haven for mental illness of all kinds.  And, while I think that it is finally a part of the industry that is making its way into the daylight – as notable personalities in the industry start to take the stigma off alcoholism and mental illness – I think that the dark corners are still allowing some of the malicious aspects of mental illness to hide within the industry, to the detriment of us all.

There are those who need help, or who need the right push to make better decisions and changes for their own well being.  They can be destructive, but they can also be really damn fine cooks, waiters, and employees.  It’s helping them to walk the very rough path to their own sobriety that can make you and them better people.  Those relationships are hard, but in the end, those are the people we work next to that we want to see come out the other side – and those are the people who can make our industry better, one person at a time.

But, as with any job, or relationship, or facet of life, there are those that use the weaknesses of others as a cover.  There are those with no intention of facing or dealing with their own mental disease, or who prey upon those weaker than themselves.  Unfortunately, this industry is also a haven for them – the sociopaths, the narcissists, the sadists, the power-hungry, and the just plain angry.  An industry full of combustible situations, where bad behavior, bad tempers, and bad people are often excused because of talent, or situation, or stress.

That is what has to change.

Prior to opening ATH in 2007, I only worked in one kitchen where the chef was allowed to be a tyrant.  He wasn’t anything diagnosable, he was just an asshole.  He yelled, he threw pans, he went off daily – I lasted 6 weeks then gave my notice and left.  I went on to work for chefs with a lot more respect for themselves and their people, and it is those individuals that I tried to emulate as I was given the opportunity to be a leader.

I don’t think there is any place in this industry, or frankly any other, for anyone who feels the need to prey on the weakness of others.

I made mistakes.  I got mad.  I got downright pissed.  But, I never treated anyone like they weren’t a person, and for that I can feel good about my role as a leader and a chef as I close this chapter.

And, perhaps that is all it takes.  For those of us that value those around us and working for us, to make sure that we aim to be a person and not an asshole.  For if there are fewer  and fewer spots for the assholes to hide, then perhaps we can start to build an industry that supports the better mental health of us all.

We shall see.  xo  Andrea




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