The term “annual review” doesn’t garner the same excitement as “staff party.” While I had attended staff parties with regularity throughout my career, I had honestly never had a real review until I came on board with One Off Hospitality in 2012 at Blackbird. I find the these reviews mildly exhausting to perform for my own staff of 7, I can only imagine the time and energy it takes to perform such reviews for an entire company. Which probably explains why I hadn’t really received reviews before. At One Off Hospitality, each review begins with the reviewee presenting a list of goals for themselves inside and outside the restaurant, as well as for their department, and for their own teams. Then, one by one, each partner and chef speaks their mind, addressing the goals, and discussing points of improvement for the next year.
One of the most valuable tools I’ve received from this process is learning how to set a goal. I really thought I knew how. I’d certainly used the words before. But what I really knew how to do was dream up ideas, say “I really should” or “One day I wanna” or “I wonder” or “wouldn’t it be cool if” or even “if it were me I’d”. But these weren’t goals, they were just possibilities. I didn’t know I had to take a possibility and set it into existence by putting pen to paper to turn it into a goal. To bring it into the physical world, let it look back at me, and refine it in a way that is tangible and presentable to another person. I’ve come to realize, a goal can exist, floating around in my pastry life, dodging in and out of conversation, living on a cloud of possibility. But until I put it into words and set them into existence, these untethered goals are almost as useless to me as not having a goal at all.
I ran my early career, as many chefs do, on a wild cyclone of constantly spinning possibilities. I used to imagine my creative process like this. I would read and eat and talk and watch and smell and listen and absorb ideas. Each thing I absorbed became a kite with a long string, just blowing around in the gusty winds of my brain. When I needed to collect ideas for a dish or a concept, I would look up into the sky, and start pulling, holding a tangle of ideas by their kite strings. I’d let a storm rage in my mind, for weeks on end, grabbing one string with a “this kind of tasted like….” and another by thinking “I saw this one time I wonder…” releasing a kite back into the storm when I saw another possibility that tickled me more.
At first this process was invigorating, all that possibility swirling furiously around inside me fueled me with so much energy! Enough energy to propel me through the unharnessed system I had developed until finally after spinning possibility after possibility around in my head, grabbing ideas and letting them go, I managed to squeeze the tiniest something out into action.
At some point, this process began to drain more energy than it generated, and when that happened, anxiety and stress sunk in and became my new source of fuel. I spent each day forcing myself through the storm, pushing and pushing, grinding down my sanity, squeezing out these tiny little actions from a hurricane of possibility.
I had become so used to the stress, the grind, that I couldn’t see any other way. I often felt like I needed to quit cooking all together, like it was too much and I couldn’t hack it, then would feel guilty for feeling that way when I loved my job so much. When I’d become paralyzed by the constant motion of untethered possibility I’d lay on the floor in the private dining room at Blackbird, with a towel over my eyes to block out the world and forge the storm to grasp just one single idea to work with.
I don’t know when the simple yearly goal sheet my bosses had me put together started to seep into my daily creative process. But at some point, I stepped away from the stormy skies and found a shelter in One Off’s guidance. Pin a few ideas down. Take one action at a time. Use the limited time I have to grow each goal into maturity. Then move on.
So, when I sat down to my annual review this year, I had a list of goals, some small, some lofty, and suggested actions I can take to follow through. “I want to use more grains” changed from swirling thoughts of cornmeal and amaranth and flavor flours and ancient flat breads to “look through each of our existing recipes to find places where the flavors of grains would enhance the end product.” and “research and test grain recipes written by other authors.” and even “work with Greg Wade our head baker to source grains from the farms and millers he uses for the breads at Publican Quality Bread.”
Within two weeks of my review, the phrase I had uttered for 9 months “I would like to use more interesting grains in our baked goods” suddenly became a locally milled cornmeal muffin with michigan cranberries. The actions fell right into place once I set the goal, quickly bringing in cornmeal from a pair of mills, as well as using the small mill we have at the bakery to mill our own dried corn. We tested a few other peoples recipes, decided honey would add moisture and enhance the corn, and I consulted Greg the baker who suggested making a cornmeal porridge first before mixing the grain. Add a handful of the cranberries, and viola! Possibility had become reality.
The first few tries were dry, or crumbly, or nubby, or a little gritty. But one simple action after the next, and I was on my way to reaching my goal. This is a long term goal, bringing more grains into our desserts, something that we could do for years and years before the goal reaches maturity. And I relish this, energized the clear skies of my newer process and the real possibility that can come from setting a goal.
RECIPE: CORNMEAL CRANBERRY MUFFINS