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  • Writer's pictureJ.S. Kohout

The Why of Aftermath

At one point, I had a marketingish-type job at a Fortune 500 company. On the face of it, it should have been the perfect job. It was creative in a field I loved, and it came with good pay and benefits. I worked with celebrities, and I occasionally traveled while eating and drinking expensive things for free.

Unfortunately, my love of the job died about a year before I found myself struggling to explain the brilliance of George Carlin's "seven words you can never say on television" to an executive.

My first instinct was that I was the problem. I strove to get better. Part of that involved self-education, including reading the Simon Sinek book "Start with Why." Sinek's idea was simple, "People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it." Captivated by this thought, I obsessively pitched ideas to my bosses that revolved around it.

These ideas were received about as well as a pitch for selling cocaine to toddlers. Eventually, when layoffs were announced, I suggested that I be let go. Unlike my appeal for "Tyke Toot," this idea had traction.

Unmoored, I pursued a few things without success.

Then, one day I was riding the bus and reading "The Soul of a Chef" by Michael Rhulman. I thought back to my own time in restaurants. I'd worked hard to get out of that life. I'd moved 3,000 miles in an attempt to get away from it. I thought I was supposed to. But the reality was that part of me loved working in restaurants. I missed them.

I loved the community of restaurant people. I loved the feeling of working in the trenches and figuring out how to negotiate impossible requests. It was skin of the teeth problem-solving. It was a puzzle on a roller coaster at a theme park populated with your wildest friends.

Plus, there was the food. I like food.

In a restaurant, the "why" always had a simple answer. It was about feeding and taking care of my people, both coworkers and customers. Not every person or experience was great, but the good experiences outweighed the bad.

I decided it was time to return to the restaurant industry. It'd mean a significant cut in pay and security, and the work would be harder and the hours longer, but for some intangible reason, it seemed like the right call.

With this revelation, I literally got off the bus and changed directions.

I got off that bus and set up a stage the same evening as a dishwasher at a small cafe. I was trailing a tall and serious and bespectacled Latinx poet. With each breath and eye roll, it was obvious that he was only tolerating this gabacho desk jockey on what I'm sure to him seemed like a sightseeing tour.

It was a rocky start.

Up until this point, I'd worked in the front-of-house as a server and bartender. This time I was determined to work my way up through the back-of-house. That'd mean longer hours and worse pay. BOH is populated with a very different kind of person. Not a universal, but FOH people are jolly extroverts. BOH, people are angry introverts.

I was jolly. I was angry. I'm a tongue to stomach ambivert.

At the end of the shift, the Chef made me a ripping turkey burger I still remember fondly, and she politely told me that perhaps I wasn't cut out for the job.

My girlfriend and her uncle tried to cheer me up that night by taking me out in K-town to a hostess bar for drinks and karaoke, followed by a dinner of grilled intestines. Aside from a mild hangover, it did the trick.

The other thing that helped was a text from the Chef the next day. If I could get there by 1 PM, I had the job.

Dishwashing was a difficult adjustment. There were times it was much tougher than I expected, but for some reason I kept showing up.

But why?

One night after struggling to keep pace with the dishes and general cleaning. I was there late, mopping the floors. Wet and miserable, my hands hurt because I seemed to have an allergic reaction to the degreaser we were using. They would get itchy, turn red and swell up. On top of it all, I knew that I still had a half-mile walk to an hour-long bus ride after I finished.

As I mopped, the Chef and I talked. She was still there fiddling with a beef bourguignon riff she was planning for a future special. We chatted. She was sweet and gave me welcome advice on my work and career.

At the end of our conversation, she handed me a thick smear of braising liquid on a piece of crusty bread. The red wine had bonded with fat and the juices from the meat, and it had collected around the bouquet garni to form a thick, meaty, aromatic paste.

It was incredible.

This cooking discard that no customer would ever eat, and the conversation around it managed to turn this moment of discomfort and exhaustion into one of my favorite work memories. Ever.

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