November 11th, 2009

The Professional Interviews 7: Jennifer, Food Service Co-ordinator (Circle Square Ranch)

This was my first email interview (over Facebook, actually). This format is great for busy people (pretty much everyone I’ve interviewed so far), since they can answer at leisure or a bit at a time or whenever suits. There’s less back and forth (I did two sets of questions, the second inspired by the answers to the first) and of course no eye-contact/body language/laughter… But for an interviewee (like Jennifer) who expresses him/herself well in writing, this is a fun low-stress interview (and it saves the horrible horrible transcription). See our cyber-dialogue below, me in bold, she in Roman.

What do you at work on a typical day?

Order groceries, cook meals, boss the kitchen staff around, make sure the kitchen is clean and the dinning hall is set up.

I think my job is very interesting; there have been many highs and lows. When I got here I had no idea how to cook a meal for 270 people. I didn’t know how to cook some of the food on the menu let alone make it for that many people. Having a kitchen staff of teenagers who have no experience made things even more interesting. I’ve run out of food with 50 people in line, I’ve had one of my staff call the police on a dare. I’ve had Sysco, who was our only food supplier at the time, tell me they didn’t get our order after a computer glitch and there was nothing they could do and I didn’t have food to feed all these people.

What is your favourite thing to do at work? Least favourite?

My favourite thing: Making massive birthday cakes or cupcakes

Least favourite: Throwing out pans of leftovers, such a waste of food.

How did you wind up with this job?

The old cooks left the Ranch unexpectedly. My boss sent a message to all their friends on Facebook asking if anyone knew anyone. I didn’t have enough experience to run a kitchen but they are such nice people I wanted to help them if I could so I offered to help. I let them know I was unqualified to be the cook but they didn’t have anyone else so I got the job.

What sort of cooking experience did you have before this job (ie., cooking classes, previous jobs)?

One of the best things about working here is they give you opportunity to learn so much. I didn’t have previous experience running a kitchen. I worked in various kitchens–restaurant, camp, golf course–and I took various cooking and cake decorating classes and I had a diploma in cooking but there was nothing that prepared me for this. As weird as it sounds, the thing that was the best preparation for doing this job was being youth group leader at my church. There I planned various events and fundraisers and it was my only experience running anything of any sort.

Describe the first meal you cooked for 270–what did you make and how did it go? How did you feel when it was over?

I don’t remember the first meal I cooked for 270 [since] it was a progression. I cooked for 30 people first for horse staff training, then I cooked for 80 for staff training. The first week of camp is generally smaller: I think I cooked for 120, the following week probabaly 180 and so on. The middle to late summer is usually full or close to it.

My second week was the hardest. It was the first week I was on my own and the quality control person was visiting me after every meal to tell me how much my food sucked and I was working about 17 hours a day, my staff weren’t getting breaks, they were all tired and I was still trying to figure everything out. I cried a lot that week.

Every week things got better, every summer things have gotten easier…. [A]s soon as one meal is done you are thinking about the next. You don’t really look back on a meal until the next time you make it and that is when you try to figure out ways to make it better. The menu is supposed to be kid-friendly. We keep the popular dishes on and take the unpopular meals off, it has been trial and error. If the seconds line is long and the kids run to get in line that means the food is good, if they are coming up for thirds that is a good sign too. If the kids are coming to the kitchen door to ask for toast and cereal that is a very bad sign. If there is food in the compost bin, that is a bad sign.

What is it like living where you work? Does it make you better friends with your colleagues? Do you end up working more because you are right there?

Someone I worked with when I was fifteen stopped in one day and…he said to me in regard to living there “that must be a dream come true.” He said he would love to live here. It is a wonderful place to live. It is quiet, peaceful. Everyone is one big happy family and I am constantly around great people that inspire and challenge me to be a better person. The times I’ve spent here have been some of the best times of my life.

In the summer I really don’t have time for friendship, cooking consumes me but I have to say the people that I live with are incredible and in the off-season you can’t not make friends… The whole idea of me living here is to help them out. I like doing it and I’ve had such good experiences here that it feels good to do something for them. I do end up working more but it is a good thing. One of the best parts of living here is when camp starts the kitchen isn’t a disaster, [since] I was able to do a lot of cleaning last year, which led to a few renovations, which led to more shelving. It is a small kitchen so it made things way more organized.

What sort of person would be good at a job like yours? Who would be bad at it?

I don’t know that there is any type of person that would be good or bad at this job; all I know is what I have been working on. I’ve had to work a lot at getting organized. …[Y]ou order thousands of of dollars worth of groceries in a week and it so easy to forget something, or you misjudge how much you need. Another aspect that I have found hard is the physical aspect. It is a lot of lifting, so I try to get some excercise before summer to get in some sort of shape. Other than that I would say you need to have a lot of energy. You need to be clean if you don’t want to have to worry about the health department.

One of the guys who worked here asked me that question and I told him everything you make you have to put love into it. He said, no be serious. I told him I am being serious: you can either try your best when you are cooking or you can slap the food together like you don’t care. I’ve worked in one fine dining restaurant and my boss there always used to say that to me, put the love into it. He is one of the best people I’ve ever known, I try to live by the things he taught me.

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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