Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Get a Real Job…

Yes, I listen to the DR Show. It’s on when I head off to work, and I generally keep an ear out for news, and KJZZ in Phoenix has a lot of public affairs programming on during the morning.  

Today’s topic was Matthew B. Crawford’s book,”Shop Class As Soulcraft” discussing the value of the manual trades, and the loss that we have had socially with losing touch with using our hands more often.

And it seemed like an odd revelation. That using one’s hands and making things was so “liberating.”  Mind you, as a chef, I have been in a hands on trade for quite a while. A perhaps Zen profession, in that the best I can hope for at the end of the day, is an empty and dirty plate.  My best work is ephemeral–save perhaps in the smiles of my customers, and the drum like bellies they carry away.

I came to cooking by way of putting myself through school.  I began as a busboy, and realized soon enough, that the back of the house cats had a lot more fun. And they didn’t have to wear the stupid white polo shirts that we had forced on us.

Cooking paid for school, it was a way to make extra money while I was in school, and it was likewise and easy way to make sure that I didn’t starve as a student when I moved out of the dorms.  I worked on a Secondary Education degree, with a minor in Theater, and almost a double major, though undeclared, in Sociology.  I was a DJ at our local station, and I worked with the school’s paper under the watchful eye a fine woman who is now a Senior Editor for the Bangor Daily.  Over all, I suppose, I was all over the place.  

Lighting, sound, technical work on sets was hand in hand in theatre with shaping voice, character, revising script after script, running blocking, and reading and re-reading notes.  The idea that art, and technical work and paper work could be separated was just never possible.  

Likewise, as a DJ, you have your paperwork and technical work laid out for you when you operate a gigantic 4 watt station in Maine. WUMF, we said was “Coming to you with the awesome power of a Christmas tree light!”  And operating a station in those days, was as much technical know how to keep the old girl running, as it was reviewing what the FCC would allow, and actually rummaging through the CDs and records that CMJ sent us, and the tiny number of records we could purchase with our pittance from our share of Student Activity moneys.

As a teacher, and training to be a teacher, there is the inescapable logic of being “knowledge based work” but at the same time, steeped in that theatre culture, and cooking culture, as well as in the DJ booth, it was difficult to make a distinction jobs in the sense that Crawford suggests. Or rather suggests that those who make up the curriculum have made.

And in many ways, we have seen a shift in thinking about careers as being “different.”

Lately, I’ve had some issues with associates who know me primarily through e-mail, from Fark, and a few other sites, who have questioned the validity of being a chef as a “real job.”

And that threw me.

I’ve been in this business now for 25 years. It sort of shocked me when I realized that.  That other than a few stops along the way to sort of rest, revitalize, and recuperate, I’ve been cooking for 25 years. I trained as a teacher, I’ve done other things along way–DJ, bouncer, theatrical tech, make up for productions, costuming for productions, directing, technical director for a small company, even a brief stint in a warehouse when I just got sick of the bullshit games that I’d had to play in the oddly political world of cooking, and I took a hiatus for several months, and picked up boxes for a while, and hammered out a full blown novel and most of another.

And when Jim asked if I was going to get a “real job” it threw me.  Cooking, not real?  It paid for school. It fed me when I was just a poor student and they cut my grants.  Cooking, as a career has been rewarding, and amazingly fun, and it’s been an odd ride.

Cooks are, for those who might not have guessed, an odd lot.  You work like hell, you play hard, and we are a dirty, dirty, dirty people. Mothers, don’t let your daughters go out with a chef. We will do bad things to her.  She’s probably going to like them, and we’re going to take her to the better parties in town, the best after hours, but the price is that we are not nice people at the end of the day, and Anthony Bourdain, you have to know, really edits a great deal. Most cooking shows do, but Anthony gives you a closer look into our world, but by no means throws the doors open fully.

Likewise, chefs somewhat straddle the line between art and trade, and businessmen.  It is a business, there is no doubt.  You have to have an understanding of markets, you have to be able to balance your books, you have to understand inventory, labor, HR, material safety, OSHA regs, licensing, alcohol service, food safety, and a bit more.  Likewise, you have to know your food. Ingredients, sauces, history, cuisines, how to match and cross, and certainly chemistry in the kitchen.  Kitchens are very much about chemistry and physics. And somewhere in there, in all that odd technical jargon, and jumbling of numbers and balancing interpersonal relations, and a deep desire to touch a particular server’s fanny, and possibly pour a finger or two of bourbon on a rough night, there has to be…art.  You have to invoke magic to turn base ingredients into a meal, and balance flavors and textures, and all this science to make something that will invoke a sense of home, or fashion, or emotion. You have to bring smiles to these strangers, who you’ve invited into your place, and make them not only feel welcome, but do something that I’ve felt privileged to do for years, and feed them.

And, my friend Jim reduced my profession to being an interchangeable cog like a fry cook. And those “fry cooks” are where a lot of folks in my business got their start

Yes, it got my hackles up a bit.

Jim’s an IT guy.  He’s works on code, and sits at a desk, and sometimes replaces cards and is very much in that “knowledge based work”  mindset.  That “real jobs” don’t include a change of clothes, and you certainly don’t sweat and lift, or get dirty.

And that seems like such an odd thing.  And that shift has occurred around us, as we realize that the trades programs are fading. We still need mechanics. We still need electricians.  We certainly need builders. We need so many of these tradesmen, and in the back of a lot of minds, these aren’t “real jobs” because there isn’t a computer before them.  They aren’t just moving packets of data along, but have tools in hand. Have not just thoughts of the task at hand, but have to juggle an odd amount of other things that some folks seem to take for granted.

And then there are the trades, like my own, that have the additional discount of being art.

Because “art” is no longer a valid profession. Not unless it’s commercial somehow.

And that is an odd place for us to be as a country. We used to be proud to make things. To do things. And now, to many, like Jim–and my girlfriend’s mother apparently given a recent conversation–the idea of putting hands to something is no longer “real.”

How fucked up is that?  That those who lay hands on things, manipulate, manufacture, those aren’t real. Instead, the managers, the bean counters, and the folks who record information, those are the valid jobs. It’s an odd way of thinking, and it still floors me that we have come to a pass in this country where such a notion could come into being.

so, it’s an odd place to be, as the economy skews more and more. Many of those IT jobs, they can be shipped away, like so many of our manufacturing jobs have left.  Many of those who are comfortable in their “real” jobs, are finding that they are replaceable, as others far away can do their “real job” from further away, with less pay, and less regulation. And the future are jobs that can’t be outsourced.

The mechanics, the electricians, the cooks, and more.  

These tough economic times are forcing more and more folks to think about their careers, and pushing folks towards jobs where synthesis of skills comes in handy.  People are rediscovering something that some of us have known for a while. That getting your hands dirty isn’t necessarily disagreeable, and it’s often a whole hell of a lot of fun.

And hopefully, we’ll get out of this “real job” mindset. Soon.  


  1. NavyBlueWife

    My first ever job working was construction…and no, I wasn’t the secretary or the lunch getter…I actually did hard manual labor.  I couldn’t use the table saw because…well…I was young…wee teen NBW.  I loved it!  It is simply the best job I have ever had.  I came home exhausted every night, managed to shower and eat something before I passed out in my bed exhausted and sore but damn eager to get up the next day and do it all over again.  I never pursued anything with my hands, especially not construction, because that stuff “wasn’t for girls”.

    I’ve had the variety of jobs in my short career span, but they are overwhelmingly Office Space jobs.  To satisfy my need for hands on stuff, I have been volunteering for a wildlife rehab center.    Direct care of those critters requires lots of manual labor, and the exhaustion I feel at the end of the time is super duper satisfying. 🙂

    That getting your hands dirty isn’t necessarily disagreeable, and it’s often a whole hell of a lot of fun.

    My dogs just love the smell of their mom when I come home from working with the critters!

  2. Although I have to disagree with you about the attitude towards what is a ‘real job’. At least, the timeline for that attitude. It’s been around forever. Hell, Xanthippe nagged Socrates to get a ‘real job’. The guy with the suit has always gotten more respect than the honest tradesman. Ben Franklin was as guilty as any in wanting to move from the ranks of tradesmen to being a gentleman, because he felt it was more respectable.

    Like you, I’ve been a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in my life; grocery store bag boy, cashier, convenience store manager, bartender, factory worker, mover, production manager, real estate agent, computer repairman, and a bunch of different jobs in the programming field as both a consultant and in the corporate world. Nowadays, I sit at a desk and ply a mouse and keyboard.

    I think I’d be a little more worried about my work being outsourced if I was younger. I’d probably consider finding a new field, because most computer programming is going to end up being shipped outsourced to India and Asia before long.

    As for your career, I think being a chef is a fine career. As you say, there is an element of art in good cooking. Even if no art is present, as in a typical diner, it is still a satisfying way to earn a living. People have to eat. Good cooking is worthy of praise. I decided to learn to cook a long time ago. I figured if I had to eat every day then I might as well eat something good. I’ve never regretted that decision.  

  3. I feel you Hubie. Like you I think of myself as an artisan, and have been doing it for 25 years, but during that time I was also the main cook for my family, and still today it’s the solace after writing, the material manifestation of what I try to do with words: chemistry, physics, and then that peculiar magic of human touch, of taste, inventiveness and above all care.

    Only the best restaurants and chefs give you that feeling that you’ve been cooked for specially, out of love, for you.

    It’s a bit like a poem which, though written for the public, seems like a private message to your soul.

    F**k the real job hedge funders. What makes pushing electrons around any more real than modifying proteins, combining molecules and nourishing us with amazing atoms. What you do is socially useful behaviour. I’m not so sure about those sellers of collateralised debt.

    Great cooking is like virtuouso playing of an instrument – you actually change the world at the most profound level, beyond wave, particle or harmonics.

    On the craft issue, there’s a wonderful book by Richard Sennett, which I’ve yet to finish called The Craftsman (Allen Lane (2008), ISBN 978-0713998733) which expresses the same sentiments as you.

    If there’s ever a Moose gathering, I’ll bring a copy

Comments are closed.