And Then the Bottom Fell Out (Or How Soul Food Lost Its Soul)

It was almost exactly a year ago that I sat at a table in a Creole Soul Food joint in Central City New Orleans that also served to mentor and train at risk youth(If you’re from here, you know where it is, and if your not, it doesn’t really change the story.  I won’t name it because it’s not necessary and also out of a some sense of discretion for a former employer).  It was a small place at the time, inviting, slightly worn, with food that was cooked with heart and soul if not necessarily the skill of trained chefs.  I still remember the day (it was Tuesday) and what I ate, the smothered pork chop.  But what I mostly remember is the young people that served me with pride and professionalism.  In fact, I liked it so much that I did a chef demonstration a month later and wrote an article about it for Louisiana Kitchen and Culture Magazine.  And evidently, they liked me too.  It was in early July that I got a call that they were interested in hiring me, initially for the position of Executive Chef.  However, what I didn’t know is that they were also undergoing a change in leadership and a costly renovation on the building that would renovate all five stories as well as add additional square footage and a courtyard; and as the project dragged on for months on end, the idea that I would ever gain employment seemed to languish.

Undeterred, I kept in contact with management, only to find out in October that they filled the job with another chef.  I was perturbed, but decided to keep my foot in the door, volunteering my time, cooking meals for staff to showcase my talents, and just trying to be a presence around the organization; and in December 2012, that persistence paid off: I was offered initially a part-time job.  I agreed to work for much less than my value because I believed in the mission of the organization.

On December 19th, I canceled a vacation home to see my son and my family for Christmas and began working for what I thought at the time was my dream job.  Our first task was a 400 person offsite wedding, and with our building still under construction, we were bereft of a kitchen.  We spent the next week using the kitchens at homeless shelters, churches, and hotels, cooking long hours under demanding conditions.  This would only be a taste of what was to come as the renovations lasted another two months and tested our resourcefulness as we cooked everywhere from outside to food banks to keep the momentum going, including a grueling 100 week during the Super Bowl.  I did all of this with alacrity.  Mostly I did it for the kids — the students that I was entrusted with.  They changed me and made me see a higher purpose, and one that I still aspire to.

Unfortunately, once the restaurant was completed, I got to see a different and rather unsavory side of the organization.  We had a brand new, ultra-slick building and a decidedly corporate vibe.  We also had an incredibly top heavy staff of upper management and far too few productive workers.  My days went from long to longer.  And I was still willing to accept this because I genuinely loved the students.

But then one day it all changed.  Management decided that I needed to be in the upstairs production kitchen, basically alone for 12 hours a day, managing all the catering and restaurant production. Thus, instead of mentoring young people, I became my own private production line, blasting out unimaginable quantities of food daily in nearly complete privacy as well as being my own dishwasher because we were told the kitchen’s labor costs were “too high.”  In fact, I was moved from hourly to salary sans contract to combat this, and without consent.  I’m still unsure of the legality of this move.

So imagine my surprise when I received an email over the weekend indicating that we had hired a new “Director” and were laterally moving our old one into a different spot.  I couldn’t get an $8 an hour dishwasher but we could add a big budget salary.  To add insult to injury they scheduled a meeting for Monday at 9 a.m., our biggest production day of the week, right before service.  This is a cardinal restaurant sin and was indicative of the general insensitivity of upper management to the demands of the kitchen.

Needless to say, after spending a miserable Sunday with my wife in the emergency room, I went into Monday morning looking for a fight.  I won’t lie.  I was fed up.  Every day it was a new rule, a new system, a new divide between what was asked of kitchen versus administration.  They even took away holidays from the kitchen while preserving them for administrative.  So I went in with fists clenched, but I was still resolved to try to find a solution.

I thought I had done that when I asked for a separate meeting after service, something that was original agreed to by the new director.  But ten minutes into the meeting he decided that this was unacceptable.  I also decided this was unacceptable.  And I told him as much.  “You realize this is a professional kitchen, sir?” were my exact words.  Yet I grudgingly attended the meeting but didn’t like what I was hearing and immediately resigned.

A few hours later he wanted to meet in private, but when I saw our payroll/accountant was also in the room, I knew it was all over for me, so I went down swinging.  What was interesting was the disconnect.  A manager with no culinary experience trying to understand a chef.  I was speaking French.  They didn’t accept my two weeks but released me on the spot.

I said goodbye to a few but left quietly.  And I wondered how I got here.  This was supposed to be it.  This was my calling.  Mentorship and community involvement.  I was cooking with soul, but someone had let the air out of the balloon.  Somewhere along the line, the memo got lost in the endless paperwork and “systems.”  The food started tasting differently.  It was made with skill, but not love.  Everything sparkled, but the resplendent dining room seemed empty, that little table I first sat at was long gone.  And then I realized why everything was so out of place, disjointed: because this wasn’t the same restaurant at all.  The menu was the same, and even some of the faces, but the soul was gone.  And what’s soul food without soul anyway… I’m still trying to answer that myself…



One thought on “And Then the Bottom Fell Out (Or How Soul Food Lost Its Soul)

  1. Your heart was in the right place James. I’m truly sorry that they did not see the benefits of your expertise. Brighter days are ahead…
    Keep doing what you do and it will all work out for the best. Remember, it’s no “accident” that you became a Cajun! XOXO

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