Climbing the Ladder

My parents are regular blue collar folks. I’m not sure what my grandparents did on my dad’s side, but I know they were wealthy and then they weren’t so they spent the second half of their lives just scraping by. My mom’s parents were farmers. My mom was a pharmacist and while my dad never talks about his life before moving to America, I know that he owned some property and made enough money from selling them to move here and start a clothing store with my mom. They went into the clothing business because my aunt and uncle had a store and were willing to show them the ropes. I don’t think they planned on doing it for as long as they have, but they did it because they believed they would give us a better shot at a different life. Since we were kids, my parents always emphasized the importance of going to college, as if college alone would open magical doors that will automatically result in giant salaries and successful careers.

Two years ago, my mom told me that she had one of those Korean dreams while pregnant with me. For some reason, a lot of Koreans believe that a dream they have during pregnancy will let them know the gender of their child. She dreamt that she was going to give birth to a General. My aunt believed that was a sign that she would have a son. I suppose my parents were surprised about having a daughter because we had a complicated relationship growing up.

I have an older brother, but I’m the oldest of three girls. My brother is curious, has discipline, and did well in school. My parents pictured that he would be a doctor or an engineer (which he is). He would feel bad about something and ground himself. He fixed bikes for the kids in our neighborhood. He consistently did well in math and science. He was soft spoken, but clever and funny. While my parents may never say it out loud in so many words, he was probably an easy child and I wasn’t. I couldn’t fathom why I wouldn’t be allowed to do things that my brother could do. Being told that I could not participate because I was a girl wasn’t acceptable…neither was the fact that I couldn’t do things because I am 6 years younger than my brother. I was very lucky though. My brother’s a good sport and he went out of his way to accommodate me as often as possible, whether it was carrying me down all the slides at Sesame Street when I was too small to go on my own or letting me tag along with him while he explored the new houses being constructed on our street.

When I think back on it, I was a difficult child. Rules weren’t meant for me. My grades weren’t great until I hit third or fourth grade; I preferred playing outside and “inventing” things over focusing on work. I made my own lava lamp, which exploded over the stove after working for a good 15 minutes, and I would try to speed up baking cookies by turning the oven on to 500 degrees. My parents totally agreed with me when I said I’d probably make a good trial lawyer. I had so many opinions on the injustices of the world as a young preteen, I also believed that I could do something about it. But even when I became a better student, it turned out that I also wasn’t a great student. I mean, I was a good student, but not up to the standards of Asian parents and certainly not enough for me to be motivated to a life where I would have to do a lot of reading.

Even so, my entire life, I had believed that I was going to make it. I was going to make that jump from a blue collar background to the world of office desks, a 9-5, and a steady salary…and eventually a house, a dog, three kids and a giant car that wasn’t a minivan. I did, briefly, when I worked in PR. I had a steady 9:30-6, a horrible salary, but I went to fancy events and wore nice clothes and talked to important people. I believed I was just one event away from being hired into a better job. But I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t wrap my mind around this idea that I was working so much to produce something intangible. I could tell my kid in a decade or so that I got a tie into an issue of GQ Magazine for a client or that I had to be the bodyguard for Chloe Sevigny at an event while wearing horribly tight 4 inch heels or that I gifted a cell phone to Paris Hilton, but would they even care? Would I care? I had my quarter life crisis.

I wanted to work with my hands. I wanted to be able to see the fruits of my labor. I have always loved baking, but I started to seriously consider it. I loved the idea that I would have to slow down my fast paced life to work on the same terms as yeast, or chocolate, or flour. I could speed things along only so much, but patience was the name of the game. Even now, at the end of a long day, I have thousands of macarons to look at. I produce things and it makes me happy.

I started working in food around the same time that the idea of chefs became elevated. Bloggers were becoming famous and making money for sharing recipes. People were paying money to just be in the presence of Thomas Keller. When I went to pastry school, most of my classmates were career changers and serious about giving up comfy jobs for 8+ hours on their feet. When I went back to visit a year later, the students were getting younger and when I spoke to the instructors, they said that a lot of their students wanted to be famous. If I were older and changed careers ten years ago, people would probably look down on me. Now, people want to know everything about my job. They ask me where I’ve worked and if I’ve been on TV. I’ve worked at some great restaurants and yes, I have been on TV, and my first time on TV, I am pretty sure my breath smelled because I was so nervous.

As chefs become famous for their amazing restaurants or delicious products, it’s great to see people acknowledged for their hard work, but it also seems to undermine what we actually do. People always ask me if I spend the entire day coming up with new recipes and seem shocked when I say that I spend the whole day just working.

I never made it out. My brother and one of my sisters work at a desk and while they don’t have a lot of control over the projects that they work on and how much time they dedicate to it, they get a steady salary, great benefits, and they work hard on improving themselves (my other sister is still in college). Working on the weekends is an anomaly. When they work late, it’s because they’re working to reach a deadline and once the deadline passes, their lives ease up again. I envy it sometimes. I remember how nice it was to be able to plan on going out for dinner with some friends and to be able to make it. I remember having to go to the gym to work out my back because sitting in a chair made me ache, but I not only could afford a trainer, I also went regularly! Or how nice it was to spend my entire Saturday exploring parts of Manhattan and eating cookies, then going out for drinks and parties, then spend all of Sunday lying in bed and doing lazy laundry which always resulted in me falling asleep in a pile of hot clothes. There are certainly a lot of things that I miss.

I gave them up when I decided to be a business owner, specifically in the food industry. I haven’t had two consecutive days off regularly in probably three years. I own a business and I actually work there for my job. I never go to the gym, even when I have paid for a membership, but my back rarely aches like it used to because I’m always moving. I’m just always working. I chose this. People are always surprised that as a business owner, I am on the schedule. I work the same shifts as my cooks. I cover for them when they’re out. I work six days a week and sometimes I work alone because I would rather let my staff have the day off than come in just to do a few hours of work. Simon comes in with me even when he doesn’t have work to do because he just wants to be supportive and help wash dishes. There are many other small business owners in the same boat as me. Some of us do it because we can’t afford the labor. Some of us do it because we love the work. Some are micromanagers and can’t bear to let someone else do it. I fall somewhere between everything above. It took me a very long time to trust other people to do things for me, and I had to accept that they would never do things exactly the same way that I would.

Sometimes, I think it’s killing me. I think to myself that after 5 years in the business, I could manage two days off, but then whenever I do have two days off, I inevitably spend one of those days hanging out in the office and doing the books. The other day is spent in bed, binge watching TV shows. Am I a victim of fighting to have it all? I feel like I work so much sometimes to prove myself, that I am a fair boss or that I actually do put in hard work to help my business.

I don’t have a bad life at all. I have a lot to be proud of and even when I’m not that interesting, people find me interesting so I don’t have to try that hard to sound cool. I have great staff, we have people who are on board with our dream. I have a great husband, great roommate (who happens to be my sister), and four amazing cats. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

But I am starting to realize something. I’m starting to realize that I have two routes I can take. I’m in the same boat my parents were, and have always been, owning a small business and being married to your business partner. We can truck along this way forever and hope that things change for the next generation. Simon and I could continue to work our asses off six days a week, always be on the clock, and be scheduled for shifts at our shops. Or we can hire people to do that and spend our time managing everyone and everything. We would work forever if we chose the first path. We would never be able to go on vacation without having to make sure we were accessible by our staff. We would probably never be wealthy or even solidly middle class. If I took the latter route, we would no longer be employees at our own company. We would be owners and it will give us the ability to forecast a different route for our business. We would be able to make strategic decisions and have more time to actually engage with our employees on how they’re doing on the job, rather than waiting for our shifts and paths to cross. Instead of getting chocolate ganache on my apron and egg whites on my pants, I would be deciding on new packaging options for the holidays. This second path is tempting because going that route could lead to us having a more comfortable life in the long run without hurting ourselves physically in the short run. I wonder if that will bring me back to an office and make me white collar again. This might happen in time for my mid-life crisis where I will buy a fancy, tricked out minivan.

I really don’t know what makes sense for us. I feel uncomfortable when I go for long stretches of time without actually working in the kitchen. I feel disconnected with the product and I become paranoid that the quality slips without someone to insist upon a certain standard. I don’t think I could ever let it go. I don’t think I could ever own a business where I didn’t actually work any of the shifts. But what is sustainable and what’s helping us and not hurting us? I do know that Simon and I are now wondering about the long term. Where do kids fit into our lives? They certainly don’t fit into my apartment. Simon decided to go back to school to do the Culinary Management program at ICE, which I did four years ago. Maybe at the end of the program, we’ll have answers. I doubt it though. I do know that now that we have two stores and I have two separate businesses (although intertwined), I do spend more time trying to manage than working. Our staff had gotten so big that Simon and I had to step back and look at the big picture. Then we had to go back in and work on streamlining things, but we can’t do this while working shifts. We can’t build a better business without looking at it from a distance, but we also can’t earn the respect of our employees without having a willingness to actually do the same work that they do. We also can’t grow without having people grow with us so we also need to incorporate our staff into our vision. A business has a lot of moving parts. Simon and I stay up late sometimes, paralyzed by the different aspects of our business, whether they are in our control or not. We lament about the things we cannot fix, like the weather, or things we can, like a bad employee.

Simon’s parents owned a business and did well for themselves. They were smart enough to see that the times were changing and they sold it before it got to that point. They’re enjoying their retirement. They also worked in the clothing industry, but they operated as owners, not employees and were able to see a bigger picture. Perhaps we need to have a long talk with them when they get back.

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