For my latest advertising assignment, I am to make an internal ad for the Square One Bistro at Seattle Central Community College. Tom Lenon required the class to interview their clients to better understand their needs and perspective. I had the privilege of interviewing Mike Jordan, the chef instructor. I had a lot of fun interviewing him. He was open and articulate and passionate about what he does. I took a class on interviewing at UW and conducting this interview reminded me of old instructions: eye contact, open-ended questions, establish rapport, etc. I’m really glad that Tom had us do this because I am always thinking if graphic design has so many little details to learn, each industry as well has its fascinating depths, intense analysis, attention to those details that we take for granted, but are actually hard-thought considerations.
I proposed a meeting at Cafe Vita for an interview via email. He responded that Stumptown would be better. It’s always a good sign when people suggest a place and time they like. They feel invested and included in the meeting. He showed up on time and I got him a cup of coffee. The promise I made to my interviewees was that though I have little money, if I interview you, I’ll buy you the coffee. In retrospect, I would have gotten it prior to his arrival because it was a little awkward that we introduced ourselves and then I abandoned him for a few minutes while getting his drink.
I didn’t prepare a question schedule (a list of questions and topics that are the skeleton for the interview direction). I should have, but I wanted it to feel casual and perhaps I was a little lazy and had confidence in my abilities to wing it. I asked questions, “how many people work there?” “What are a few words that you would use to describe Square-One Bistro?” And so on.
We had a conversation about the bistro, his menu, his audience, regulars, the hierarchy of the kitchen, his teaching philosophy, his origin story of how he became a cook, then chef, then chef instructor.
Meet Mike Jordan. He grew up in Iowa about forty years ago. Things were different then. When you became sixteen, you got a job. (Sometimes sooner, ex. being a paperboy.) His first cooking job was at McDonald’s. He was given a choice, either work the front of the house (and wear a polyester uniform and risk being noticed by your friends) or work in the kitchen. He chose the kitchen. Mickey D’s was a different place back then. Their commitment to food more apparent. Less automation, I’m sure.
Mike said that the thing about being a cook is that you perfect your station then you get moved to something else, and that’s how you make your way up in the world. It’s not repetitive. It’s about “kaizen.” Continuous small improvements. He emphasized that cooks are not artists, they are craftsmen. Their focus and reliability makes them a good cook. Being able to repeat their success over and over. It’s about understanding the head chef’s palate, his vision and being able to follow instructions. Many cooks never become head chefs.
Mike told me about his menu. Dishes tell stories. When he makes a menu sometimes he’ll put in dishes that are a part of his life, meals that make connections for him for that time when he first got married or started cooking school. How his grandmother made him strawberry shortcake from strawberries he picked. Whenever Mike inspects a crate of strawberries, he just needs to smell it and if the memory of his grandmother floats into his head, it means the strawberries are ripe and delicious.
Mike loves teaching. He wants to influence all of these upcoming chefs through working in his kitchen. He tells his students to taste everything and often. Technique is so important that you can transform an average tomato into a great sauce. He worked for Emeril Lagasse (the “BAM” chef). He’s passing on the advice: pay attention to details. He and his students make everything from scratch. It’s important to focus because each step is crucial to perfecting the dish.
His commandment to his students, don’t show up as a blank slate to a job. Come knowing stuff ready to challenge yourself and be what the boss wants you to be.