I’m going to admit this right off the bat: I’ve been leading an unexpected path. For the past four years, I’ve been working front of house at an amazing restaurant. While this was originally my temporary plan to balance the rigorous food studies Master’s degree that brought me to Boston, it’s funny to declare that I’m still content at Island Creek Oyster Bar. The restaurant industry and other culinary realms of employment tend to compartmentalize specific roles and titles, and that can lead to inevitably-destined career paths. Front of house means you’ll work as a barback or busser, make your way towards food runner, then potentially server. Back of house rotates the newbies through the typical line cook stations, then one day down the road you are promoted to an Assistant Sous or Executive Sous, and so on. I’d like to challenge that assumption. My path has been a bit more illogical, maybe even a little eccentric, but I’ve learned to love every facet of it.
I have lots of interests. My fiancé tells me that they’re “all about food.” Perhaps that’s the overarching theme, (I like to run and go to the beach too), but to me there is so much more depth to my multiple hobbies and jobs than just food. Fortunately for me, they all weave together nicely. Throughout graduate school, I worked at ICOB full time, which was perfect for me. Having the days to read and write for my gastronomy classes and then working front of house during the evenings in the restaurant only furthered and fueled my culinary interests and love of hospitality. Four and a half years is a long tenure to work in one space, which can make someone a bit antsy as to where their life is leading and what is coming up next. During that time frame, I thrived by not only having the fortune of great managers that saw potential in my skills, but I realized that I could continue to grow by delving into niche areas of the restaurant industry that intrigued me.
Noticing my passion for current food media and constant reading of the New York Times and The Boston Globe Wednesday editions (yep, that’s the food section day), I took on the responsibility to post any captivating restaurant, culinary, or hospitality piece on our staff’s food news bulletin. Chefs, cooks, food runners, and most of the staff would notice me posting this once a week in the back of house space. “Anything interesting this week,” or “What’s the local food news, Jill?” were the types of questions I was asked in passing, and I love sharing that information with my colleagues. It gave me a sense of confidence by sharing these relevant materials that we can use in our jobs, but it also provided me with a quick rapport or small connection with my fellow ICOB co-workers
Through all of this, working my way through graduate school, long nights in the restaurant, getting closer to food news, I still felt that I wasn’t hitting my stride. I wanted to feed my passion more, and simply see where I could enrich my Masters degree and my interests in my spare time. I was blessed with the opportunity to take my Food Writing courses at Boston University with Sheryl Julian, editor of The Boston Globe. I expressed my interest and desire to share my personal recipe ideas with her, and graciously, she guided me through the recipe testing and food photography process. Over 12 published recipes and counting, I’m incredibly grateful for the ability to expand my freelance food writing skills and feeble photographing attempts…all about that lighting angle! It was an amazing opportunity, but it taught me a lot about how important time management is to a multi-faceted growth path.
Thankfully I’m still a morning person, as the writing job led to more recipe testing with local prospective cookbook authors, through my networking from BU and the Globe. Even a small time investment on Twitter has surprised me with how many contacts I have made in the recipe realm and with cookbook authors. This type of full time career is difficult to come by, so I’ve been happy with having the daytime to play in my kitchen with seasonal ingredients, then go to work in the restaurant and share this with my coworkers and guests. Being diligent about making time during the day to develop my skills and interests has been a challenge, but one that has had so many benefits.
Writing professionally is great, but my personal food blog, Jill Eats, has also been an outlet for talking aloud about anything and everything about food. I find myself feeling worried that one post won’t sound “grad school” worthy or collegiate enough. What if I’m not 100% knowledgeable about the varieties of radishes, or one photo disgraces my knife skills because I didn’t slice that piece of steak against the grain? One thing I’ve learned from having an online presence is that constantly worrying about people judging your opinion and perspective will hinder your passions and personal growth. And people that know me, they are well aware that I am the least confrontational person you will ever meet. I want to be viewed positively in the eyes of everyone and always avoid disapproval. Food blogging has given me confidence in that I have a unique perspective, and further proven that my passion is to share my culinary experiences and travels with others.
One more hobby to share, and then I am finished. I promise! After graduating three years ago, I made it a point to keep searching for these opportunities and contacts to challenge myself. However, you also have to be aware that sometimes they find you instead. I had the opportunity to become a trained food tour guide. Originally, I did not see this as a field I would delve into with my other side projects. But I forced myself to take a second look at that role, and I didn’t turn it down because it married together all the things that I love: food, travel, and hospitality. Welcoming tourists to a new neighborhood of Boston, answering their questions about cooking or the best place for a Boston crème donut, and finding new local foods or culinary artisans…how fun does this sound? I’ve met new people, connected with them, and have also had the chance to highlight and promote the restaurant. Sometimes a great opportunity is one that you didn’t plan for, but you have to be willing to be open minded when it comes your way.
Amidst all of this, ICOB has remained the constant in this span of culinary responsibilities and endeavors. The restaurant lifestyle has been my support system for four and a half years. It even surprises me to say this aloud, but it’s true, I love it. Longevity in a restaurant role gains you a sense of personal respect from your peers. Showing both valued and continued interest in the daily routine has helped me feel appreciated and supported by my managers at the restaurant. My hobbies, projects, and continued work at the restaurant have helped me grow in personal and professional ways. It may not look traditional, but that’s one of the great things about this industry – you can create your own path and take your own direction.
My path has led me to accepting the additional role of private events manager at ICOB earlier this year, which wasn’t a logical path that I had even realized for me! The timing surprised me considering I had no clue I’d be approached with the position, but I understood that it was a new challenge I felt honored to embrace.
After all my hobbies, jobs, side projects, blogging, and walking the city in search of the next personal food motivation, I’m certain that you are thinking about one specific question to ask me. When do you ever “turn off,” or find time to balance this plethora of pastimes? It may feel anxiety riddling at times, but each experience that I mentioned I am still wholeheartedly enjoying. Thinking about these “hobbies” that I’ve acquired and for anyone that wears multiple hats in their life, it’s important to take the positive approach. Always strive to be the type of person that people want to work with and be around. Each role, separately and together, is important in its own way, and that’s how you can find a sense of focus in the chaos.
Consider all the options before you say no, don’t turn down opportunities that could speak to something you’re interested in for the future. If you can’t find a love for it or you constantly feel negativity and a desire to step out of that role, then find a new path for growth. I look at these experiences, and each one has helped me progress and mature in a different manner. I don’t regret any of them because they have all shaped me into who I am today.
Everyone in the restaurant industry can relate to this question we are asked: “What else do you do outside of work?” Challenge yourself with an interesting personal response, but still be honest with who you are. A thoughtful, genuine answer could even surprise you about your interests and you can find people to help explore opportunities within your work environment. Whichever current role you’re working or your specific full-time “title” in the restaurant should not feel like the sole defining identity of yourself. Think about creating your own unconventional growth path. The key is to be true to yourself and seek opportunities that speak to what you’re actually passionate about. This will better surround you with like-minded people that drive you, innovation seekers, those that desire to achieve more than what their role or job title defines themselves as. They will be your support systems that inspire you to learn and grow in ways you never even knew.