Take a Step Back

One summer in college, I worked as a “busboy”, picking up dishes after patrons at a swanky West Village restaurant in New York City. The eatery, situated on a beautiful tree-lined street, was newly opened and had ambitions of attracting a hip and affluent crowd. I started working during the first few weeks after it opened. The experience taught me, not only the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business, but also something else, valuable in any setting: how to take a step back.

It was chaotic. Routines were new. The head chef was this Italian American with your stereotypical New Jersey-esque accent. He had a friendly demeanor, but once something went wrong, even the slightest detail, he became livid. He ran a tight ship.

We learned the ropes as we went through these first demanding weeks. After completing all the sittings on Fridays and Saturdays, there was a sense of accomplishment: a “we did it” attitude. Apparently, just a few weeks after a restaurant opens will define if it will succeed in the long run. We were in the clear.

As things started to calm down, routines were established, I noticed that the chef would spend more and more time outside than inside the kitchen. Why was that?

Outside the kitchen was a station for servers, where they put in their orders, kept condiments and trays. It was the center for gossip and moments of calm before we went back to our tables. At the peak of the evening, the chef stood in the corner by the waiting station, calmly observing the buzz of the restaurant: how servers interacted with patrons, how “busboys” came back with food still left on the plate, how guests were chatting at the bar. He was just quietly studying and scrutinizing details.

In retrospect, these impressions formed a base for how he wanted to tweak and refine the restaurant, maybe changing a dish that wasn’t popular, or reorganizing the tables to make the serving more efficient.

What the chef did is something we should all do from time to time: to take a step back and just observe. Too often in our lives, we are stuck in the daily grind with impending deadlines, back-to-back meetings and things in between. There is hardly time for reflection. Try to find time to just “be” and take a step back.