I went to the Inn for a couple of hours today to help with a corporate event that was scheduled for all three meals. The breakfast was continental and I was able to prepare the fruit tray before I left last night. Lunch was not complicated, but was going to require a little bit of time and they wanted it right at noon. Since (how shall I say this?) I find it easier to deal with mornings than Chef does, I said I would get the lunch set up. Most of the orders were off our now defunct lunch menu, but three people wanted chicken salad sandwiches, which meant I needed to make chicken salad.
I couldn’t bring myself to do the standard sort of thing, mixing a little chicken with some diced celery and carrots and throw in a little mayo. I couldn’t do it, so I made it on my own terms with the help of a few things I found in the walk in: red onion, Major Gray’s chutney, Dijon mustard, flat leaf parsley, and red grapes. Now we’re talking chicken salad.
Chef joined me about ten till twelve and we put the meals up together. As we were finishing up he said, “You’re doing top quality work these days.” He continued, “You work hard everyday, but I think some times it just helps to say stuff like that out loud.”
Yes. It does.
The power of incidental affirmation is not to be underestimated. Chef didn’t wake up thinking, “I’ve got to make sure and compliment Milton today.” I’m not sure he was awake when he said what he did. In the moment, he let his thoughts become words and his words become an unexpected gift for me. Though I have confidence in my cooking, I carry a professional sense of insecurity because I’m still pretty new to the game. I’ve only been doing this for about five years, and most of those part time. I want to know if I’m doing a good job.
One of the people I see every Monday is the delivery guy for one of our food purveyors. He comes in the back door of the kitchen with a hand truck of things to go in the walk in and says, “Hey, buddy” and I return the greeting. He always asks where I would like him to leave the stuff. He always gets the order right. And he always has a smile on his face. When he finishes, he says, “See you next week, buddy” and I tell him thanks and to have a good day. We have never exchanged names or much conversation other than our ritual greetings.
Last Wednesday, the sales person for the company came by to see if we needed to order anything and, as I was talking to him, the delivery guy crossed my mind. I asked the sales guy who drove the truck on Mondays and he told me the guy’s name was Raymond. I said, “He does a great job. He always gets the order right and he seems like a nice guy. I just thought I’d pass a good word along for him.” The sales guy made a note on his laptop and went on his way.
On Monday, Raymond came through the back door with a big smile and a more robust spirit than usual. “There’s the man,” he said. “How’re you doing?”
“Good, Raymond,” I answered.
When I think of the power of affirmation, the best example I know in my own life is a story I’ve told many times. If you’ve heard it, bear with me.
In tenth grade, my family was on leave from Africa. We lived in Fort Worth, Texas and I went to Paschal High School, my sixth school in ten years. My youth minister was a guy named Steve Cloud. He was everything I was not: athletic, tall, handsome, and together. I was (felt) short, fat, and completely out of place. I can remember sitting on the edge of my bed at 3362 Cordone Street, looking in the mirror, and wishing I could be anyone else but me.
One day after class, I went by the church to see Steve. He called me “Flash.” I was anything but: five-two and slow enough to finish next to last in the hundred yard dash during PE at school. He suggested we go out and shoot some baskets on the church parking lot. I was (am) the world’s worst basketball player, but I went with him. One of my lame two-handed set shots missed everything and the ball rolled across the parking lot that sloped away from us.
“You get it,” I said disgustedly.
I can still see him walking across the lot, picking up the ball, and walking back toward me with it propped on his hip back lit by the fading afternoon sun like he was in one of those old Kodak commercials (can’t you hear Paul Anka singing, “Good morning, yesterday . . .”). He put his arm around me, including me in the moment, and we turned to go back to his office.
“Flash,” he said, “One day Trish and I are going to have a kid and I hope he turns out exactly like you.”
I lost track of Steve a long time ago, but if I found him and said, “Do you remember that afternoon when you said . . .?”, he would not remember. Though I have no doubt he meant what he said, it was incidental contact for him. His words, however, kept me alive through high school.
The hard thing for me about telling that story is I don’t want it to end up as a Kodak commercial or a sappy sermon. I’m not feeling sentimental here. Steve’s words to me were so important that I was out of college before I told anyone what he said. I hid the words in my heart as if they needed to be guarded and cared for. I was loved just like I was.
Just like I was.
As much as I’ve worked to learn that love is not earned and that I’m as created in the image of God as the next person, when words like Chef’s come along, it’s the tenth grader inside of me who hears them and holds them close because he’s the one who needs most to trust that they are true.
PS — I’ve posted the salmon recipe as requested.