I have begun to experience something new…and I'm not sure if I like it.

When you are just starting out in a career and you finally "graduate" beyond the line cook positions of the first five or more years and you've become "The Chef" the guests and critics start the "ratings game" by comparing you to the other restaurants in your neighborhood.

If you are lucky and work very hard for several more years, they may compare you to restaurants in other cities, and then over more time and sweat, burns and blisters, restaurants in other states and then…maybe even further.

Sometimes you are happy with these evaluations and sometimes you are dumbstruck. Sometimes you realize (if you are smart) that some of them have a valid viewpoint from time to time and so you vow to improve. It may mean finding a way to make your restaurant more comfortable, have a better wine list or simply to be even more dedicated than you might have been before it. It may mean coming in even earlier in the day.

The truth is that we all want to score more points than "the competition". We are nurtured with the idea of it as children. And the competition always changes. New folks come along. Or, if you get categorized with the restaurants in New York or San Francisco or London you can be compared favorably or less so than the chefs/restaurateurs in those faraway places and you can feel good or bad depending on what they say about you and them. Or you can pretend to not care. But it is pretending.

Now, at this stage of my life, I've begun to find a new form of competition.

Sometimes while walking through our dining room I'll overhear one guest remark to another, "He is the chef who started Louie's Backyard" (or "Mira" or "a Mano"). And sometimes that guest will look up at me and smile and say, "That was the best meal I ever had!"

I'm very happy that so many of them loved my work back then. But it can remind me of the dilemma of a film actor who looks back at his or her past efforts, sometimes years before (yet locked forever in celluloid). When I look back at my old menus I see my rough edges, the glaring errors as I struggled to learn how to integrate the language of the cuisine I was learning to fuse.

I cherish the memories of those places and thank my lucky stars to have survived them. Each one of them was a pitched battle in which I was consumed with making a perfect reflection for what I wanted my guests to experience through taste and presentation and cordiality - and even poetry, back then.

But I was just a kid. The photos on the walls over my desk bear too much proof.

…And I wonder. Will I one day hear from a guest, "Oh yes. I loved the food."
" When?" I'll risk. And they'll say, "When you were at NORMAN'S".

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my word on food.
Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2001