I’ve been working part-time at a delightful catering service called “Extreme Cuisine”. It’s been the perfect outlet for me after being laid off from my 18-year career with a home builder back in October, 2009. Unable to find full-time work with equal or near-equal compensation I decided to go in that direction I was being reluctantly pulled towards – early retirement.
I was fortunate enough to have built up a savings in my 401k over nearly two decades and with my wife still working full-time as a school nurse, I had the resources to clear all my debt, including our mortgage, pay myself a small stipend each month and access health care coverage through my wife’s employer. I really wasn’t ready to retire in the fashion I wanted but it seems fate intervened and forced a lesser form of that lifestyle on me, ready or not. I count myself fortunate compared to the millions still out there looking for full-time work.
Working is for me, as for many people, about more than just bringing home a paycheck. It’s a source of social connection and allowing your creative side to manifest itself, even if at a level that doesn’t completely fulfill you. I tried to fill this void at first by volunteering. I worked with elementary school kids a couple of semesters helping them with their reading and writing skills but surprisingly lost interest after that. I guess I’ve lost that inner child one needs to connect with young kids today.
I also worked for a hospice service briefly too. Most of that time was spent with an aging WWII vet who was mostly confined to bed and was quickly losing his ability to think clearly. I would encourage him to talk about his life, especially his military service and his job experience as a tool man for oil rigs in foreign ports. His wife had died about a year earlier and nearly all of his five children lived far enough away to prevent any daily or even weekly visits. He eventually lapsed into a semi-comatose state and because he had a DNR (do not resuscitate) order, was kept on pain-killing medications before expiring from an inoperable stomach tumor.
Doing this kind of work requires lots and lots of heart. I lean more towards the cognitive aspects of human interaction than I do the emotional. Thank God for those people who are cut out of for this kind of humanitarian service.
I began to think I might never really find that kind of “work” experience that appealed to my need for social interaction and contributing meaningfully to some effort. After being unemployed for nearly a year I also realized that age had began to creep in on me and my ability to work a full 8, 9 or 10 hours day was becoming something of the past. A mid-afternoon nap has not only now become something to look forward to each day but gives me a boost of energy to allow me more creative time for writing. I have no shame in admitting that getting 40-50 winks each day is part of my daily regimen.
Then the perfect opportunity availed itself to me. My wife informed me that a fellow nurse friend of hers had a sister, Kathleen, who owned a small catering service and was looking for some part-time help. I’ve never had any “kitchen” experience other than what little I do at home and on my grill during summer months but this type of work was non-threatening and actually piqued my interests. I called Kathleen the next day and she invited me to come out and interview with her business partner, Matt. I went to work that next day.
The whole environment at “Extreme Cuisine”, is pretty much a family affair. Kathleen’s two adult children, Renee and Ryan, work there routinely along with other family members when the need arises, like a large festive event. EC prepares the food, delivers and serves it up too. Everyone else who works there are young also, some who attend college full time and even a few high schoolers. This mixture of people, oddly enough, seems to have provided the perfect blend for me to work with.
Renee has a beautiful voice and often breaks out singing in a fashion that has you wondering why she doesn’t go pro. She’s been married a couple of years but you would think they were married last week the way she speaks often and admirably about her husband, Michael. I hope she retains that feeling. The cynic in me says time will diminish that some but not her devotion to her marriage.
Ryan, a couple of years younger than Renee, has recently earned his wings as a Sous chef. He completed his training at the Culinary School of Ft. Worth and has plans to work for his Mom’s company at least until other opportunities open up to him. Ryan is also about to join the ranks of newly weds. He and his fiance, Hannah, have made plans to tie the knot this June.
Both of these young people have adopted me as their “grandpa” figure; a position I rather enjoy. Somehow the gray hair of mine gives off that air of being a kindly elder gentleman; at least that’s the perspective I allow myself. Two of the college students who work there are Mark and Ariel and as is the case at many job sites, these two have found one another and are now more than work mates. I think they’ve been dating for about a year now.
Along with these young adults there are also Kathleen’s nieces, Elizabeth and Rebecca, both in college and who fill in when needed and as classes allow. Daniel and Austin are the high school co-workers, and Jake and Brandon, former classmates of Ryan’s, pretty much make up the “regulars” at EC.
The catering business is one of those that is pretty much boom or bust. The holidays are the busiest naturally but during this down economy even these periods are not as fulfilling as they have been in times past. There will be some weeks where I may work only a day or two.
But their product is what keeps bringing people back. I have tasted some of the richest desserts and most savory meats ever while working there. A sample of their taste delights can be found at their website here. Click on the Gallery link at the top of the page to view what is in store for those who order from Extreme Cuisine Catering.
For me personally however, it’s the camaraderie I share with everyone there, including Chefs Kathleen and Matt. They have all enriched my life on a daily basis and have gone above and beyond on certain occasions. This last Veteran’s Day they honored my time in the military. I was presented a delicious white frosting cake and a handsome and sturdy rocking chair with the Marine Corps logo emblazoned on the top rail of the back support. That’s me setting in it pictured below at the kitchen with the EC gang. Because we know each other’s birthday dates from our Facebook pages, no one escapes a rendition of the birthday song on their special day, often led by Arial.
I have been fortunate to find a place like this that I can still stay active in. I work mornings and am able to leave after lunch, giving me time to do what I like most these days – nap and write on my blog.
I am not enticed to stay there because I rely on this job for employee benefits I was requiring and accustomed to with my previous full-time job. This small business operation like many others struggles to make payroll each week. But it is such operations as this that, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration:
• Represent 99.7 percent of all employer firms.
• Employ half of all private sector employees.
• Pay 44 percent of total U.S. private payroll, and
• Generated 65 percent of net new jobs over the past 17 years.
What can’t be reflected in such statistics though is the relationships that form between a small group of people. I feel certain that the success of Extreme Cuisine Catering is more than just their fine food. It is the workmanship of people who feel comfortable with each other. Somewhere I’m sure there are other statistics that tell us what common sense does – the less stress we experience in our lives, the more productive we are.
I have gained more than learning how best to prepare tasty salad dressings and skin a cantaloupe with little to no waste at EC. I have gained new friendships that fill that void we all need to be productive members of the communities we live in.