Home Op-Ed The Great Big Why: Jensen Cummings

The Great Big Why: Jensen Cummings

Jensen Cummings (chef and founder of the popular Best Served podcast) finds his motivation in lifting people up.

We do what we do because we (here comes the double negative) can’t not do what we do. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I accepted my uncle’s offer to come work for him at one of his restaurants. After graduating high school I moved from San Diego, California to Ames, Iowa for the privilege of washing dishes for the summer and causing some trouble in a college town. I had no expectation of finding my people, my tribe, my band of rebels, my pirates, my island of misfit toys. I caught the hospitality fever and there was no turning back.

It was thrilling to be immersed in the heat of the kitchen and hear: “Order in!” “Hot behind!” “Yes, Chef!” and “Heard!” I desperately craved the intense feelings of elation and exhaustion after a kick-ass (and ass-kicking) service. That moment when we knock out the last ticket and lock eyes with one another—from the dishwasher to the servers, from the host to the cooks—each of us fully comprehending that we could not have survived it (let alone achieved it) without each other. Each of us pulling in the same direction as one team. It’s hard to explain this bond to anyone who has never worked in a restaurant. As a result, I seldom try. For those who have been in the fire of a service in which we are pushed to the ends of our ability and sanity, it only takes a quick recounting of such moments for kinship to set in.

I have always been immensely grateful for the fact that unlike so many in this game, I have never been asked, “When are you going to get a real job?” I have not felt that kind of belittling judgement from my family. In fact, my family has been in the restaurant business for more than 120 years—that’s five consecutive generations. It is in our blood. My great-great-grandfather opened our first restaurant, La Fond House, in 1900 in Little Falls, Minnesota. Great-grandfather and Grandfather had bars and restaurants in San Francisco. Currently, my three uncles have seven spots. Even my younger brother Mitchell is a chef. I am so proud to be a part of this legacy. I intend to add value to those working in restaurants, so that if (when) my kids want to get into this crazy industry, there is a newfound model that invests in our most valuable asset: people. 

I strive for industry evolution because I could not and will not sustain that unrelenting grind. We go so hard and so fast, working 70 hours a week. We never take a sick day. We are hungover day in and day out and refuse to take care of ourselves. We live and die by our tough-person personas. We put on a smile because “it’s a part of our uniform” and we bow to our guests. After burning out in the kitchen, I spent the last six years struggling to find a purpose. If I am neither a chef nor a restaurant owner, who am I? I still have the bravado of a chef. I still have the burning desire to be the best, to make it to the proverbial Hall of Fame. And I still have a need to be connected to those in the trenches. Although I no longer see myself as a player, I know I can coach those committed to this work.

The industry gets so caught up in the minutiae of what we do and how we do it that we forget why we get out of bed to do what we do, and who it is that we serve.

I am compelled to hustle and communicate for the humans in hospitality. Because of this, I started Best Served podcast. The goal was to meet more of these essential workers and to share stories for them and about them. They have earned the right, through their unwavering dedication and hard work, to have their needs, struggles, aspirations, and talents placed at the forefront of our industry. My own shortcomings have manifested a single word that drives me and this show: Acknowledgement. 

At Best Served our mantra is to value and focus on “why and who” before “what and how”. The industry gets so caught up in the minutiae of what we do and how we do it that we forget why we get out of bed to do what we do, and who it is that we serve. Staying tethered to those ideals is what actually gets us through the hard times, which, in the restaurant industry, are inevitable. We spend all of our time on what is on the plate, rather than who gets it to the plate. Because of this, we often miss out on what truly matters—who truly matters.

I am damn lucky that I now spend my days speaking with such inspired and inspiring people at every level and every facet of our food and beverage ecosystem. I see a growing segment of people who want to make changes in the industry to improve their lives, the lives of those around them, and our communities at large. These people are why I get out of bed in the morning. They are who I serve.

What is your “why”? Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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