One of the most eye-opening things about working in a Michelin-star kitchen is the meticulous way we cleaned up each night. Referred to as “breakdown,” the process could often take over an hour: We inventoried our remaining supplies, threw out anything that wouldn’t last until tomorrow, scrubbed every surface of the kitchen, squeegee’d the suds, polished all the stainless steel, and thew down buckets of water on the floor and mopped it.
The process could sometimes feel as intense as service. The pastry chef would wrap her arms in plastic wrap to protect herself from both the heat and the harsh chemicals used to spray the combi oven. The cooks on the grill were responsible not just for the cleanliness of the grill itself, but of the ventilation hoods several feet above their heads, so would have to climb up to be able to barely reach the sticky overhead panels.
One night, after feeling done with my breakdown, I checked in with the sous chef:
“Chef, all good?”
His response wasn’t one I was expecting:
I looked up for probably the first time ever in that kitchen. Sure enough, a couple small speckles of bright green purée clutched to an otherwise-white ceiling. The work of the often-eruptive Vitamix, no doubt. I was taken aback for a second at the level of detail Chef was operating at for him to notice this. It took me a while for me to muster a response:
I found something to stand on and began scrubbing the ceiling.
His comment stuck with me for some time. Cleanliness in the kitchen is crucial, not just for health reasons, but also to maintain a consistent environment in which everyone is able to do their best work. But the ceiling, who would notice the ceiling? I doubt that even a health inspector wouldn’t have noticed those small speckles of purée. But after some thought, I realized the sous Chef hadn’t had me scrub the ceiling for the restaurant guest passing through the kitchen, nor for the health inspector. He had me fix it to maintain the culture of this kitchen. And to help foster a level of intrinsic pride in my work—not just the work that the customer would see.
It reminded me of Jony Ive’s tribute speech at the celebration of Steve Jobs’s life:
Scrub The Ceiling
Active time to complete: 5 min
Write down one thing this week that you can complete "beyond any sort of functional imperative" as Jony put it so elegantly. This means not just completing it to a state of "I can check this off now," but to a state of "I'm proud of the way I did that."