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To catch a falling knife

One of the first lessons freshmen learn in Culinary School is, “Never catch a falling knife.”  There’s no formal curriculum for this; do it once, and consider the lesson learned 

This goes against every instinct we have.  Our hands react before our brain interrupts, “I wouldn’t if I were you…”

Knee-jerk reactions usually keep us safe.  For example, you slam on the brakes and instinctively extend your right arm to “protect” your kid in the passenger seat – even when you’re driving by yourself.

So it makes sense that you want to catch a falling knife, but you know you shouldn’t.  The knife-dropping scenario is the precise moment when judgment overrides instinct.

We’re often told to trust our instincts.  I contend that the seasoned professional should “consult your judgment” as well.

I worked at Nordstrom many years back.  During orientation, they handed us a piece of paper the size and thickness of a postcard.  On one side it read, Employee Handbook.  Our leader signaled us to flip it over, and we obliged.  Revealed on the opposite side was simply “Use your best judgment."

I liken it to a corporate version of “WWYD? (What would YOU do?)”

Even though I wasn’t wearing a brightly colored rubber bracelet, before I bothered my manager with minutia, I’d ask myself “Am I using my best judgment?  Can I figure this out on my own?”

As a corporate trainer, I get asked a lot of questions by new hires.  I welcome these questions – it inspires trust, and quite frankly, it’s my job.  These folks are eager yet unsure, so they play it safe and ask me how to do “such ‘n such."

It reminds me of struggling with algebra in high school.  I’d ask my father, a math whiz, for help. I just wanted the answer for x, but he actually wanted me to figure it out.  Can you believe the nerve of this man?

And I want my colleagues to figure it out, too, not just give them the answer. So as long as they’re not screaming “WHERE’S THE (expletive) FIRE EXTINGUISHER?!?” I usually respond, “Use your best judgment.” 

If they cock their head to the side and stare at me blankly, I might back it up with “If I weren’t here, if this were your kitchen, what would you do?” 

Instantly they say, “I would probably debone the salmon before marinating it.”

Give people a fish, and they wait for instructions. Tell them to use their best judgment, and they get out the tweezers to remove the pin bones.

“Use your best judgment” has become my mantra, personally and professionally. This might not work if I were an ER Surgeon, but rarely am I saving lives in the kitchen.  The closest I’ve come to that is preventing a few nicks and scrapes when I tell my new hires, “And by the way – never catch a falling knife.”

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Laura Cook Newman

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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