Everyone has got "something." Some people have anxiety or depression. Others have a limp. Maybe you think your nose is too big. Bald, hairy, short, fat or thin, whatever it is, the common denominator in all of these perceived misfortunes is that everyone believes theirs is the biggest problem of all. It's what defines them. When they meet new people, they think that's all that anyone notices about them.
"Damn machine hung on me again!"
And so it went. Beep after beep. Call after call. Frustration after frustration. I got all the way down to onions this time. Just a couple more left.
It was my first job as a sous chef -- a big deal for a young cook -- and sous chefs do the ordering. I was attempting to call in the opening order for vegetables. To my chagrin, we needed just about everything. I wasn't worried about coming up with specials, making schedules, doing food costing or even cooking. Especially cooking! That I could do. My arch-nemesis was calling in these damn orders.
"Maybe one more call would do it," I thought to myself as sweat poured down my face and I started to dial again
It's funny how your whole life flashes before your eyes at the sound of something as trivial as the beep of an answering machine. For me, that sound triggered thoughts of failure and dismay.
"Hi, it's m-m-me again. We need one case of R-r-r-r-r-roma tomatoes, two bunches of b-b-b-basil..."
"Is this ever going to get easier? What does the guy on the other end of this phone think of me? Will anyone really take me seriously?"
Most people take things like, well, talking for granted. It's such a simple thing. First, you gather your thoughts, you then decide what to say and finally you just say it. Your vocal chords start to vibrate like strings on a guitar or wings of a hummingbird, and then your lips and tongue form the shapes that make the sounds of the letters. Easy, right? Not so much for the more than three million Americans who stutter. This week -- May 13 to 19 -- is National Stuttering Awareness Week, and I'd like to share with you one chef's personal story: mine.
I stutter. Always have, and always will. For the better part of my younger life it felt all-consuming. Elementary school was tough. High school was tougher -- lots of trips down to Vice Principal Parks' office. He would say, "It takes two to tango." I never quite got that one! College got easier, but the thought of going out into the real world was terrifying. I believed my stuttering defined me in a way that made me feel lesser than everybody else. And that terrifying thought clung to me like a shadow every day of my life for years.
I moved out to L.A. after college in 1990 to go to music school, but I made my living as a cook. In 1991, just shy of turning 24, I went to Wolfgang Puck's newest venture in Malibu called Granita. It was the crème de la crème of restaurants, and he was the crème de la crème of chefs. I really wanted to work there more than anything else in my life. I went back day after day, week after week until finally the executive chef, Joseph Manzare, really noticed me.
"You got guts," he said with a thick, gruff New York accent. "I like that. Some jerk no-showed today, you wanna hang out and give us a hand?"
"Absolutely," I replied.
It didn't frighten me at all. I wasn't sweating, scared or remotely pensive. I knew my cooking skills were at least good enough to land me work at a station in the kitchen.
They put me on the pasta station with Chrissy. I thought to myself, "Pasta, now this is my lucky day!"
I worked alongside Chrissy, and at the end of the night, I saw her and Joseph have a little powwow in the corner. They both emerged and Joseph asked, "Why don't you come back tomorrow?"
"Yes, Chef. Sure thing," I responded calmly, though inside I was giddy.
I came back day after day to work the pasta station. I felt like I was the luckiest guy in the whole world working at the greatest place on Earth. Granita was the hottest restaurant in Los Angeles at the time. I really couldn't believe it. I was getting my shot.
One day, Chef Puck walked in, and jumped on the line with us. Back then he only had a few restaurants, so he would make the rounds and hop in wherever he was needed. He reached across the counter to shake my hand. He looked at me and asked, "What's your name?"
That's the big one: "What's your name?" I know it seems like such an inconceivable question to be nervous about answering. You know your name. You've had it for your entire life. Yet, it's a dreaded question for most people who stutter.
"Um...well...uuhhh....M-M-M....ahem...(cough)...(cough)...M-M-M-Marc," I replied after what seemed to be a lifetime.
"Nice to meet you," he said with a smile.
"Nice to meet you too!" I smiled back.
"Do you know how to cook?" he asked almost jokingly.
"I think I'm pretty good," I said with confidence... and no stutter.
I don't know what it was, but his response to hearing me say my name just made me feel at ease. Maybe it was the fact that he just looked at me and talked to me like a normal person, or maybe because he just kept the conversation going like nothing happened. Whatever it was, it was one of those moments. One of those magical moments that makes you believe in yourself.
I assume everyone has these moments. They are little moments throughout your life that change you. They are the moments that define you. If you connect them, they seem like your DNA, or the woven fabric of your life. I have had many of them, however, none seemingly as important as this one. It was that very day that I thought to myself: "Maybe I can do this thing."
Confidence is the one thing that many people who stutter lack. We're always worried about what other people think. That day, I realized that maybe people aren't as caught up in it as I thought they were. Joseph didn't seem to care, and Wolf certainly didn't either.
I cooked that night next to Wolf. We joked and rocked out about 400 covers on the pasta station together. After staging for a few weeks, I eventually got a real paying job at Granita, and worked there for a couple years before moving onto some other restaurants in L.A., and then eventually leaving for Italy. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like I said, everybody has got "something." My "something" happens to be stuttering, which, for so long, I thought was a big negative in my life. These days, I view my stutter a lot differently than I used to. I cook, call in orders, expedite tickets and don't think about it much. Hell, I even give lectures, do cooking demonstrations in front of audiences and talk to Anthony Bourdain on national TV. Instead of obsessing over the idea of what people are thinking of me, I believe most people are more interested in what I'm saying, rather than how I'm saying it. And if they're not, I guess that's just their problem.
That "something" that I used to think defined me in a negative way, doesn't actually define me at all. It's just one of the many important pieces that help make me the person I am. I wouldn't change a thing. (Well, maybe I'd have a little more hair on my head, but that's about it.) Truth be told, I can't -- and won't -- imagine myself as not being a stutterer. In fact, it's a title I'll wear proudly alongside chef, husband, dad, son, brother, friend and Philadelphian.
Follow Marc Vetri on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marcvetri