Ruta Smith

From the first moment I laid eyes on her, I knew I wanted to be here. Charleston.

Delicious food, a sea of smiling and friendly people, and the calm, beach-time attitude put me at ease. Call it a soft seduction.

After moving away from my Tennessee home and deciding to seek out my dream of becoming a big-time chef in Charleston, the reality of my situation set in fast. I had no job, I’d just wrung out my bank account on tuition, apartment fees, and more. I also didn’t know a soul. Once I dropped my dad at the airport, I began to feel very alone.

The clock was ticking. I had to find work, and fast. I had a very good stage at one restaurant, but they weren’t going to be able to pay me what I needed to live. So, I went to another place, lied about knowing some of the chef’s former employees, and BS’d my way into the job. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this chef knew I was lying to him. He played me like checkers.

Going to work each day was nauseating. It seemed like the cooks and chefs all hated me. Wanted me to fail, break down and give in, but I wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to let those pricks push me around. I had talent! I had potential! These lowly cooks couldn’t tell me anything! I was gonna show this shrimp and grits town what real food was!

Instead of swallowing my pride, I just puffed my chest out more. Finally, after an intense confrontation with the chef, with me laughing in his face as he was increasingly rankled, I knew I had to leave. In a battle of our wills, his won out. After all, the photographs and magazine article decorating the office were of him, not me.

From there, I bounced around from kitchen to kitchen, and at each place I came up against more bad attitudes, more opposition. I couldn’t figure out why these people didn’t like me! I worked really hard. I made good food. I had been learning a lot, but my impatience would always pull me back just as soon as I would make progress somewhere.

After going broke around Christmas 2017, unable to pay rent, and with a back seat full of orphaned presents, glittery bows and rolls of gift wrap, I felt hollow. My parents offered to help. I vowed to never let this happen again. But why had it happened? Why was I making the same mistakes again and again?

Every job, every argument, every frustrated confrontation had a common thread. The common denominator in my tale of tragedy and triumph was not clear to me until about four or five years ago. When charged with disciplining an employee of mine at a now-defunct fried chicken restaurant, I elected to sit and listen to him. Really listen. When he had the floor to vent his frustrations, his words struck a match in my mind, and a glowing realization came to me. His story was mine, too. It finally dawned on me the recurring theme in our shared tragicomedy: ourselves.

We refused to believe that we might have been the problem. Our attitudes to where we were, all of our setbacks, were the products of our doing. No one else. We just didn’t want to face the truth.

That’s when I knew I was on the right track. When I stopped waiting to talk and started to practice listening, I had a breakthrough. I had more in common with that man than I wanted to admit. The only thing that made us different is the fact that I recognized where I needed to make the change and he didn’t. With that new awareness, was I going to keep doing the same thing, or would I use this opportunity to make a new path?

I went back and apologized to former employers for causing them undue stress and tension. You can imagine the surprise of these chefs with whom I had at once been at odds, nearly engaging one of them in fisticuffs, when I came back and said to them, “I get it now,” which could also be interpreted as “Yeah, you were right.” Most responded with a little smile and a nod, as if to say, “Yeah, I was trying to tell you…”

Learning to be grateful for little things each day has helped, too. The feeling of a full belly after a big dinner out on the town, the wine buzz in my head, the laptop I’m writing on now. I’m especially grateful to those people who have unflinchingly supported me and helped me to believe in myself. Knowing my worth and feeling brave enough to share my story with the world. I have a family that supports me, and we’re encouraging each other now more than ever.

For me, that’s been the key. Sharing and owning these things — I came to this top food city to be a big time chef. Instead I’ve become a better brother, son, co-worker, employer, and friend.

I’m seeing a shift. Now that the shoe has been placed ever so slightly on the other foot, I feel tremendous pride in leading this team I have now. I am constantly learning from them, and I hope that I can reciprocate that wisdom. I’m not where I thought I’d be when I moved from Nashville nine years ago, but I am proud of the person I am becoming.

Steve Seguin manages humans at Beech on Daniel Island. He’d like to dedicate this essay to his pup, the late Kassie Seguin. She was a very good girl.

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