April 3, 2014

Clayton Sherrod Saw Himself as a Chef and Made Himself One

Clayton Sherrod was just 13 when his dad died of a heart attack.  Clayton was one of 10 children living poverty in Alabama before the Civil Rights era gave blacks equal rights.  As a young black teenager, he must have already felt like his opportunities for success were slim.  After his father died, his mother told him he needed to quit school to go to work to help support his family.  That limited his opportunities even further.

Clayton’s older brother had a job as a golf caddy at an all-white country club near their home.  When an opening came up for another caddy, Clayton applied and got it.  Only a few weeks later, a job as a dishwasher opened up in the kitchen.  Although it was a pay cut with harder work, less prestige and longer hours, Clayton learned that they offered free meals to the staff.  Besides, it was a steady paycheck, unlike the caddy job, which was more sporadic.

Clayton was soon eating gourmet foods in a fancy country club; foods he had never seen or tasted before with expensive cuts of meat and exotic ingredients.  He was fascinated with how the chef created these masterpieces and started watching him cook.  It looked like magic to him.  He said, “I just wanted to learn.  I would have paid them to learn.”

After a while, Clayton decided that he wanted to be the head (executive) chef there someday.  People thought he was crazy, because there had never ever been a black head chef at that country club before.  Clayton said, “but I saw something that everyone else didn’t see, that is me walking around with that big tall hat on.”  He counted how many promotions it would take for him to become the executive chef and set a goal to be promoted every 6 months.  Doing that would ensure that he became the head chef in 10 years.  Clayton worked hard, stayed late and polished the dishes to a shine.  And he kept watching closely as the chef cooked.

His hard work paid off; Clayton was promoted repeatedly over the next few years.  As he checked off each promotion on a poster on his wall, he would dance in happiness, knowing that his goal was getting closer.

When he reached the rank of ‘Sous chef,’ or the assistant to the head chef, the head chef came to him and said, “I know what you’re doing.  Don’t even think about it.  I will be the Executive Chef here for life.  You can either keep working for me or go somewhere else.”  That didn’t deter Clayton.  He came up with a plan to allow him to become head chef.  It wasn’t a mean plan, but it was sneaky.

Clayton wrote up a resume describing the perfect chef, put the head chef’s name on the top and started applying for jobs all over the country—for the head chef!  Soon the head chef was receiving job offers from everywhere.  That made him a bit proud—he was famous!  He started asking his boss for raises in pay, which his boss regularly refused.  After a time, the boss got tired of the discussion and told him he could be replaced.  The boss said turned to Clayton and said, “Will you take over until we can find another chef?”  Clayton was only too happy to fill in.  

Clayton never looked back.  And he attained Executive Chef in just 6 years.  He was only 19 years old!  He ran that kitchen for many 13 years, taking time off to attend formal culinary school in New York.  He finally quit to start his own catering business, which he has run successfully ever since.  
Although Clayton’s situation seemed hopeless, he saw himself as a future success.  He worked hard and studied with such determination that he reached his goal quickly.
Each of us can do the same if we keep our goal in mind while we work on the smaller goals that will bring us there.

To hear Clayton tell his story, http://storycorps.org/listen/clayton-sherrod/

Photo courtesy of Clayton Sherrod and NPR.

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