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Barbara Lang
RTR Ideas & The Etiquette Factor
May 28, 2010

Barbara may have been a teacher at an Ivy League university (Cornell School of Hotel Administration), but to her students she was the one and only: B. Lang. She is hands down an educator at heart, be it teaching students at the world's greatest school of hospitality management, consulting with restaurants (with her business and book based on Restaurant to Retail), competing in triathlons, tackling cancer (and writing about it), or starting up a company called The Etiquette Factor post-retirement.

Needless to say, B. Lang was the type of instructor that college students at once envied and admired. With boundless energy and a particular poise, she effortlessly manages to meet everyone at any given event she attends, and walk away with a lifetime connection. If you're lucky enough to be in her vicinity, study carefully; when you look up hospitality in the dictionary, you'll find her name.

What attracted you to a good food job?

My mother was not an inspired cook (often compromised by poor health and in retrospect, someone afflicted by an eating disorder in addition to her physical health ailments), but to her defense, our family was not particularly responsive or appreciative, so it was a two way street. We probably got what we deserved. However, on Sundays, my father did cook, and that was an entirely different matter. He did find pleasure in cooking and it was evident. I perked up when it came to Sunday meals. I saw Sundays as an opportunity to "get in good" with my dad, an otherwise cantankerous, authoritative man in my youth.

As I grew into my teens, my mother's health continued to fail, my father stayed longer in his office in NYC, and my siblings were all out of the house (me being the youngest by 5-9 years). My father began inviting me into the city to meet him for a meal and music. Through these set of circumstances, I began to know my dad a bit better. Because of my mom's poor health, I would travel alone via the LIRR into The City (New York, of course) to meet my father for a meal at some fabulous restaurant (in my eyes they were fabulous, whether they were or not) and then to Lincoln center for an opera or classical concert. Those memories are branded on my brain as highlights in my life and pivotal towards leading me to a life in food. Not only was I introduced to great food and restaurant energy, but I associated the opportunity of really getting to know my father over dining. La Caravelle, Maxwell Plum, Oscars On 3rd Street, all pillars of the industry in their heyday during the 1970's. Instead of seeing my stern, judgmental father across the table, I began to see, and get to know, a man with a terrific sense of humor and love of good food.

I have no doubt those experiences lead me to a world of food. My first real job was as a bread baker on Martha's Vineyard in l975, when I took a year off from college (after freshmen year) to figure out who the heck I was. I learned quickly how powerful and emotional food can be for people...for me. After that year on the island, I applied to Cornell's hotel school. I knew I wanted to work with food, in one way or another. That food would be the central theme of whatever I did. The satisfaction of providing pleasure through food was enormous. I knew I would be happiest if I sought opportunities where I would either create an experience that allowed other people to enjoy each others' company (ultimately owning a restaurant, being a winery culinary director, owning a bread baking company, teaching people to cook) or, do as I do now, assisting people in feeling confident in dining settings so that they can enjoy the experience while presenting the best in themselves. Food is a powerful connector on so many levels. Look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and food is a driving force no matter what stage you are at. People like you if you serve them food.

One last story. After I was diagnosed with a late-stage colon cancer and required surgery, I proceeded to go into a baking frenzy, baking dozens of different cookies and packaging them into sweet little bags. On the day of my surgery, I proceed to pass out the bags of cookies the moment I arrived in the hospital - to the receptionist, nurse, anesthesiologist, surgery team. I knew if they had to choose who to be nicest to, it would be the person who gave them those delicious cookies. After the surgery, and once I came to consciousness, the anesthesiologist asked if I remembered what I had said as I was wheeled into the great O room. I cringed, worried that one of my R rated dreams had become my top-of-mind babble. Fortunately, it was not. Rather, I insisted the Dr. understood exactly what cookies were in each bag. Food even outranked eroticism in my subconscious.

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

Curiosity, practice and the brains to ask for feedback. I have never been shy in asking for help, direction and constructive feedback. I always have had a good food job. Even a food job that didn't appear "so good" was always an opportunity to develop skills (technical or soft) that laid the groundwork for another opportunity. I never saw a job being "beneath me" and always gave a task 100%. When I went to cooking school in California, I went to a school in San Rafael during the day, then drove back to my home in hills of Napa Valley and repeated what I had learned that night by teaching my husband, at the time. I have always maximized whatever opportunity I have had. Even if something didn't work out, at least I knew I had given it my all and I couldn't expect more than that. When I made a mistake, I learned. I volunteered all the time for events that needed culinary assistance. I washed the pots and pans for Gaston Lenotre at the Robert Mondavi Great Chef's programs; I assisted Barbara Tropp in San Francisco when she was recipe testing for a book and her cooking classes.

What advice do you have for others in search of a good food job?

Don't overestimate your worth and be a benefit to others. Volunteer at events. Do more than is expected. Ask for feedback. Find a mentor. Be curious. Build a community of people who share your passion. Rather than thinking about what you can learn from someone, see how you can be of benefit to them. An attitude of respect and appreciation for whomever you encounter and work, combined with a strong work ethic, are key to personal success.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

HA! I don't make much money and never have. I suppose that is my destiny. I have, however, provided enjoyment to people - at least that is my intent. People from various backgrounds - from QM2 passengers to my present students in Operation Frontline. There is no difference between people - they all want the same thing - acknowledgement and respect and good food in an atmosphere that is warm, convivial and inviting.

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