The Chef Life: Stress vs. Love
As anyone can tell you, when you find something worth your time, whatever it may be, there will no doubt be a love-hate relationship you are confronted with constantly: growing pains, mental walls, frustration, anger, you name it—it has most likely been experienced by you or those around you. This is no different when it comes to the life of a chef. Being a chef requires that you fully submerse yourself in your career; it becomes just about every part of you, digging deep into your soul and sinking the hooks in, making a home inside your heart and mind. There are the days where you love every second of whatever it is you are doing—you find it hard to go home, you think about it constantly—and then there are the days where it makes you so angry you can’t help but think “this is it. I’m done.” You go home pissed off and the last thing you want to think about is food and your shift the following day, but you find yourself pulling on your shoes and buttoning up your chef jacket the next morning. There is a level of attraction that comes with this type of career despite the abuse it entails, and a few of our beloved local chefs were more than happy to comment.
Chef Dylan Montanio, Executive Chef of Smorbrod, gave quite an in-depth description. As he described it: “I think the most difficult thing is spending that much time away from your family. Losing your ability to have a personal life and maintain relationships and the inevitable spiral of bad choices and consequences that can lead to. It’s no secret that alcoholism and drug abuse are just a fact of the industry. As commonplace as the oven or the cutting board. What keeps me coming back is the love of the craft and the passion of the moment. There are so many times as a chef when the intensity and the pace is so much that you are fighting this constant internal battle just to keep calm and keep everyone directed and on-point and keep the timing of dozens of different items in your head and the rush and the elation of when it all works smooth and perfect is absolutely thrilling as it is addictive. Plus I’d always wanted to be a musician and an artist and a philosopher and an engineer and a composer all at once. That’s being a chef. Plus fire and knives. I love it. So I keep coming back. Now I’ve learned to find a balance though. Only took 17 years.”
So, what is really at stake when it comes to being a chef? What is being thrown on the backburner to make room for that constant pursuit of perfection? With millions of chefs and cooks in the world there is no doubt you would receive a number of different answers with the same commonalities between them, the biggest one being: you are spending more time than you want to away from your family. Is it worth it though? Who is to say. Is there a way around it? No doubt. As Tommy Graves, Chef of Hustle & Heart Hospitality commented: “Time away from family, work-life balance, is the hard part. Nights, weekends, and holidays are pretty much a sure thing. That’s when birthdays, family get-togethers will be. One has to find work-life balance. That’s why a smart chef will train his people to do the things he wants, and be consistent. That way the place doesn’t fall apart in his absence. My philosophy is train people to do your job so you can create that separation!”
What is the new theme that is emerging? Time away from family is a definite, but there is a word that has been cropping up: consistent. As mentioned before, in the mind of a chef, nay, embedded in the soul of a chef, there is this constant search for perfection, the never-ending pursuit of what they see as the perfect dish, the perfect service. It is never-ending, and can be quite maddening, if not extremely thrilling because “perfect” is impossible to reach. So, really, what is it a chef is looking for? I don’t think there is a definite answer.
Jamie Dahlin, who is currently out-of-state working as the Head Chef for Mr. Helsinki Wine Bar and Art Gallery, also took the time to weigh in for us, saying: “Personally, the main factor of my stress stems from trying to keep people happy, including myself. Sometimes, I go days at a time eating close to nothing, while serving a thousand plus people mouth-watering entrees. Only finding time for one meal, minimal sleep and preparation for the next service. As you can imagine, that can lead to some undesirable mornings. Most of us have different ways to manage the tension, to take our minds off of it all. Which that can range from a plethora of mind altering substances, to simply the hour of company you manage to squeeze in with your loved one before bed and a good movie. At the end of the day, it all comes full circle. I strive to make people happy through my food. Which in turn, makes me happy.”
I myself can take the time to comment on this from my own perspective. Bottom line? It is hard. It is really easy to romanticize kitchen work based on what you see on the T.V. because those shows make the work look a lot easier than it actually is. One of the things that got me into this industry in the first place was that romanticized mindset; I learned real quick what real kitchen work is like. I have been yelled at, cussed out, had things thrown at me, been thrown out of the kitchen—a number of different things; trust me when I say it is a lot different than what you see on the T.V. This industry easily sorts through the individuals who do not belong, and keeps those who do. It is a living, breathing, organism; most of those who work in this industry have been changed by it all the way down to the core. Anyone who works in this industry can tell you they are worlds different than when they first started. Simply put, anyone who is a success in this industry has to be attracted to a certain kind of abuse. I recently went through a rough patch due to a problem with my lower back and right leg, I thought my time in the culinary industry was done; I was experiencing the hate factor of the relationship. Every night I went home and spent hours with ice packs hating that I couldn’t work, and I blamed myself for not being perfect. The fact of the matter was, with no level of exaggeration, the thought of leaving the industry I called my home—it broke my heart. I didn’t want to leave. Needless to say, that feeling has kept me in the running, even if I can’t run that well.
Is this a warning for anyone thinking to join the industry to turn back now? Absolutely not. The best course of action is to stay true to yourself, and be honest. Don’t lie to the Chefs—they will see right through it. Be open to change, as there will be a lot of it, both within yourself and in the kitchens where you work. Adapting to changes on-the-spot is something you will definitely learn, which is an extremely valuable skill to have in just about any industry. Don’t take everything personally, either. If you do then you will, once again, find yourself on the outside looking in. If the Chef is yelling about something, there is a reason for it; pay attention and burn the lesson into your mind with the rest of them.
So: time away from family, mental and physical stress due to long hours and physical demand, substance abuse—from the outside looking in, it is easy to wonder why a chef subjects themselves to this career. But instead of looking at the negatives, let’s focus on the positives: you get to create something beautiful. The excitement of a smooth service, mixed with making food you can stand by, surrounded by individuals who easily become your second family—right there. These are not the only positives about the industry, but we hit on one of the biggest points that ties the industry together. Family. Sure, you’re stuck at work rather than spending the evening with your wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, kids, you name it, but in that time you spend away from your loved ones you are standing along side a group of cooks and other chefs who just as easily become your second family, cooking like mad and really having the time of your life despite the stresses. There is no real way to make it through this industry without the support of others around you, there are a few that might drift away in order to work toward their own dreams, but in the end you are all working toward the same goal: your own version of perfection.
Here is a joke to tell your family, when truth is daunting.
Q: How many cooks does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Six. One to change the bulb and five to tell you how they did it at their last job.
Next week: Advice From Your Local Chefs