The excuses are all around: “I don’t have time to eat properly; I’m around food all day, a meal just doesn’t appeal to me; I can’t watch what I eat, my job requires that I taste everything; A real meal will slow me down; I know I should eat better and exercise, but it doesn’t fit my schedule”; etc., etc., etc.
Think of it this way: professional cooking, which is a physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing profession; is similar to a professional sport. Athletes cannot perform at any level of competence without conditioning. This conditioning includes an appropriate diet, an exercise regime, and a balance of work and rest. If cooks and chefs are to perform at the highest level (what is expected every day on the job), then he/she MUST take care of their bodies. For far too long this was not the rule of thumb, in fact, we have long subscribed to the adage that” “you can’t trust a skinny cook”. Regardless of your frame size, a healthier life style will allow you to perform at a higher level and withstand the physical abuse that is oftentimes associated with a career in serious kitchens.
The typical cook or chef is rarely scheduled for an 8-hour shift. Cooks may work 10-12 hours on busy nights and chef’s even more. Your body burns excessive calories during that period of time under intense heat, constant movement, being on your feet without rest, and seemingly under attack by the stressful monsters of time and unrelenting communication. This environment can easily take a toll on a person’s body and mind. What is the typical response to the body’s need for energy replacement? Carbohydrates and caffeine are the fuel to fool the body into believing that you are responding appropriately to its needs.
After hours, the cook’s respite is to grab a few beers simply because the body and mind were drained but the adrenaline was mountain high, reinforced with lots of caffeine. If a cook eats a meal while on the job, it is typically something next to him or her at their station during the final few minutes before the tickets start flooding the kitchen. The thought of sitting down to a balanced meal and taking 30 minutes to replenish before cranking out 150 dinners just doesn’t happen. To many cooks, dinner might be a few bites of pasta and a cigarette out back by the dumpster.
I confess to falling into that trap. A meal to me was oftentimes a sandwich while standing over a trash can to catch the crumbs, wolfing down this quick carb meal within 2-3 minutes and moving back to work. There even was a period of time when my diet was chocolate chip cookies for a sugar boost and 8-10 cups of coffee during a 12-hour shift. I never exercised, rarely slept for than 5 hours a night, and usually forgot to hydrate (aside from coffee which doesn’t really help). The result was weight gain and a few medical issues that are fortunately now under control.
When a cook or chef refuses to take care of him or herself, the damage is cumulative and WILL, WITHOUT a DOUBT, catch up to them. Far too many of my friends and co-workers have found themselves in dire health because they lived in the moment and avoided the necessary maintenance that would allow them to be productive cooks for a long period of time and enjoy their lives at the same time.
In a recent article by Harry Kimball, a writer for Newser Staff, http://www.newser.com/story/76322/how-skinny-chefs-stay-that-way.html
reference was made to some foundational rules that will allow any professional cook to maximize their effectiveness and feel much better at the same time. These rules include:
TASTE: Yes, chef’s and cook’s do need to taste many items. “The key word is taste”, which does not take the place of building in a balanced meal as well.
EXERCISE: Every cook, just like an athlete in training, needs some type of exercise regime. It may be running, walking, biking, skiing, snow shoeing, yoga, or a workout at the local gym. Whatever you choose, it must become an integral part of your daily life.
Eric Ripert, chef/operator of Le Bernadin in New York (one of the finest restaurants in the world) walks 2-3 miles to and from work every day, regardless of the season. This is a time for his body to prepare and recover from a work shift, an opportunity to clear his mind for the day ahead, and an emotional break from the stress of the kitchen.
HAVE A PLAN AND STICK TO THE PLAN: Just like every cook lives by his/her mise en place list, so too must a successful cook live by his/her personal wellness plan. You owe yourself this commitment.
DON’T SELF-MEDICATE WITH FOOD: Just as many cooks starve their bodies of good nutrition, just as many use food, any food, as the prescription to take care of energy slumps, stress, mental lapses, and depression. “Eat when you are hungry, not freaked out.”
SIT DOWN: Grabbing a bite here and there will lead to excessive amounts of the wrong calories, too much sodium and an imbalance of nutrition that leads to peaks and valleys in performance. There are numerous cookbooks out today that focus on the staff meal in restaurants and how certain operations invest in this time to share with other members of the staff and enjoy balanced, great meals in preparation for a busy shift. From my experience, this rarely happens as it does in these wonderfully thought-out books. A staff meal that receives similar attention to the restaurant menu will help to build team work and energize cooks and service staff for a high performance lunch or dinner shift.
Allison Adato recently released a book of interviews with a handful of prominent American chefs entitled: “Smart Chefs Stay Slim” published by: New American Library. Chef’s talk about their regiments and “tricks” for balancing the demands of the professional kitchen with a healthy life. This is definitely worth the read.
Although my daily routine does not parallel what I did when full-time in a busy kitchen, I have changed my habits and created enjoyable health routines that include balanced diet, appropriate balance of calories, fat and sodium and everyday exercise. The result is a healthy weight for my age and size, comfortable energy levels, a clear mind and feeling better about my wellbeing than I have in many years. I implore every professional cook to incorporate this type of lifestyle change into their daily routine – the payback is worth the effort.