A common response to the question: “Why do you work in a busy kitchen”, is, “I love the rush.” Those of us who have spent many hours, days and years behind the line have certainly experienced this, but few really understand what it means. Let’s take a look at what adrenaline is, and how a cook builds up to this burst of high energy and benefits from the feeling.

“Adrenaline is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands during high stress or exciting situations. This powerful hormone is part of the human body’s acute stress response system, also called the “fight or flight” response. It works by stimulating the heart rate, contracting blood vessels, and dilating air passages, all of which work to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs.”

OK, so this is the chemistry behind the experience, but what is the cause or “trigger” that signals the adrenal gland to do its job?

From the moment a line cook wakes up in the morning, his or her brain is active, maybe even more active than the rest of the body at this time. A cook is thinking about the work ahead, the state of his or her mise en place, the number of reservations on the books, and the conditioning of his or her body to prepare for and then drive through the night’s work. After a few cups of high test coffee and a shower, the body has begun to catch up to the brain. The mental anxiety that this cook has felt to this point is now transferred to every muscle from the neck to the toes. Some cooks are able to loosen the muscles with a bit of exercise, maybe a run or power walk, possibly a short workout at the gym, or even a few miles on a bike. For those who abhor exercise, their muscles remain tight and the brain feels cluttered and on edge.

Arriving at work, the typical cook reaches for more coffee even before setting up a station to begin work on mise en place. A quick assessment of supplies remaining from the previous night and the list of prep items needed within the next 2-3 hours does very little to relieve the stress that has been building up. When the chef points to reservations in the triple digits, a cooks mind starts to charge up to a new level of stress. If a cook’s mise en place is out of whack, he or she might begin to feel the onset of doom and gloom. There is no time to feel this way, so the body begins to trigger those adrenaline reserves as time grows short and the first tickets from the dining room are just around the corner. When the trigger is pulled, the body responds with what is know as a “fight or flight response.”

“The term “fight or flight” is often used to characterize the body’s reaction to very stressful situations. It is an evolutionary adaptation that allows the body to react to danger quickly. Dilated air passages, for example, allow the body to get more oxygen into the lungs quickly, increasing physical performance for short bursts of time. The blood vessels contract in most of the body, which redirects the blood toward the heart, lungs, and major muscle groups to help fuel the reaction.”

To many cooks, this is just what is needed, a breath of fresh air, the feeling that keeps them coming back to work another day. The rush drives a level of energy that insists the body and mind respond. Suddenly, the cook can see things a bit more clearly, the brain seems more in tune and able to work through a number of tasks simultaneously, and the muscles are in hyper-drive mode. Cooks begin to move faster and with a high level of commitment.

If you were to enter a kitchen in that last hour before service, it would appear that chaos has taken control and the environment is on the verge of imploding. In essence, the team is kicking into high gear and the focus is clearly on the prize. There is no question that the team and each individual player will be ready. Anxiety and stress have been replaced by a true sense of purpose. With ten minutes to spare, the line is ready – they pulled it off once again.

Time to tip back a few espressos to keep the adrenaline buzz intact. The night has just begun and each member of the team needs to keep his or her hormonal high to get through the night. Each line cooks eyes are zeroed in on his or her station, they bounce in place, clicking their tongs, hydrating with lots of water, and ears trained to listen for the ticking of the POS printer. This is the time that feels just like sprinters on the block ready for the sound of the pistol to start the race. Every muscle is tight, every cook is geared up, but rather than feel the fearful anxiety that was rushing through their system when they woke this morning, a smile stretches across their faces – this is what they love about cooking. The game is about to begin and now they can feel it – a win is in their scope, this is going to be a great night.

Chef’s in restaurants bank on this scenario, every night. Part of the leaders job is to channel the anxiety, provide just enough pressure to set the stage for the positive adrenaline to kick in. This is a fragile environment and each chef must learn how to manage it. Without the adrenaline rush, the team might not hit their mark. Too much adrenaline can be just as harmful as none at all; adrenaline boosts that come too early can fizzle out before the night’s service is over, and then the restaurant falters. It is a tightrope.

At the end of service, that adrenaline may still be in place. The team made it through another night and the feeling that they share is similar to a sporting team beating an archrival. They are pumped! After breakdown and cleanup, line cooks decompresses at a local watering hall, clinking classes in victory and in appreciation of that adrenaline rush that got them through and put a smile on their face. Fight or Flight? They chose to fight, once again.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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