They are crusty, full of energy when it is needed, sometimes antagonistic, committed, good at what they do, big-hearted, and oftentimes lonely as hell. This is a side of far too many line cooks and chefs that never really makes the press – a side that plagues many cooks who work their passion so that others might enjoy the benefits of a great meal. We talk about the pirates of the kitchen and the rough and tumble lives that some lead and we glamorize the life of working over insanely hot ranges, with a level of stress that would wilt many people in other professions, but we rarely talk about the real person underneath the armor.
The issues that come to the surface focus on the meager wages that many cooks are paid, and the challenges of working in a demanding business that is quite unforgiving (you are only as good as your last meal). We reflect on the adrenaline rush of working on a busy line, the military precision of a perfect mise en place, and the orchestration needed to pull off a service that results in hundreds of meals in a short window of time. We even occasionally talk about the challenges of communication between management, chefs, cooks, servers, and the guest, but we never really look deep into the eyes of a cook to find out what’s inside.
To begin with, to say that a professional cook or chef chooses to work in the restaurant business is a misnomer. The fact is that certain people are destined to be in the kitchen and as a result the business chooses them. Once this industry gets it’s claws in you, it is hard to break away. This is what certain people were meant to do; yet there is a price to pay. Of course cooks need to make a respectable living that should include benefits such as health care, vacation and sick time, and even a chance to contribute to a retirement program, but even without all of that they still punch in every day with a level of understanding that this is what they do.
It could be that cooks are more inclined to rely on the right side of the brain that is home to our creativity, and knowing that cooking is the ultimate creative portal it only makes sense that they do what they do. Maybe, on the other hand, these individuals are gluttons for punishment and only feel fulfilled when they pay their dues for existence – day in and day out. I am not sure that there has ever been a study to try and crack open the psyche of a cook, but these two options seem to offer a possible clue. What is pretty close to the surface if we take the time to scratch away is an unfulfilled need to be whole without giving up their professional destiny.
Some cooks and chefs are able to have it all, and as a result seem whole – driving a fair amount of hidden jealousy among their peers. These are the cooks and chefs who have found a life partner who gets it, have friends that even go beyond the kitchen doors, and seem able to create some level of mental and emotional balance in their lives. Without a life partner to share your experiences, beliefs, frustrations, anxieties, and challenges with, life in the kitchen can be somewhat shallow.
The signs are there – the willingness to work whatever hours are thrown their way; the routine of a few hours in a bar after each nights work; the desire to pop into the restaurant even on a day off may be viewed as dedication, but if you take the time to look hard – isn’t it really a sign of a vacant life?
The restaurant family is so special and so supportive that many of those who have dedicated a life to the kitchen view it as a substitute for an existence beyond the range. That family is incredibly special and noteworthy way beyond what is found in most other businesses, but is it enough?
Finding a life partner is critical to peace of mind, and fulfillment of spirit. Finding a partner, spouse, or even exceptional friend; a partner who understands the commitment and the passion for cooking, who would never ask the cook to ignore this important part of his or her life, who will support the crazy schedules and single focus on ingredients, cooking process, and team dynamics is the missing link in many cooks lives.
We can point to the level of commitment to the restaurant as unfair, or even crazy, but like any other profession that chooses its advocates, it is what the cook really enjoys and needs to do. This is not a 40 hour a week job – this is a life calling that cannot be shut off at 40, 50, or more hours. This is a career choice that is with the serious cook at all times. Finding a partner who appreciates this and helps to create a life that works within those parameters is essential.
Finding a relationship that works at this level is challenging for any person, but maybe even more so for the cook or chef because our professional life is part of a parallel universe. We work when others play or rest, our schedules are as unpredictable as the weather, the physical demands drain us by the end of a shift, and the need to constantly enhance our skills to remain in the game is very demanding. When do cooks and chefs find the time to build relationships and seek out that balance that helps to make sense of life?
So, why do I go on about this? Well, if you are in a position of oversight for a restaurant or a kitchen you are aware that your strength lies in the quality of employees who hold down the fort, their state of mind, their level of personal happiness, and their ability to push through and ride the storm. You are in a position to set the stage for their success or failure, their longevity or their lack of desire to stay the course with your team. You can maybe be successful in gaining them an occasional raise (as you should), finding them a benefit package that allows for some quality of life, and even patting them on the back and pushing for their promotion opportunities within the business; but unless you can help them find balance and show some empathy as they try to find those relationships that will make them whole, their level of job satisfaction will waiver.
It seems to some that this level of connection with staff members is beyond the call of duty, but I can assure you that it is not. An effective team is very similar to a close family. When a family member is in need, those around come to their side. When a family member is questioning the reality of what he or she does and finds it difficult to become whole, then it is also time for those in charge to understand and do what they can to help.
Peel away the layers of the onion to find out the quality of the ingredient. Peel away the layers of armor that protect the cook and find out what is inside. It is this core that will help the individual to keep the commitment to their passion and find a way to do so with a smile.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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