The vision of extreme work ethic always inspires me. Extreme may be an over-used word, but not in the restaurant business. A chef’s life is a life of never-ending focus on food and the workings of his or her kitchen. Yes, I do mean never-ending.
In a recent travel show I took note of a quote from Chef Nancy Silverton of Mozza Restaurant and LaBrea Bakery – when confronted with this observation of a chef’s extremism, she stated: “It’s in your blood – we can’t ‘not’ do it.” To those of us who have been or are caught up in the tangled web of a life in the kitchen – doesn’t this statement hit the mark? We can’t help ourselves infers that this obsession is almost genetic, some type of affliction that we are born with or “catch” along the way. It is, for some reason, part of the chemistry that makes up the character of a chef.
What are these obsessions, these “can’t help it” dynamics that can either be viewed as the positive character of a chef or the disease that plagues them?
 WE COMMIT TO PUT IN THE TIME – WHATEVER IT MIGHT BE
Of course every chef will complain about the hours that he or she works, yet I have not found a serious chef who is told to work 90 hours a week. Whether it is a feeling of responsibility, a lack of trust in fellow workers, a bit of concern about their own shortcomings, or just a hidden comfort level in being in the kitchen – if you are a chef, the obscene commitment of time is a given – we accept it and can’t help ourselves.
 WE EXPECT EVERYONE ELSE TO SIMPLY ACCEPT THIS REALITY
Because we have made the commitment to “be there” over and above any other reasonable commitment in life, we expect those around us to smile and accept our reluctance to find balance. Some may be fortunate to find themselves surrounded by understanding friends and family, while others wind up sacrificing everything else for the job.
 WE VIEW EVERY PLATE THAT LEAVES OUR KITCHEN AS A PRODUCT THAT CARRIES OUR SIGNATURE, REPUTATION, ADDRESS AND PHONE NUMBER
Chefs are obsessed (although they may deny it) with their reputation and how others perceive them. Chefs are fully engaged in the belief that the buck stops with them and any mistake or shortcoming of a co-worker or employee is his or her (the chef’s) fault. This only feeds that need to always be there.
 WE CAN’T AVOID SWEATING THE DETAILS AND KNOW THAT EVERY DETAIL IS CRITICAL
Chefs are often cursed with “restaurant eyes”. This is an important trait for anyone in charge of a kitchen, but it can be a hefty weight to carry. Chefs tend to see the details, try to coach others to see them as well, and if all else fails – try to fix them when others are less inclined to do so.
 WE HAVE AN INNATE NEED TO CONSTANTLY IMPROVE
Never being satisfied leads to an addiction to constantly tear things apart and rebuild them. This is a trait that artists have been notoriously known for. There was a time (as I have heard) when Picasso was no longer allowed to walk through a museum that carried his work – unaccompanied. The reason was that he would be inclined to find fault with his work on display and try to correct it without permission from the museum. Chefs are the same way. A well-received, popular dish might quickly be removed from the menu because the chef wasn’t happy with it, even if guests loved it.
 WE ARE OUR OWN WORST CRITIC
Most chefs are not served well by performance evaluations simply because they already know where they are weak and what part of their work needs improvement. Some may sight examples to the contrary, but I can tell you with relative confidence that chefs are extremely critical of their own work. Telling them the obvious rarely works in terms of changing behavior or work quality – the chef needs to accept his or her shortcomings and develop a strategy for self-improvement. More than likely if an outside force tries to push for that change, it simply doesn’t work. The chef will more often than not – resist. The end result is that if the chef doesn’t self-correct, he or she will probably wind up leaving or being asked to leave. This is strange but true.
 OF COURSE WE ARE COMPETITIVE
By nature, chefs are competitive souls – we can’t help ourselves. We are competitive with fellow chefs (friends or foes), with other restaurants, and most significantly with ourselves. Chefs need to somehow win in their own mind. Better food, more interesting menu, higher customer counts, better check averages, better kitchen financial performance, more positive customer comments, better ratings on Trip Advisor, more stars or diamonds, etc. – pick your competitive measurement – chefs will subscribe to it.
 WE MAKE FOOD THE CENTER OF OUR LIVES
Chefs read about it, talk about it, shop for it, work with it, become frustrated over it, insist that others share their passion for it, when they do go on vacation – plan their time around it, and feel that somehow food is their calling.
 WE ARE ALWAYS FRUSTRATED WITH THOSE WHO DON’T CARE AS MUCH AS US
Since chefs view food as centric to their existence, it only makes sense (right?) that everyone else in the kitchen, the restaurant, their family and friend circles, and dining room feel the same way. If they don’t feel this way, the chef will dismiss them at some level.
 WE LOSE SLEEP OVER THE MISTAKES WE MAKE AND THE PEOPLE WHO FIND ANY FAULT WITH OUR WORK
Chefs make mistakes; lots of mistakes, just like everyone else. In the big scheme of things most of these mistakes are minor and the positives always far outweigh the number and significance of those mistakes. If 198 customers rave about their meal last night and two offered a negative critique – the chef quickly forgets the 198 and wrestles with the 2. Every emotion churns within the chef over these 2: anger, fear, disappointment, shame, hurt, and anything else that might keep him or her from sleeping for the next few nights. Sure, most chefs will try to hide these feelings, but they exist and they eat away at their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
 WE FEEL THAT WE MUST ALWAYS BE A BEACON OF STRENGTH, YET WE ARE PRETTY DAMN SENSITIVE ABOUT SO MUCH
God forbid that a chef would actually show any of these emotions (except anger- that one comes way too easily) because we feel that doing so would be a sign of weakness in the eyes of coworkers. So chefs tend to either be stoic or hide behind the rush of anger that we sometimes confuse with a sign of strength.
 WE LOVE OUR WORK AND HATE OUR WORK AT THE SAME
Sit down with a chef to discuss his or her state of being and you might walk away very confused. Chefs will gladly refer to all of the challenges, negatives, and psyche killing facts about this extremely difficult work and in the next moment smile and reflect on how much they thoroughly love the profession, the work, the people around them, and their ability to create fabulous food for the public.
Chefs – we are such a strange lot – we just can’t help ourselves.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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Daniel M. Pliska said:
Paul- You hit it right on the head with this post!
David V. Allin said:
You nailed it! Guilty as charged on so many counts!