Well, some may not agree with this article, but I felt compelled to point out some observations over the past few years.  I have held myself hostage to some of the martyr reflections that have permeated the business of kitchens for decades. These beliefs have taken control of the minds and hearts of many cooks and chefs.  It is certainly a tough business.  It is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining at times, the hours can be brutal, and the pay and benefits never seem to match up.  However, I look around and see many other professions with similar challenges: nurses, doctors, engineers, firefighters, EMT’s, law enforcement, research scientists, steel workers, and the list goes on and on.  The major difference is that those professions (for the most part) are not as inclined to create angry podcasts and exaggerated tv shows, write isles of books, dominate blogs and magazines, and stand on a soapbox to let the world know how hard they work.  We do.

This is not to take away from the challenges that we face from the level of cook through executive chef, but it did make me wonder why we proclaim our challenges and either go back for more or leave a trail of discontent.  It made me wonder if maybe, just maybe, those who choose a life in the kitchen somehow secretly enjoy the challenges and the pain.  Maybe, just like the adrenaline that pushes us through another busy night on the line, we find comfort in the “business of hard knocks”. 

It’s an interesting thought – “cooks feast on overload”.  Maybe this is the fuel that we seek, the gratification that comes from pushing ourselves too far and doing so without a safety net.  It’s kind of like the weightlifter who jumps into a cross-fit regimen, or the runner that decides to train for a triathlon.  Outsiders look at the uncomfortable pain that these physical fitness advocates put themselves through and marvel, but wonder “why” at the same time.  Aren’t we doing the same thing in the kitchen?

I know a few cross-fit advocates who psych themselves up for their next session, dreading what is to come but pumped to jump in.  They finish a session drained, sore, and exhausted, talking about how the program is crazy and brutal and they shouldn’t do it, but then proceed to talk to others about it with a strange type of enthusiasm.  Sounds like chefs and cooks – doesn’t it?

We profess to want the restaurant business to change, to help us build balance into our lives, yet at the same time we speak to those starting out as if what we continue to do is “the way it is” and something to be proud of.  The pain of overload is a badge of courage.  So, the question is – do we really want it to change that much?  What if working in a restaurant kitchen was more user-friendly, predictable, comforting, empathetic, and supportive – how would we feel then?

It’s interesting to consider, isn’t it?  There is little question that the restaurant business needs to change.  Life/work balance is important at some level, and fair compensation is a must, but what part of the “kitchen overload environment” are we not willing to give up?  Maybe it’s a generational thing and younger folks might have a better perspective on what commitment to job means.  Maybe older generations never came to grips with what life outside the kitchen means.  But I find it fascinating that there is this dichotomy and that we seem to have a love affair with telling our story using every possible outlet available.  Hey, I write this blog that focuses on the trials, tribulations, joys, wins, and losses associated with working in professional kitchens – so I have bought in lock, stock, and barrel. 

Is this life of challenges, unpredictability, physical, emotional, and mental stress somehow attractive because of this?  What happens if we take away much of what makes kitchen life seem untenable?  I’m sure that there are many who would applaud this type of change – a shift to a more reasonable work environment – one that can provide a more predictable and steady life outside the range, but I wonder if there are just as many who would find the new environment boring.  I just don’t know.

Whenever I get together with some of my friends from past kitchen teams we immediately engage in stories of the “good old days”, as if we survived and are somehow better chefs as a result.  Whenever I addressed a class of culinary students it was always the stories of “hard knocks and crazy work environments” that peaked their attention.  I wonder if the same occurs in medical school, nursing school, the police academy, engineering classes, and the like.  My quite extensive collection of culinary books includes at least four dozen by chefs who reminisce and lament their time in the kitchen and offer their share of war stories for everyone to nod in agreement or shake their head in disbelief.  It is an industry of people who enjoy looking back and proclaiming: “I survived”.  I wonder, is this normal or are chefs and cooks an anomaly?

Anyway, this is not an article to admonish those of us who take the time to reflect “out loud”, write our stories, embellish on our experiences, or even complain about how hard the work is – it is simply an observation and a question without a clear answer: “Do cooks and chefs feast on overload”?

Food for thought.

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