The Crazy Life of a Chef Is Nothing to Celebrate
Sometimes I work 20 hours straight and my days bleed into each other. Sometimes I worry if what I’m doing is right, and how much longer I will have the energy for it. How can we live healthier lives as chefs and work in an industry that praises and...
Photo via Flickr user Edsel Little
Sometimes I work 20 hours straight and my days bleed into each other. Sometimes I worry if what I'm doing is right, and how much longer I will have the energy for it.
We are chefs and bartenders, servers and dishwashers, owners and entrepreneurs, craftsmen and women. We are obsessed with perfection, being on-trend, good press, and being on top ten lists. We are an industry of food professionals working more than 12 hours a day to survive while others are vacationing. We're working to keep a business going; we're working to stay sane.
How can we live healthier lives as chefs and work in an industry that praises and—in fact—rewards sleepless nights and crazy work hours?
Today, as a small business owner, you need to be a master of social media, IT, management, finances, public relations, marketing, human resources, customer service, supply and demand, and real estate. You get up early, go to bed late, write checks, and repeat.
All this is coming from a guy who—only three years earlier—went from working in a cubicle writing online marketing copy for a stock brokerage firm to owning a food truck, restaurant, hosting a TV show (twice), and most recently, releasing a cookbook. Convincing people to open RRSPs and being a rogue restaurateur just made sense. Apparently we're addicted to pressure because to top it off, we did all this in Toronto: an amazing, food-forward city where even good restaurants can fail. When you put it all together, who really has time for self-care when there's so much work to be done?
Things got emotionally tougher when we opened our restaurant, Lisa Marie on Toronto's Queen Street West. It was early December 2012 and we had put an offer on the location, but had lost it to another group with apparently deeper pockets. Fast forward to January when my mom called to tell me my grandfather—my nonno—had passed away. My world flipped. He wasn't just my grandfather: he was my everything. He raised me, and taught me how to cook and make everything from scratch, the value of a strong work ethic, and that a meal with the family is the most important thing you could ask for. He was my absolute hero, the only person who really understood me.
Three days after his funeral, my business partners and I received the call that the space was available again. We took possession a month later and never looked back.
The next six months were a total blur. I actually don't really remember opening the restaurant, the days leading up to it, or the weeks that followed. We worked more hours in that week than most work in one month. Instead of grieving I was working, coping the way my nonno taught me.
Do you know how many cooks I've worked with who have come in reeking of booze and looking not all there, wanting to work off shit from the night before? I can't condone it, but I get it. I did the very same thing. I buried my feelings in work and just kept going. The more I did, the less time I had to stop and think about how I was doing.
A little later on that summer, Ky, my business partner and girlfriend, pulled me aside and gave me an ultimatum. Before I hit the road to film another season of my travel food show, Rebel Without a Kitchen, I had to go and talk to someone about how I was becoming increasingly irritable with everything. I was losing the ability to stay calm and focused. I would get upset if the business wasn't absolutely perfect. The growth of the company became very real and the responsibilities that much greater. I started becoming obsessed with making my dead grandfather proud. My emotions would take over when I least wanted them to: if I wasn't freaking out about sauces changing consistency, menu changes, or recycling bins, I was freaking out about the weather during a food truck festival. I was worried about nothing all the time. I was overworked.
The worst part is that you never think it's you who needs help. You hear of someone at work or a relative being depressed but not you, never you.
We had just opened a busy restaurant with no experience and I was unknowingly grieving my grandfather at the same time. I saw a therapist. We talked about all the same things I just listed; my dead grandfather, growing the business, what that meant and how it affected me. It took about three-and-a-half hours and I think I was crying for almost half of it.
Almost a year went by before I returned to therapy. I thought I was one and done the first time but the same feelings started to return again so now I go every month. Looking back it's ridiculous that I only went once but in that moment you either feel invincible or are in total denial.
The worst part is that you never think it's you who needs help. You hear of someone at work or a relative being depressed but not you, never you. You can cope with whatever angst you are wrestling with.
At a time when we were the most successful I was a mess. I was easily working 100-hour weeks—if not more. I'm supposed to be constantly creating and innovating while dealing with day-to-day bullshit of broken mop wringers, lost checks, an oven that worked up until today, and doing it all in a city where restaurants are closing faster than they're opening.
I see my friends when they decide to eat at the restaurant. Sleep is something I have to schedule. My car is missing a window and barely starts, but doubles as a storage facility for the business.
How is it even possible to a) be creative b) think about taking care of myself? Even if I want to, what are my options? How can we live healthier lives as chefs and work in an industry that praises and— in fact—rewards sleepless nights and crazy work hours?
A broken leg and depression both need time to heal. I recognized that my own emotions were starting to affect not only how I did my job but how the people around did theirs. Getting upset or frustrated did nothing for anyone. When I took a step back and reevaluated my approach to situations, I was able to be more creative in the kitchen and get more positive results from my staff. As food professionals, we need to recognize that "that's just the way it is in our industry" isn't a viable response anymore.
We need to be honest about what other things beyond the kitchen or bar might be going on and truly ask ourselves if the food life is really helping you get through it. I'm not saying leave; I'm saying take time for yourself.
We get happy when we crush service or pick up a new shiny knife, nab a lucrative piece of business, get voted the best-of something somewhere, and announce that your business is growing. The downside? What it takes out of us to get there, physically and emotionally every single day.