Love The Life: How To Stay Sane In The Culinary Industry

It was a night like so many others:  A hurricane of twittering servers running to and fro, The Clash blaring from the prep area, orders billowing like Tibetan prayer flags on the line and the hungry ghosts of a hundred tables whispering in my ear that they’re food’s taking too damn long to…

“Y’know, I’m really thinking about taking the Culinary Arts Course at the college… This feels right. I’ve already learned a lot already and I really like this place.” I overhear one of my prep boys debating his future over in no-man’s land and I automatically shout back, “You’re too damn smart for this industry! Go be an undersea wielder or whatever the hell makes more money!”

Everybody has a laugh and goes back to business but as I dug out another plateful of mashed potatoes I hear my own words ringing in my head. It was the same stuff I’d heard before and been told a million times by other, usually older cooks. Now I was the “lifer” on the line: The grizzled old man chiding the younger guys to get out fast and find a better path to fame and fortune far away from the hard slog of kitchen life.

But what else was I ‘gonna tell the kid? I can’t risk tanking his future by sugarcoating it. The reality is our industry has the lowest wages and poorest working conditions of any trade, front of house included. The benefits are nearly non-existent (especially for a guy like him starting in the pit) and among the mercenary multitude of cooks and chefs out there is a relatively high percentage of addicts, criminals and people on various low income plans.

Now we work in a nice kitchen with above-average wages and a family atmosphere, but we’re a pretty special case especially in a town as small as ours. Most joints are hideously under-staffed, run on a shoestring budget and battle through the day with an attitude akin to the final scenes in Apocalypse Now.

As you can imagine, no-one who’s in the know is hurrying to work in this mess, at least not in the key positions that keep kitchens afloat. Solid dishwashers and prep cooks are scarce and anyone with actual moves has long-ago moved onto Vic or Van where the classy, high-volume joints offer higher-volume wages. On top of that enrollment in culinary arts courses across Canada have dropped off considerably since the mid-aughts.

But hold on, before I dash this guy’s hopes of becoming a chef or (gods help us!) a pastry chef, I have to be honest with myself as much as I want to be honest with him… I fricken love this industry! I’ve loved it since I first dipped my arms into the fetid depths of a pub’s dishpit more than a decade ago. And I’ve stuck with it, nearly regret free despite lifers telling me to get out every step of the way.

There are plenty of treatises written by kitchen folk more decorated than I that do a damn fine job examining the hard road ahead. But me, I’m going to assume my prep guy (or anyone heading down this path) is smart enough to weigh their options like an adult and decide what’s best for them, their family and whatever demons whisper sweet Food Network nothings in their ear. *laughs* I mean, what if my prep boy is the next Jamie Oliver? Who am I to dissuade him? Besides, I really need him to show up tomorrow for the PM prep shift…

So from now on, if any of my crew come to me for career advice I’ve decided to be equal parts honest and optimistic without slinging around too much hyperbole and without ripping off Crazy Uncle Tony enough to anger the Kitchen Gods: Yes, most of the time our industry is a flaming catastrophe that eats up and spits out more fine young people than it elevates (so much for less hyperbole) but it also nurtures a powerful endurance and self-reliance in people that is sorely lacking in other walks of life.

Now we come to the crux of it all… The part where everyone I’ve talked to rolls their eyes… The hippie-dippy, art school dropout-who became a chef bullshit reason for life, the universe and everything:  To really go the distance, to stick with it as long as I have and still be passionate and engaged… You need to truly LOVE this life.

That’s right, all you need is love! *laughs* Love is the grist for the mill, the foundation of who you are going to be as a cook and eventually a chef. It’s worked pretty well for me and I hope it’ll work as a framework of pseudo-sanity for anyone who is interested in investing their life in this industry.

For the Love of Food

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”  – Alan Watts

I was never a child prodigy in the kitchen. My friends had all taken kitchen jobs back in high school and I, the wannabe art-school auteur, had absolutely no interest in either making my own food or working my slender pink fingers to the bone for others. It was only after I met Crystal and spent a year or so lounging in her mom Lisa’s kitchen that I caught the cooking bug and later translated my hobby-dinners into a job.

That interest (let’s call it what it is – an obsession) has kept me going strong after almost fifteen years of hard slog from behind a bar, down into the dishpit and eventually an office chair. It’s a hobby-cum-lifestyle that is so rich and interesting and expansive that I could spend another four lifetimes of cooking, reading, researching and experimenting and never fully master even a tiny portion of it. It is an obsessive’s dream!

And that is the first and foremost key to both success and fulfillment in this industry; STAY ENGAGED! When you go home… Keep thinking about food! Read cookbooks and magazines voraciously. Make every successful recipe you come across another stamp in your collection and each night of service another boss fight to be conquered.

Taste everything! Cook a small, late dinner at home every night to practice the basics. Collect menus and read voluminously on every subject pertaining to the kitchen and the history, geography and science of food.

Making this mania your hobby as well as your job will forge you into an all-around better, stronger and more creative cook – one that will out-perform and out-last your less engaged brethren – and keep you in the trenches long after common sense should have told you to surrender. This simple thing, this passion will turn every night of service into a beautiful game.

For the Love of Process

“Wars are won by careful planning and rapid execution”- Julius Caesar

Everything in a kitchen is a process: From ordering and receiving to sorting, washing, prepping then cooking, serving and even over-all time management. Not a single facet of our daily toil hasn’t been done a million times by a million cooks before us and over the ages our clever kin have developed systems to keep them (and us) as steady on the path of efficiency and sanity.

This is our mise en place: A French phrase meaning “everything in place” that generally refers to the bits and pieces of food that are laid out to facilitate ordered cooking during service, but it’s bigger than that. Your Mise is your level of physical and mental organisation, economy of movement and cleanliness. It’s what makes you a useful and desirable asset in ANY kitchen and directly impacts your long-term endurance in this industry.

For this reason (and a host of other, more Freudian personality quirks) the best cooks and chefs that you meet are obsessive creatures of habit: In at five-thirty, prepping at six, lunch at noon (twenty minutes max), cigarettes at seven, nine-thirty, one and close. Menus out at four, change music to heavy metal, check line, four cloths each… Check… Tongs… Check… etc.

This road to robotic, highly-desirable and employable mental organisation begins with the humble act of writing a prep-list and ends in the chef’s chair; placing orders, calculating payroll, writing menus and manoeuvring pieces on the chess board (there’s that game reference again!)

When I get new cooks to start writing out their own prep-lists in the morning, it changes them. For the first time they stop following a disjointed bunch of orders barked at them by senior cooks and start thinking about their work day in a more holistic way. They realize their responsibilities more clearly, panic less, observe more and understand what kind of impact their work will have upon the entire mechanism of the kitchen.

This regime has a delightful side benefit of bleeding into one’s personal life over time, making even the most degenerate screw-arounds into efficient soldiers. I now write lists to orient myself practically every day! *laughs* Seriously, I couldn’t imagine the mess I’d have become without the kitchen there to give my lackadaisical days off some badly-needed structure.

For The Love of Pain

The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.“- Albert Camus

Are you still with me? My doctrine of rainbows and unicorn farts hasn’t made you run off yet? Great! ‘Cause this is where the rubber hits the road and my positive attitude seminar slams into reality: This job can really, really suck.

Now cooking isn’t rocket science or cage fighting, but it is a serious mental and physical grind. No-one who works a nine to five office gig has to deal with fire, heavy machinery, sharp objects, physical and psychological abuse, constant condescension and the stress of time restraints and obligations that work in increments of seconds, not minutes or hours. Any potential recruit for our industry has to accept that right up front and figure out realistically what their chances are for survival.

That’s where the dishpit comes in; it breaks you down and beats you up in such a wonderfully ugly, messy degrading way that when you eventually step out into the prep area after a couple months you have already done all the soul searching you’ll ever need. You will know if you’ve got the backbone to go the distance. Once you accept that Food TV lied and that it isn’t going to get any better than this it’s just a matter of mitigating the mental strain of working in the equally hostile and unappreciated prep kitchen and line.

You’ve got a couple attitude options to choose from to use as a life-preserver as you navigate these stormy seas. Everyone deals with the stress in their own way (and believe me, cooks can get damn inventive in the ways they mitigate stress) and I’ve found myself oscillating between a gang of different personalities during the course of a long night on the line. All these little voices react to adversity in slightly different ways:

The Denier: I can’t believe how busy it is! Okay… Okay… I just ‘gotta hold on and get through this order and I’ll be able to get out of the weeds. I can’t wait until this shift is over and I can go home… Is that another eight-top? That’s it, man! Game over, man! Game over! What are we ‘gonna do now? What are we ‘gonna do? 

The Martyr: Look at these idiots, running around in a panic like a bunch of children! They’re damn lucky I’m here to clean up their mess. If it were just me and them in a contest of real-world, oh shit, total panic gladiatorial combat… They wouldn’t stand a chance! There’s an eight-top coming in right now and the damn manager is on Facebook! Seriously!? Now!? Do I have to do everything!?I don’t get paid enough for this…

The Masochist: Here we go again, another eight-top! This is where we get crazy! Another full body-mind crunch in three… Two… One… Boom!!! Ha! We’re ‘gonna make it to punk-rock kitchen Valhalla tonight boys! Just like Tony Bourdain back in the day… Where did I stash that beer?

The Professional: Looks like another eight-top is in and everyone is losing it *sigh* another day another dollar, I guess… No need to jump in and straighten out the servers, they’ll have to dig themselves out of whatever crisis they are in now… Remember it’s just a job. Focus on your own thing until this blows over and get out. Just like Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs, I’m going to be the last one standing.

Recognize anyone you know? *laughs* All those different personalities are inside all of us just waiting for the right combination of long hours, intense rushes and annoying customers to take the wheel. They’ll whisper to you and make us feel like quitting or worse yet, snap and take it out on our co-workers. I can be any number of these guys during the course of my work day. The stress just triggers them into being! And the longer I spend stewing in a certain mindset, the more apt I am to adopt it the next time something goes wrong.

Unlike the above thoughts on Food and Process, I haven’t got a whiz-bang answer for dealing with these voices. Managing the Pain isn’t about “Love” so much as “mindfulness” of your own thoughts and (to steal another metaphor from Buddhism) finding a middle path to tread between the feelings of superiority and self-mortification. It also helps to know when to take a step back from the madness, grab a drink of water and just breathe.

As for the physical demands of this industry… I ‘dunno… Lift with the knees and get some orthotic insoles. They help.

For the Love of the People

When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional.” – Hunter S. Thompson

That poor prep boy has probably already enrolled in an electrician’s course at the local college in the time it’s taken me to circle back around to this, the most important part of our industry and the biggest reason I can think of to stay: The people!

The other lost souls in our little submarine, our brothers and sisters in the trenches; slinging hash, talking trash and dealing with all the day-to-day drama we’ve discussed. They are the chefs, dishwashers, prep-cooks, line-cooks, bartenders, servers, bakers and candlestick-makers. Through talent, grit and hustle they make this crazy food service world go round and without ‘em this industry and my whole life doesn’t happen.

They come from every race, religion, financial strata and walk of life imaginable and will regal you with stories on a nightly basis that will completely explode your view of the human condition. They are compassionate to those of their tribe and always the first to help those of us who hit on bad times. They are also humble, yet proud, whip-smart, unbelievably naive and funny… So unbelievably funny that every night of service seems like a night at the improv.

I think kitchen people are the best people… period. I’ve never met people like them in other walks of life and have never related to non-cooks (we call you people “normies” or “civilians”) as well as with my kitchen kin… They just get me. In fact every single one of my best friends in this world has been, or are currently members of the culinary industry.

I figure something about working on a line all day long mutates us, makes us grow into a new species like the X-Men, except our powers are acute sarcasm and the ability to work without sleep. *laughs* seriously though, once you spend your time in the pit, you become one of the tribe and have a gang at your back. This fellowship extends to everyone and anyone.

You got personal problems you ‘wanna forget? Step right up and enter the kitchen! Don’t do so well in social situations? No problem, come on in! Weird facial ticks and a lazy eye? Right this way, we don’t care! Everyone in the kitchen is weird, so everyone is normal! This is not to say every cook is Quasimodo, but if he showed up at my back door I’d give him a shot in the dishpit and buy him a beer afterword. It’s just how this life is.

And if the daily stresses of the kitchen game are getting to you, your fellow cooks are there to get some hard-won advice and draw some strength from. Everyone in the kitchen is connected (mutants remember?) and feels each other’s anxiety almost as acutely as their own. Lean on them and learn from them, then do the same for the young guys ‘n gals after you’ve been around the kitchen a while.

So, there is hope for that prep guy who wanted to go to culinary school after all! *laughs* That is, if he’s still listening to me after all this rambling. This game may not be “winnable” but it sure can be enjoyable if you stay focused on the process, keep engaging in a passionate way with the food, be mindful of the pain and most importantly love the people around you.





4 thoughts on “Love The Life: How To Stay Sane In The Culinary Industry

  1. Thought I would take time to look at your site and any recent posts. This was amazing to read! Can’t wait to come visit and see your kitchen and meet the staff. It makes me happy to know you found something that you are passionate about. Am very proud that you have such respect and compassion for those who you work with. To deal with the demands and challenges of a job with grace is a really important lesson to learn. I am still trying to conquer this lesson- a day at a time! Looking forward to seeing you soon.

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