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Author’s note: This is the first course. The second course can be found here.
I had always thought that being a chef was some kind of glamorous life.
I had never really understood it, though, until I started dating a chef.
I had read somewhere once that the kitchen life was one of the hardest lives to live, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it until I heard the real stories of working in a kitchen. The heat, the hours, the crappy pay, and the pressure doesn’t even compare to living on an opposite schedule to the rest of the world around you, your friends, family, and the ones you love.
The glamorized version of what I saw on television and in movies was far from accurate. Sure, many of those who pose cross-armed or wielding a whisk live fulfilling, balanced lives. Some of them have made their way into more comfortable positions at universities and senior living facilities. But from what I have experienced through my chef’s eyes is both beautiful and heartbreaking.
Chefs are constantly pouring their hearts into meals for strangers while their families eat at home alone without them. They will most likely return from work to a dark home and cold leftovers. That’s if they’re lucky enough to have time for a family—or if a family has the patience for them.
Chefs will miss soccer games, dance recitals, birthdays, and anniversaries, all while feeding those who are dining out to celebrate those same special moments. Maybe—if they time it just right, if they are blessed with a remarkable internal timer—they can steal a moment away from the sauce pans and sheet trays to FaceTime long enough to sing Happy Birthday before heading back into service. Maybe they get to send an “I miss you” text. Most likely, they are texting their partner about how terrible the night is going, or how they hate working brunch service, or apologizing because they will be home late, again, because a party of eight was seated seven minutes to close.
Weekends at home and family vacations are few and far between. When they do get a break, someone has either quit or no-showed or gotten injured. If they are fortunate enough not to get called in, they will still be troubleshooting by phone because the order is late to be delivered or some piece of equipment went down.
They beat their bodies up for hours on end. The burns and cuts you might expect pale in comparison to the real hazards and health problems. I must’ve missed the episode of “Top Chef” where they glamorized chafing, plantar fasciitis, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids. The late nights may make it impossible to establish any type of circadian rhythm, and the stress of having to fire on all cylinders in a high stress environment surrounded by searing hot surfaces and sharp objects makes it impossible to turn their brains off and sleep. Decompressing usually involves heading to the local bar because it’s the only place open that late and the only opportunity they get to see their friends.
Is it really any wonder why so many chefs struggle with drug and alcohol abuse? It’s a double-edged cleaver. It’s not like they can seek treatment—they would need health insurance for that. Self-medication is usually their only form of relief from the depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
Some chefs may have started in the dish pit, not knowing what they really wanted to do in life. For many, a job in the kitchen may have been one of the only places they could find work because of immigration issues or time served in prison. And then there are the chefs with crippling debt because they were sold on an idea by an institution that they would land a fantastic job and have a solid career with the dreams of opening up their very own restaurant. All for a mere $100k worth of student loans. But the kitchen is the great equalizer. No matter who you are or where you came from, you will still pay your dues. You will still play the politics game. You will still get burned, physically and emotionally, at least once.
Perhaps that is why there is such a deep bond between the mismatched brethren. Perhaps that is why you may be threatened to have one of your own limbs served to you from the deep fryer and garnished with a lemon wedge in one moment and then share a family meal the next. You have to be a little crazy to willingly subject yourself to that life. But those nights when the plates come back empty, when the hollandaise doesn’t break, when you sell out of the special on the last table, it is all worth it.
Kitchen life is not for the faint of heart. It is for the daring, stubborn SOBs who walk up to the devil himself and ask for a dance amidst his flames. It is for the most selfless, dedicated, passionate souls out there. Don’t be confused—they are in the pleasure business, not the “restaurant industry.” Their thoughtfulness and care is purely for the enjoyment of the guest. No chef worth his weight in foie gras enjoys cooking a bad meal. They have a way of anticipating others’ needs. They are the dreamers and creators. They excel at innovation—their job may require it, but their souls demand it.
And they deliver. Night after night. Man, do they deliver.
There is another side of of loving a chef, though, if you are willing to make the same sacrifices.
If you can handle the pressure, stand the heat, and have a sense of humor, you will get back exactly what you put in.
Sure, there will be many nights you spend alone and dinners you anxiously prepare. You will steal away from family gatherings to run out and pick up ingredients to deliver to the restaurant and of course kiss the cook while you’re there. You will find that the bathroom floor at 2 a.m. is the best seat in the house while your chef tells stories from the shower. There will be piles of laundry, white jackets that need to be pre-treated, soaked, washed, and most likely washed again. And there will be more stacks of quart containers than your cupboards can hold. You will find a strength and fire within yourself—you will find an understanding of others’ needs and an acceptance of your very own.
If you are lucky enough to get the chance to experience it, I implore you to seize that opportunity. It will change the way you see food and the way you taste life.