Monday, February 22, 2021
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What’s Killing Our Best Chefs?

I’ve worked my way up the line, built and run a team, and have found a modicum of success in doing so. I showed up year after year at my restaurant not getting paid, while investing everything I had into this dream that never really panned out for me financially – at least how I’d envisioned it. That aside, along the way I had the opportunity to build bonds I never knew were possible and found myself tested in ways I never would have imagined that have allowed me to grow – physically, emotionally, and certainly mentally.

The restaurant industry and more specifically, the kitchen, has in a lot of ways shaped who I have become. It’s been my sanctuary of sorts – a place where I’m completely focused and in the zone. Hours go by feeling like minutes. Adrenaline has been known to get the best of me, especially in the thick of the rush. It’s a feeling that never gets old and I imagine it’s the same feeling an actor gets on stage, an athlete feels on the field under the lights, or that a fiction writer feels as a story reveals itself in their mind hovered over a legal pad. It’s a feeling you can’t ever really gets sick of, but it’s not something you’re born with — it takes time to develop and mature. If I had to quantify it for cooking, I’d call it equal parts honing the craft, working as a team towards a common goal, and finally, the imperative nature of having to execute on demand. When these parts are in confluence life in the kitchen should be in harmony – often it’s not, though. To understand why not, we must first understand what success looks like to the industry and what keeps harmony from prevailing.

We show up, give everything we have by committing ourselves to being the best we can every day. That, alone, is a good enough reason to be proud, but much of the restaurant industry is a tangled web of sorts — spun from a place that’s still trying to find itself. It leaves many of us disappointed, some broke as well, while others, pay the biggest price of all with their lives. Presumably, they can’t handle the stress, the pressure, the high stakes and ubiquitous assumption that there’s no feeling or emotion in the kitchen.

All of this combined with an often unattainable vision of what success is gets the best of some of the best. Chefs, many, in pursuit of Michelin stars and other noteworthy bragging rights, are striving for a place that doesn’t exist. This place is always moving and the load seem to get heavier, the higher the stakes. Much of that weight seems handed down from a culture and an industry that defines success (in a lot of ways) in being more innovative, creative and out of the box than the next guy. It keeps us continually looking into the mirror, asking ourselves, how can I be better? Not necessarily better than who I was yesterday, but rather, better than the expectations the industry has put in place for me. Measuring success on such a scale makes it unreachable, because it becomes a moving target, always leaving us feeling like we aren’t quite there yet. Even if we get to this place, the demand and toll it takes on us to achieve it and then attempt to maintain it, keeps us from actually enjoying the process in getting there.

While this drive for greatness can be fun and exciting and the birthplace of true innovation, the true heart and soul of what we do starts to fade into mirky waters. We start to see some of the best, some of those that embodied these ideals better than anyone, fall and crack under pressure, seeing the only way out involving a neuse around one’s neck or having to choke down the neck of a revolver.

Why? Because of a Michelin star and the pressure that comes with such acclaim?

Like I said, I’ll never win a Michelin star and I’m okay with that. Though, whenever I step foot into the kitchen, tie an apron around my waist and button up the double breasted buttons of my chef coat, I make a commitment to myself to bring everything I have – this has always given me great satisfaction. It’s rooted in the fact that I’m growing more skillful in my craft, while also having the privilege of making people happy. That’s truly what it’s all about, whether you’ve got three Michelin stars, or you’ve got a three star average on Yelp — it’s about investing in the craft and making people happy.

I think we’ve gotten pretty good at the first part of that equation — the art and skill of getting better at the craft. I think when stakes are high though, we start to lose sight of why we started in the first place, which is to make people smile, laugh and enjoy themselves, while taking a break from the crazy stressful world in which we all live. That’s what it’s all about and at the root of what we do.

As chef Thomas Keller said in The French Laundry Cookbook,

‘When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.’

Making people happy….. that includes the people we cook for, the people we cook with, and most importantly, the people each of us is becoming every single day, while working the stressful confines of a restaurant kitchen. We need to make ourselves happy first.


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