Just For A Moment
I’ve been quiet for a little while, for a couple reasons. Work has been a little stressful and so I haven’t been much interested in thinking about food on my off hours. Closest I’ve gotten in the last few days was opening a bag of chips to go with some guac. Though I did make a nice bolognese in my crockpot.
The other reason is that I have been writing, only it’s been fictional. And there was a book review, published on the World Fantasy Award nominated Fantasy Faction. And I decided to pay attention to some stories.
But I want to be serious, for a moment, about the life of a professional cook/culinary expert/chef. It sucks. The hours are long, the expectations are high, the labor is intense and the pay sucks. One in a thousand chefs sees extensive profits. Celebrity chefs are a joke. (Yeah, I said it. What?) The reality is that one in four restaurants die in their first year. Most barely turn a profit. The competition is fierce, so you can never stop.
Most chefs work between 60 and 80 hours a week. A lot of line cooks work between 50 and 60 hours a week, but still only get paid for 38.5 of them. Wages are kept low because the restaurant needs to see some profit to keep the lights on.
Some can do it, though even then it takes a toll. Very little social life, no romantic entanglements unless you count flirting with the new hostess. Lots of alcohol, combined with stress and a whole mess of slightly unstable personalities that you need to gel into a cohesive unit.
Burnout happens, along with drug and alcohol problems and a difficulty readjusting to society outside of a professional kitchen. Most culinary pros are slightly unhinged in the first place and cooking is a highly specialized field, especially in regards to fine dining.
I’m currently experiencing some of that, which is why I left fine dining and that grand old hotel institution to pursue the illustrious career path of production cook for a grocery store deli. It’s not as fun as it sounds.
So should you ever consider a career in a kitchen, there are several things you must ask yourself? Why on Earth do you hate your friends and family? Do you never want to see them again? Do you want to be the person who cooks for everybody because being around nonprofessionals scares you a little inside? Are you already the person that cooks for everybody? You should probably just stay that person. I really enjoy being that person, more so the less time that I spend in a pro kitchen.
Food is love, sustenance, joy and endless in its pleasures. It brings people together, opens them to new experiences. I spent a lot of my childhood in the kitchen with my mother, and I still do. My skills may be more refined than hers now, but we still work well. If only she’d move to Colorado.
Cook professionally if your idea of love involves emotional masochism and frequent injury. Did I not mention the physical hazards of kitchens? Perpetual heat, lots of noise, an unfortunate frequency of people that don’t belong near an open flame. I’ve got a cut on the outside of my left index finger from when a piece of watermelon collapsed on itself while I was cutting it. It bled for the whole shift. I’ve doused my hands in hot oil, burned my arms and hands with sheet trays and saute pans, and discovered how to make improvised pepper spray with a too-hot pan and a handful of chili flake. I’ve cut the corner off each of my thumbs twice. That pad of skin grows back.
This is not to say that I’ll wind up staying a way forever. But sometimes you have to step back to gain perspective. And I want to pursue my own food more, which is hard to do when you have to follow other people’s recipes all day long.
This was long and rambly, but I’ll let it stand. I regret nothing. And I will never regret my career choice. I’ve got to learn some incredible things, both about food and myself. And that motley crew, your line and your servers, they are your family. They are your friends. They can be the only people you see for days, unless you’re lucky enough to have a spouse that tolerates your odd job choice.
I feel the need to thank my wife here. Z has been supportive of me since I started to go to culinary school and help me find a job in the field when school didn’t work out. She encourages me constantly, listens to my incessant and repetitive complaints about the day to day drama. Without her love and support, I’d have nothing. Thank you, Zoe.
And thank you, friends, family, random passersby. Go cook something, give a chef a break.