For almost a year now I haven’t worked in a kitchen. Yes I still walk through them every day, I’m still around the people and I haven’t been away from them long enough to forget anything that goes along with working in them. The sore feet, aching back, the heat, the stress and of course the gratification. The amount of times per month that I miss being in a kitchen is shrinking rapidly. I have embraced the change of scenery, the new job duties and responsibilities, and in all honesty I’m as happy as I have ever been.
However, being out of the kitchen has given me the ability to figure out what it was I liked about it the most, why it’s attractive to so many people and how those of us who spend time in a professional kitchen rationalize our life. The chance to step back and see so many more sides of the profession has been enlightening to say the least and I have learned as much about myself in this last year as I have over the last ten.
If you’re hoping for a new recipe, then this post probably isn’t for you. But if you have spent time in a kitchen, or been curious about it then this may interest you a great deal.
If you do an internet search for articles about life in a professional kitchen you will get plenty of results. You also will have the opportunity to read several different views of how many hours a day or week we work, how hard and thankless the job is, and don’t forget the aspect of having to work all holidays and special occasions when the “normal” people in the world are having a good time. All of those things are true but I’m going to try and cover a little more ground here, perhaps dig a little deeper and give some more insight in to not only the “what”, but the “why” we enjoy this lifestyle.
So lets cover the most obvious subjects then shed some light on how “kitchen people” view them, because on our best day we are a little twisted and we wouldn’t want to be any other way.
The long hours: Yes it’s true we work long hours and I don’t think there are any words that I can put together that will articulate that any better than anyone else. However I do feel I can offer something as to the reason why we do so. When you make the choice to work in professional kitchens it is normally due to a deep seated desire to please people. That is the one common bond among us; at the base of all we do is a very simple and basic desire to make others happy. So at the end of the day, when it’s time to go home if we feel that we have made people happy then we have a sense of accomplishment, and a desire to come back the next day.
Another common phrase you hear that is true is that being a Chef isn’t a job, its a lifestyle. And this is intertwined in the heart of a kitchen employee, because when you’re off work its still in your mind. In fact, it never goes away, you think about the order of scallops you overcooked, or how your going to attack your prep the next day, every night the thoughts of doing something to make yourself better tomorrow goes through your head. If you’re not thinking about things like this each and every night then you may as well go back to washing dishes because the moment you stop trying to become better, or stop caring about becoming better, you have no business serving people. The main point is that even though you may not physically be at work, mentally you still are. And in most cases you’re going to show up early, or stay late on a regular basis in order to make yourself better. This alone will add weekly hours to your work load when customers are not even around.
Missing important family time: This one is the toughest of all, and I think the one that most people only look at on the surface. I can’t count how many important family functions I have missed over the years. Things that I would have attended, or paid attention to if I wouldn’t have been in a kitchen. Some of them more important than others, but they are all grouped together in the fact that I wasn’t there. Birthday’s, ballgames, important days at school, the list goes on and on. It’s bad that you miss these things, and it is something that is bothersome. However the worst part of this is that when you are missing these important times of your families life, you’re having fun. You’re in the kitchen, you have tickets hanging and you are thinking about nothing but getting the food out, it’s what we do and it’s what we enjoy. It is perhaps the most selfish act that a parent, spouse, or significant other can commit, but we do it over and over; and during the time period when we are being missed by our loved ones, we, are happy? Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we don’t care, it’s not that it doesn’t bother us, and it’s not like we don’t realize what we’re missing because we do. It’s just that when orders start coming in, and food needs to be prepared we really only know one approach and we enjoy it that way. In order for us to do the job that provides for our family, that’s where we are supposed to be mentally so although we may be missing something that breaks a family members heart, and our own, we are doing what we love for them in the only way we know how. If you have never lied in bed and lost sleep over this then you either aren’t approaching professional cooking properly, or you don’t know what love is.
Another aspect of the same subject is how we deal with missing important events in our family lives. There should be a set of rules to this, or a disclaimer that comes with us to make sure we are the type of person who deserves to be able to have children before we do. It’s so simple and basic, but I have heard the wrong words said to children far too many times in my life. If you tell a child “I’ll make it up to you”, then you are intentionally doing damage to someone that you are supposed to have unconditional love for. The one person or persons in our lives that we are supposed to do anything for should never be made to feel the way those words will make them feel. Because it’s a lie, plain and simple you are lying to a child and rationalizing it to yourself by saying it’s what your career demands, and that’s bullshit. How is someone that misses their child’s eleventh birthday going to make that up to them? You’re not, because you weren’t there, it’s that simple. They will never have another eleventh birthday, or opening day game, or program at grade school but you’re trying to make them think that an ice cream cone on a Sunday evening should make all of that go away. Well it doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try to convince them that it does. Accountability is one of the most important things that I demand from my staff, and if they can’t give it to their family I honestly don’t want it from them in the kitchen. Be accountable and explain why you’re not going to be there, and apologize for it; believe it or not a child will understand. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt them, or bother them but at least you were honest with them about why you’re not going to be there, and you’re not telling them a lie about making it up to them. If you feel that telling a child “I will make it up to you” makes it acceptable for you to miss something important to them, then you miss one of the most important aspects of parenthood. And some day the child will realize that and all you will have is what you can find within the walls of a kitchen. Being true and honest to your family allows you to be better in a kitchen, makes the profession honorable and will lead you to becoming a Chef. Misleading a loved one, but never missing a “shift drink” makes you a self centered cook on your best day, and I promise you will never know the proper way to season food, or show a family member you love them.
At the core of our chosen profession is self gratification, we work the long hours and miss the important days because of the gratification we get. It’s selfish of us, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that because of what it does to our loved ones. We spend our days serving people, and when we go home at night we should take any time that we have with our family to serve them with even more attention to detail, because at the end of the day they are the ones that are paying the price for us to do something we love.
Stepping away from the kitchen has been a positive for me, other than the realization of how selfish I was over the years. I just hope that those that I love do really understand all of the things that I missed and why I missed them. I’m thankful that they’re not waiting for the magical day when I will make something up to them, because I never allowed myself to say that. And I hope that deep down they know that they mean more to me than the people that I served over the years.