Food is Good. Food is Sex. Food is Pain.
I remember reading Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’ shortly after closing our family restaurant and thinking ‘yes’ – someone was able to put in words what #kitchenlife was really like. It’s a book that resonates with anyone who has ever worked the line (even after all these years), striking a chord with those who are just getting by.
Like a lot of people, Bourdain was my culinary hero – I wanted to be his little sidekick, exploring parts unknown together. Reading the first few chapters, you glide past ‘Food is Good’, ‘Food is Sex’, and then ‘Food is Pain’. I remember reading the ‘Food is Pain’ chapter and feeling like there was something missing. He spoke about the physical pain and stress on your body when earning your stripes, but there was no mention about the emotional and mental pain that this industry brings on the regular. That’s the side that I remember well.
In my eyes, he was the Chef who got out. Tony made his own badass culinary path without working in a kitchen or restaurant again. As I took the brave first steps post-restaurant, Bourdain and his journey represented hope. Fast forwarding to what we all know now, a chapter was definitely missing.
The industry has to and needs to change.
Throughout the years, there’s been a shift in our food culture. I’m usually banging on about the highly processed and commercialized nature of our food system, but this isn’t today’s conversation. When food becomes about competition its meaning and essence changes. We’ve been conditioned to those unfortunate standards ‘as seen on TV’. But, this Gordon Ramsay type mentally has always lived in kitchens across the world way before the likes of Gordon Ramsay; it’s just the tragic norm. But just because it’s always been there doesn’t mean it should still be there – times are and have changed and it’s not ok to physically, mentally or emotionally shit on anyone, even if they royally fuck up.
Let me rewind a bit: I’ve always been a marketing geek who worked in offices for most of my professional life. I stumbled across this kitchen thing out of necessity – as a family-run business you do whatever it takes to keep those doors open and that’s how I started cooking. My point is this: in an office the shouting and abuse that has become standard in many kitchens and restaurants would not be tolerated. So, why is it?
Sometimes it’s the feeling of knowing you’re capable of so much more, but you’re so short staffed (and those shortage issues aren’t going away anytime soon) and physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted that you can’t. I remember sitting down on the rubber mat at the end of service trying to make sense of what just happened. Trying my best to keep things from crumbling after my Mum had her heart attack and we were already short staffed. I was running the front and back-of-house at the same time. There were services where I would cook and serve at the same time without people noticing. It was not normal, but it was my normal. I asked for help and the industry didn’t come. That left a lasting impact on me.
Since then, I’ve found my own path and through my little project, making up for some of the wrongs within the industry. Sometimes you need to be broken to come back stronger. When we closed the doors, I promised that I would always support local and not only that, but to tell stories about how hard it really is. I wasn’t going to turn my back on the industry, even though I was close to walking away.
We’re now seeing the rise of documentaries like Chef’s Table and Salt Fat Acid Heat where we’re going back to real food with this much needed human touch. Chef’s Table highlighted Sean Brock’s self-love routine. Ben Shewry from Attica in Melbourne has led the way, bridging the gap. He posted this on Instagram in 2017:
‘This year, I feel we took a major leap forward in the development of our culture by putting young men and women who work in our kitchens on a 48-hour week roster. 4 days on, 3 days off. Are the old ways of flogging yourself and having no life outside of the kitchen right? In my opinion, no. Do I regret working the hours I have? No, however there wasn’t another option. Changing the roster structure to accommodate the fact that cooks are humans, not machine and indeed can have lives as well has been cathartic for not only the team but also the business. We get an elite 48 hours out of each of them and all of our cooks can work on multiple sections at any given moment, becoming multi-skilled in the process.’
Closer to home, I asked Chef friends about their experiences so we can simply learn from each other.
Brock Bowes | Provisions at Kettle River Brewing | Kelowna
“In my experience, all cooks have hit a point or will hit a point of ‘breaking’ in their career unless something is done inside the workplace or out of the workplace. I’ve been in situations where you work endless days and stressful weeks where everyday seems like ground hog day. It’s really up to you to change all that. I have decided to focus on quality of life, which in my terms means getting healthy by eating right and not over a garbage can or on a milk crate in record time. I have started going to the gym, which I find is a good stress relief.
I find being a partner of a successful food truck and opening 2 restaurants in the very near future may sound like a lot of work but it’s all for us and on our terms. I’m not saying every cook should go and open up a restaurant, but at least find a job that ignites your passion again for why we all decided to be cooks.
On our truck and in our restaurant, we have implemented that you always need to eat, sleep right, and keep the ‘partying’ within reason. If you see some Chefs now are focusing on being healthy and active and the days of up all night doing drugs and drinking are fading away, I hope! I’m not saying stop living your life the way you want to but do everything in moderation, and if you think you may have a problem, please get help.”
Since my change I have some regrets but nothing I would ever hold against myself. If you’re young or older and think you are invincible, think again! I used to pride myself on working long stretches of days in a row and seeing how far I could go, but why?”.
Kai Koroll | Block One at 50th Parallel | Lake Country
“This industry is obviously going through a big transformation currently. There has been a lot of light shed lately onto the hardships that go along with having a career as a cook. Unfair wages, longs hours, and an incredibly stressful environment can take a huge toll on a person, especially if they have pre-existing problems with mental health. I try to start with the things within my control- fair wages, reasonable shifts, and having a positive and supportive environment are a few things that I can choose to provide for my staff. Beyond that, an open door policy is huge. It’s easy enough to tell someone to leave their issues at the door, but I think that is an irresponsible way of managing people. My staff knows that they can talk to me about anything and that I will be there for them when the going gets tough. By taking care of my people in these ways, not only do I get the best out of them in terms of quality and work ethic, but I think it helps us proliferate the changes that we want to see in this industry.
Personally, I maintain balance for myself by getting regular exercise. I go running with my dogs everyday before work, rain or shine. It helps me to think clearly, gets the blood flowing before stepping into a busy day, and honestly just makes me feel good. Being a Chef means a hectic and demanding schedule, but scheduling at least one ‘date night; per week with my partner helps maintain my relationship when I’m not around very much during the busy season.”
Matthew Batey | Teatro Group | Calgary
“I am not ok upstairs if I am not ok downstairs” is often how I capture my reason for physical health. I’ve never really been concerned about body image in a typical fashion; it’s more so about feeling good with the guy in the mirror. Cycling has become one of the most enjoyable ways to not only stay fit, but it also is a hobby that I can enjoy with my fellow Chef colleagues [including Connie DeSousa and John Jackson), uniting both passions while benefitting my health. This allows me to stay focused, more resilient and more importantly more present no matter what others are saying. Not only am I concerned with our guests’ experience, but it’s also the well being of the 230 talented, passionate people who work for our group that I must ensure we are doing everything we can so that they can do what they do, an amazing honour. I can’t be a leader to the team if I myself am lost in a fog of mental funk.”
John Jackson | CHARCUT, CHARBAR | Calgary
“I made biking a mandatory part of my life because it was something that made me happy. Over the last three years, it’s been non-stop; 365 days a year, I ride”.
Alexei Boldireff | Baijiu | Edmonton
“You know, it’s a complicated question to answer. Finding balance and peace is such a subjective thing. For myself, acupuncture, massage, and meditation play an integral role in finding balance. The kitchen is a mentally and physically taxing environment, and those practices help to even the odds a bit. Self-care is definitely an undervalued and key component of long kitchen careers.
For my staff, we generally try to create a supportive environment. One key thing that we have implemented is our unspoken policy of handshakes. All of my staff says hello to whomever is working when they arrive and shake their hand. At the end of their shift, they shake everyone’s hand again and say goodbye. It may seem like a trivial practice, but a sincere goodbye and a handshake with eye contact does wonders for quashing any disagreements that may have happened over the course of the evening.
I like to think that starting and ending each day with a clean slate really helps everyone to keep their focus on growth rather than getting hung up on past events. It also creates an easy entry point for the staff to say thank you to one another for their help.”
From my own perspective, removing the TripAdvisor and Yelp bookmarks from my Internet browser was one of the best things I did during restaurant life. No matter how much praise you receive, the negative comment will always stick with you – how can it not when you’ve put everything you have into it. You literally become obsessed with that routine of checking and it impacts your whole day. Then I created a business where reviews aren’t a thing in my world because you can’t find me! Clearly, there was motive behind that.
So, yes, reflection is good. I thought’s I’d share a paragraph from my second ever blog post:
“For a long time I was lost – I moved as a 24 year old from England. Without getting deep, a lot of stuff happened. We opened a farm-to-table Indian restaurant for the very first time, without ever working in a restaurant before. When Chefs left or hard times came, we found a way, because that’s what we do, we find a way. We recently closed the restaurant because we thought it was time for us to live life. Our priorities were shifting, and our experiences gave us a more mature and realistic perspective on business and on life. Working 6-days-a-week and 12 to 16-hours-a-day was tough, but it’s a familiar story within the industry. You lose yourself, you get cranky, you don’t eat because there’s just too much to do, and there is no stopping the stress or the amount of work, especially when it’s your baby. It’s not a failure to decide to sell the business: it’s only a failure if we didn’t learn anything from the experience. We made a difference, changing perspectives of Indian food and family-business, even if it’s been in a small way. Despite all the bad stuff, I still love food (and thank you alcohol). I love to tell stories with food, which is why The Paisley Notebook happened.”
Since typing those words and publishing them on March 1, 2016, a lot has changed. It can and will get better. I may not belong to the industry anymore, but those who contributed to this piece have shown that change is happening. I’m glad that more are recognizing the need for self-love, which, when it’s your job to look after others, is often forgotten.
I’m going to leave you with this:
You can fit in even though you don’t on paper. You can say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. You don’t necessarily have to be the bitch to get things done. You can create magical, inclusive events where people become family. You can raise $47,000 for local charities in 2 years. You can true to your intentions. You can be a hobbit-sized person with a tiny pop up dinner series and win a national culinary tourism award. You can make a small difference. And by continuing the conversation it means a difference has been made. Culinary life 3.0 is filled with a lot more light than in version 1.0. There was a time where I didn’t want to cook again, but then none of this would ever have been possible. I’m very lucky to do what I do, how I do it – I can honestly say I love the people I cook for.
Don’t stop cooking.
You’re not alone.