Funny enough, I have dreams about all of those kitchens, and they are never imagined the same. The kitchens of your dreams are cleaner, planned better, calmer. The kitchens of your nightmares are exactly as they are. They're grimy, small, noisy, and alive. Sometimes, you hear the printer spool in your sleep and sometimes you forget to fire something, but there is nothing major happening and it's the worst catastrophe that has ever occurred. It's odd to have demons that are so mundane, that you are the only person who's horror movie is an even-more tame version of the movie Chef. The reality of having a job that you both loathe and love with often equal passion is that permeates throughout your subconscious and thus you can't even sleep off the clock.
The Internet and television have had the interesting ability to record what seems to be a changing of the guard in the restaurant industry. Television has attempted to make being a chef glamorous, and succeeded in many ways. If it hasn't, why do people still go to culinary school? They also made us look like huge fucking assholes, which to be fair is not so much off the point. Newer programs have been more honest, because the chefs have made it that way. I may the only one who can look at Dan Barber's life and both love his ideas and see the misery that chef's lives are outside of the kitchen. This is even acknowledging how amazing I feel about my own job the majority of the time.
The Internet lately has been a mixed bag on the subject. There is a never ending cavalcade of food pictures, chef interviews, and stories about the evolution of cooking. Those aren't lying to you; it really is that cool to be an executive chef, work with new local products, and create new dishes. Most of those stories won't tell you how hard it is to be a the top of the pyramid. How little moments are what is noticed in the day-to-day slog of management and recruiting. The next wave of articles is bipolar and reflects on how the next rung down feels. Chefs are boisterously proud of their profession, and most of them would be happy if tomorrow was their last day in it. The articles will detail misery intricately, and then end with messages like, "that is what made us strong". Or they will simply be questions: where have all the chefs gone or why am I a chef?
This isn't going to be a diatribe about it, but I feel the best way to get back into to writing is to explain why I got out. The simple reasons are probably easily discerned, I had bouts of depression and most likely alcoholism, but that doesn't explain the professional choice. These are both common in chefs and writers, so it's hard to blame either for what I now deem self-dissatisfaction. I hate deadlines and I hate shop talk. These are the two most prevalent features of professional writing and restaurants. Writing about sports and politics, which are my two main interests past cooking, also boils down into the most cliched and simple conclusions. When history constantly repeats itself, it becomes easier to prognosticate and harder to develop new content. Seriously, read any of my Sporting Kansas City articles on SBNation, change the players names, and tell me if soccer has changed in three years. The same goes for me handicapping the Republican field in each election.
Cooking is different somehow. On appearance, it is a static and cyclical field, very much like fashion where the trends move slowly even in the modern age. The money in it is very old, even if the active participants are not. But a kitchen is an organic beast of its own, and the restaurant is never boring from a chef's perspective. On slow nights, the guests are cranky and picky and appreciative. On busy nights, they'll be joyous, drunk, and leave the restaurant with a Yelp review in mind. The chefs will be on point up until service and melt under pressure, or freak out and do just fine. They'll do things that you've never seen before, both on the positive and negative. There will be jokes that have no punchline, righteous anger that has no target, beautiful dishes that guests love, and dishes that confuse the hell out of people (in our case, dishes that have been around for decades in French cuisine). These are of course generalizations about working in a kitchen that everyone probably gets by now.
To be more personal, the same reasons I wish I was in shape to put on football pads and knock the crap out of somebody lives inside a chef. You do it to be the best at something, perhaps not just cooking. Maybe you managed the fuck out of that kitchen. Maybe that french top sparkled at the end of the night. It doesn't matter what your passion is. It's the closest anyone can get to the big leagues these days. It's endlessly demanding, incredibly physical, high pressure, and probably the most ludicrous physical environment, just from an outside temperature extreme and random dangers that you can find. It's a low paying, low rewards job, and most of us love it.
This is hard to explain to people who make six-figures to sit behind a desk and surf the Internet in between strategy meetings, emails, and the occasional problem solving. It's hard to explain to anyone with a different job that I find harder like being a mother, a good police officer or a nurse or doctor. It's even harder to explain to chefs who hate their jobs, yet keep coming in day after day to do it. I know because I was there: I walked in the door angry, I worked angry, and then I went to the bar angry. Yet I'll try, perhaps in vain.
There is a motion to it, a flow that you feel on the better days, that's hard to find anywhere. Love certainly eclipses the feeling, but love is on another plane that I'll have to explain in another post (or a book the way I write). It is a zen, so much that when I started working my current job and perhaps for as long as I have worked, there will be days where people constantly ask me if I'm okay. I don't speak when I'm focused, whether that focus is internal or external. If you are still reading, I assume you can see I'm not at a loss for words. In a perfect world, I would just wear headphones and completely ignore everyone, but I am not alone in this by any means. So sometimes I sing, and other times, I spin on my heels and make movements that are completely unnatural to other chefs. I use my knife strangely, and frankly cook in ways that I find completely worthless to new chefs. It is my dance, and it is probably one of the most terrifying things to a chef, and certainly the most fun I have professionally.
The draw that brings people here interests me. Some of us do it because we love food and we knew it was what we were meant to do. They went to culinary school, they bought the right books, and said their yes chefs. Some were told they had to make money or else by their lovely ladies. They stuck around because they love it, or because those lovely ladies found them some more mouths to feed. Some us just don't know why, but they're here. When people ask where the chefs are going, I tell them the money isn't there and the anger still is, because the food isn't getting worse and the fun can be found. Perhaps the draw just isn't that great anymore, but it's funny that if I were to be rich tomorrow due to some unforeseen instance, I'd probably find myself back here before long.
That's the draw of it and the flaw of it. There are no awards, cursory recognition, and not many thanks for the most of the work you do. Your body has aches and pains that no one your age should have, beautiful scars and mangled hands. There will be countless friends that pass on by, and casual annoyances that linger forever. The money will come someday if you work real hard, or it won't because it's the real world and hard work's reward is mostly spiritual. You'll look back on it fondly, with so many regrets, especially the anger. Every day, you want to stay in bed, especially at 6am on a weekend, but then you get there and the clouds fade. The sarcasm stays (because who are we kidding it's tough), but there aren't many jobs that you like better when you are there than when you hit the bar after. So you keep dancing and hope the music never stops, because you might be lost without it.
1. Never work hungry. Hunger is the devil crawling inside your body's empty cavity. Meatballs are the best solution, but preferably those with pork in them. Pork is the solution to every life problem, except heart disease.*
*Not a proven fact, studies say death is preferable to a life without pork.
2. If you aren't having fun, stop what you are doing. This goes for work, relationships, and generally everything. Exceptions include parenting and breathing, never stop those.
3. Apologies to my girlfriend and family who are the only people who read these things and wish for them to continue. Apologies to anyone who was hooked after one sentence and continued to read as I meandered through many "feelings". Apologies to those looking for humor, I swear I've never been happier. I mean Donald Trump is the leading Republican Presidential candidate; the schadenfreude is going to be delicious.
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