Self-Care for Chefs
When you take a bite of risotto with smoked tomato purée and colorful poached beets, you’re probably thinking of the dish’s flavors and its overall delicacy. But behind every exquisite meal is the work of a chef that entails long hours, worn-out knees and the pressure to please ever-changing eaters and their taste buds.
In April 2015, Homaro Cantu, chef and founder of Michelin-starred Moto in Chicago, took his life. Sadly, the event was not an anomaly within the industry.
“As far as the industry’s concerned, I can’t remember a period over the past 18 months to two years where we have lost so many high-profile chefs in our industry due to stress—due to diseases that have been brought about by lifestyles that the industry tends to cultivate,” says Kevin Caskey, owner and chef at Skillet in German Village.
The disturbing trend is raising the question for Kevin and other chefs in Columbus and beyond: What does self-care for chefs look like?
“If we know it’s happening amongst the ranks of those chefs and restaurateurs that are high-profile, the numbers are probably unimaginable for the day-to-day working chef,” says Kevin.
For Kevin, ensuring that his employees make time to relax at the end of the day helps combat the consequences of such a demanding lifestyle.
“We have a sense of comradery from a family meal—having the opportunity where everyone can sit down for 10 minutes and eat every day, which only for us happens at the end of the shift, as opposed to most restaurants having it prior to the start of the shift,” says Kevin.
Having the meal after a shift rather than before is crucial since it means employees can truly destress since their work is done for the day. “It’s just 10 to 15 minutes at the end of the day when everyone can kind of collectively sigh together and say, you know, we made it through another one—so to speak—if it’s been a rough one. Or, if it hasn’t been a shift to that extreme, just to collaborate with each other—a sense of togetherness,” says Kevin.
For Bill Glover, executive chef at Gallerie Bistro & Bar at the Hilton Downtown, a seat at the end of the day would be much appreciated. “When you think about the long hours just standing on concrete or hard tiles floors, it ages you. You know, my knees are not 39-year-old knees. They’re older,” says Bill with a chuckle. “I’ve been in kitchens 24 years.”
Bill admits that the hours are brutally long. In previous jobs, Bill has woken up at noon to go to work at 3pm to work all through the night. Those hours were partially what led to a divorce.
Though some may question how necessary such long hours may be in the culinary field, for Bill it’s of essence. There are the hours when you work to feed and then the hours you work to create—to stay in the game.
“I think that something that happens to a lot of chefs as they age is they find something that works early in their careers, like the diners’ opinion with their food, and they develop their own style,” says Bill. “But they arrest their own development whether it’s from a technology standpoint or the trends that are part of the now. It tends to date them and make them less hirable.”
Once a day’s work is done, Bill experiments so he doesn’t arrest his own development.
“I have a style, no doubt, and it will always be my style—but you have to find ways to evolve and stay current with what people are eating,” says Bill. “You have to have an antennae, so to speak, to monitor your dining audience and cook for the crowd—not for yourself.”
But creativity does come to a halt when Bill’s general manager asks him why he’s still at work, which is all too frequently. And Bill has also gained a better balance of work and family, which has allowed him to enjoy time with his current wife and children from both marriages.
Warding one’s self from burnout isn’t purely a matter of balancing one’s time, however. A major stressor for a chef can be the tension between the front and back of the house brought about by pay discrepancies.
“I think it would do good to include a tip in the bill,” says Kevin.
Though Skillet does not include a tip when billing customers, it resolves some chef-to-waiter tension in other ways.
“We foster—we don’t mandate—but we foster an environment here at Skillet where the front of the house voluntarily tips out to those that work in the back of the house, as far as the dishwashers and host and hostesses are concerned,” says Kevin. “Because we’ve been able to cultivate an overall team attitude and because we are a smaller-based restaurant—therefore we’re a smaller crew—it’s easier to foster that sense of teamwork, that we’re all in this together.”
Skillet’s suggestion to share tips works. But still, there’s no better tool than the mind—when it comes to self-preservation in a demanding but gratifying profession.
“For me personally, it’s just changing my way of thinking—not feeling that you’re isolated and that you’re the only one who’s working these hours and that you’re the only one within the industry,” says Kevin, “or you’re the only one in your business that’s having to put all this time in.”