The Lifestyle of a Cook

The lifestyle of a professional cook has been documented in so many different ways and from so many perspectives that it has become very convoluted, and I think, to the extent that the general masses have just sort of brushed it aside as a “yeah, I get it: woe is me,” type of situation.  This is something that warrants a straight-setting of the record.  Where to start becomes a bit more elusive (and appropriately so: the perfect word to use to describe this lifestyle in and of itself).

First of all, it’s only fair to note that the reality of the day-to-day of the profession itself only holds a certain appeal to certain personalities.  A young man/woman who graduated top 15% of their high school (or culinary school), who aces every written test they’re given, but blushes and is mildly offended when casually asked (while on the line) about their views on receiving anal sex (again, man or woman), might not be the person that is right for this industry.  Just today, I had an intern in my kitchen ask me why some of the other guys (who are all around her age, experience level and new-ness to the restaurant) talk so much shit to her.  This is a foreign, married intern female, around the age of 26, in whom I have a lot of faith.  So when she asked me this, I sorta smiled and said, “it’s good for you:  if you’re going to be a woman working in kitchens, you better get some thick skin.”  It’s these types of tests of character that are integral in filtering out those who aren’t meant for this line of work.  My reaction to her concern in that situation isn’t hazing, and it’s not harassment: it’s common courtesy.  It’s only decent to allow you to potentially realize this isn’t the profession for you, before you commit God-knows how many years and dollars beating your head against a wall, trying to figure out why you thought this was ever a good idea.

*Fast forward three years, I got to witness that foreign intern, having worked her way up to Sous Chef, doing her deserved share of ball-busting herself!

The type of person that thrives in a professional restaurant kitchen is usually one — or several — of a number of things:  an addict, a sociopath, a criminal (convicted or not), a genius, an Aspergian, an ex-athlete, an immigrant, or one of two types of lost souls: the one who could never figure out anything better to do with their lives, or the ones who couldn’t successfully do anything else, and this was the only community in which they were welcome.

So, if you take all these types of people described above and have them work together 40-60-80 hours a week in a small space with things like sharp-ass knives, open flames and really expensive products, they’re going to get to know each other on a level that you’re unlikely to find around the office water cooler.  Such an otherwise unimaginable personality is indeed the type of steel that this particular crucible is liable to produce with a reliable amount of consistency world-wide.  So… we all have a screw loose or two (or a dozen, but who’s counting?).

Something that could not be more misunderstood, especially by those who’ve never worked a dinner service, is our abnormal hours…  HAHAHAH.  Oh, you think you understand by knowing that we wake up between 10am and noon to get to work on time, and come home around 1am (or later), and that those aren’t “normal” hours.  Yeah.  No shit.  We get that.  If only it were that simple.

Off the top of your head, name the business establishments that are open at 10PM when we get off such a shift.  If you’re operating in the same urban settings that I have over the years (and if not, your options must be/have been shockingly worse than those of my experience), you’re looking at bars, fast food joints, liquor stores, and if you’re lucky, an after-hours blues/jazz club (explain why we drink so much?).  Oh, and also, any friends you have who lead normal lives are asleep by the time you get off, so the only people you end up hanging out with are in your exact same situation.  So normal people get to get off work and go out to dinner at a restaurant at 6:30, or a trip to the supermarket.  Maybe even a haircut, a happy hour date, or catching up with an old friend before they have to go home to the family.  Well what if the only thing you could do when you got off was either go home to entertain yourself in a way that didn’t wake up your roommate(s), or go to a bar until they either closed or said that because you were industry and a regular, you could hang out for after-hours, in which case you wouldn’t leave until around 4:30 (this happens A LOT).

Yes, I suppose there are positives to be drawn from this rockstar lifestyle (albeit by default): late night partying, free drinks, liberal sexual attitudes, and a particular lore that hovers over your head at the end of the bar.  The decision to be made between staying until you’re ready to leave or going wherever the evening may take you, bares a clear tint of romanticism.  But even behind that aura of wild mystique inherent in such situations, what happens when you decide you actually want to be treated like a real person too? You want to have lunch and catch up with old friends or go on regular day trips with your current ones? Maybe you’re looking for a significant other, and you have a shit-load to offer a partner, but you can only meet up after 11pm any day but Tuesdays or Wednesdays (because those are your off-days) – all of your positive attributes mean precisely dick if you are never gonna be around.  This explains why so many chefs wind up single or divorced, not finding their lasting marriage until their in their forties, and have made manager, or own their own successful place.

And now we reach the always bemoaned topic of money: You never have any.

Let that sink in, with the following context:  You can make rent – as long as you find a small-as-shit apartment with a good deal regarding utilities, and you’ll absolutely have a roommate.  But, you don’t have nice things.  Who am I shitting? You don’t have things: You get good and comfortable with the clothes/furniture/appliances/etc. that you have, because unless you are never going to go out for a drink after work with co-workers (good luck with that), or try to go out and have a nice dinner maybe once every 3-4 months, you never have enough money to get those other things.  Unless, however you land a sous or head chef position, in which case, you’ll be working 70 hours a week, wondering why you ever agreed to be salary, because you’re actually making $3/hr. less than you were as an hourly grunt.  If you meet someone and tells you they’re a sous chef, I don’t care where they work, they deserve the drink you’re about to buy them.

But on the bright side: the food.  You do get exposed to some food, techniques and cooks that normal people would ordinarily have to pay through the teeth for.

After only four years working in fine dining, I’ve come to take it for granted that I’m extremely familiar with things like foie gras, bone marrow, fine cutlery, truffles, wagyu, microplanes, saffron, circulators, oysters, oyster-knives, nasturtium flowers, caviar, quail eggs, and how to properly utilize all of them.  I’ve sampled the best fish, beef, produce, wine and specialty product that money can buy in this world (yes, in this world).  To discuss the nuances of when I actually enjoy eating sweetbreads, or if I think truffles are actually worth the cost they demand, I usually have to find someone who has as much experience eating those things.  The only difference between me and those people, is that I’ve done it with my fingers or tweezers, leaning over a sink,  cutting board or garbage can, as opposed to off of a plate worth more than what I make in a day and a white tablecloth adorned with fine silverware.

One evening, I was working an off-site event with my chef at the time, and as we were cleaning up, we were talking about how absurdly naïve and bland the general conversation was that we overheard at the service table.  I made some comment about how frustrating it was that those were the people with all the money – those with no taste and no clue what they should be spending it on (basically bemoaning that in our profession, you accrue profound taste, but never enough money to satisfy it).  To which his reply was evocative: “Yeah, but we’re the rich ones.”  He went on to pontificate on how we were the ones that told those with money what to do with it.  Things were good and worth spending money on because we told them it was and because we cooked it and we served it at our restaurants.  If you think the bourgeoise thought on their own to eat fattened duck liver without a chef telling them that it would cost triple what their steak would because it was worth it without batting an eye, then you’d better start imagining a world without Foie Gras.’

The lifestyle has its pros and cons.  I won’t tell you which trumps which, but I can tell you anyone who cooks for a living has made a pretty clear decision.

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