When I tell people I’m a chef, I get this look. There’s this fascination with restaurant life, a desire to know more about what happens behind the food. Perhaps it started with Anthony Bordain’s tell-all book “Kitchen Confidential,” or maybe when cooking shows stopped targeting only stay-at-home moms and TV personalities became Food Network stars.
People are usually filled with questions, but it’s really one thing they want to know: What’s it like being a chef? The short answer – unbelievably demanding and incredibly rewarding.
The long answer:
It’s hard work. It’s long hours, sweaty balls (ahem, or underboobs), and tired feet. If it’s not your throbbing back/knees/shoulders, then it’s that toothache you’ve been ignoring because you don’t have time (or insurance) to get it checked. You’ll inevitably burn or cut yourself, no matter how careful you are. Even if it’s really bad, you’ll probably tough it out until the end of the shift. No matter what you do, you’ll find that restaurant life is often little or no recognition, and everything feels constant struggle.
Outside the physical aspect, there’s something else (and it’s a big one)– you miss out on big life occasions. Weddings, birthdays, funerals, and parties. If you’re lucky enough to get consecutive days off, the weekend you know doesn’t start with an “s.” You will apologize. Constantly. “I’m sorry, I can’t make it” becomes your mantra. They don’t understand, and they won’t understand. After all, it’s easy for them to take a day off. Why can’t you?
It’s hard to ask for a day off from chef life. And calling out sick? Forget about it. The schedule is lean and mean, and every man counts (even if he’s so hungover he can barely function). But, even though you never call off, you better believe that someone else will no-call-no-show/call you from jail/get stuck in some city without a ride back to town.
Since that Murphy guy is a jerk, this always happens on the same day that the water heater goes out. So there you are, hand-washing dishes from the busiest-brunch-of-your-life, boiling stockpots of water to keep everything sanitary. Don’t forget, you’re down a man so you’re trying to do the job of three people. It’s probably also the same week that someone parked in the alley, blocking the dumpster so the garbage company refused to take the garbage. Trash is overflowing everywhere, but of course, no one thought to tell you about it until this exact moment.
Somehow, miraculously, none of that deters your customers, who are packing in droves to order their favorite meal. You make it through, and a hellish day becomes a story shared over a shift drink. You laugh instead of cry. Those experiences are inevitable, and life on the line creates a certain type of comradery.
You get stronger as you accept that “it is what it is.” You start to crave the rush instead of fearing it, and all the good aspects of restaurant life unfold in front of you. Before you know it, it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. Every challenge is an opportunity to perfect your skills and you slowly become a total badass. I mean, how many jobs really allow you to see your creations go from paper to plate? From time to time, people might even compliment your food!
You come to hate slow nights and become so proud of your cover counts that you call your friends at neighboring restaurants to compare (see, brag) about who was busier. Being in the industry is like having a membership to an exclusive club. It certifies that you can not only handle the heat, but you can wear your burns and cuts like badges of honor. The community takes care of its own. I mean, we relentlessly poke fun at each other at any given opportunity, but we also lend money we know we’ll never get back, or offer up a free room to a coworker after a bad breakup.
Despite all the challenges, I love it. It pulls me in, and I can’t imagine myself anywhere else. The food service industry is my home, my community, and its people speak my (very dirty) language.
If that was the answer you were looking for, then hell, you can be a chef. Just make sure you pursue it relentlessly, with everything you have. Leave your ego at the door and humble yourself enough to learn everything you can. Commit to it, and no matter what you do, don’t look back.
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.