Stress, A Chef’s Perspective

Serious Cook

Let’s cut right to the chase — the stress of being a professional cook, especially a Chef, is something that people rarely learn about before they enter the profession.  Your face and name are associated with each and every dish that leaves that kitchen, whether you are there or not.  Every guest who eats your food these days is sure they know more about food, kitchens and cooking than you do thanks to their having watched “Hell’s Kitchen” or “Kitchen Nightmares”, or some other Food Network show (and please don’t take that as a criticism of Food Network – I believe it’s a wonderful network that’s done great good for the profession, too).  Horrendous hours working without breaks, working holidays, being hostage to your suppliers, clueless GMs, new trends surfacing and sinking every few months…  It really is the stuff of nightmares. It is the reason that in much of the Western world, professional Chefs have the highest suicide rate of any profession.

For those of us that love the job, though, we can’t turn away.  There’s an incredible high that comes along with finding *just* the right ingredients in a new recipe, or in watching a guest’s face when they taste something that transports them, or even just in that bone-deep exhaustion that sets in after a twelve-hour shift where you know you did it all perfectly.

The tricky part is balancing those two – the incredible downs, and the amazing highs.  These two sides to equation being always there, a chef who wants to last any length of time without burning out had better make sure they’ve got one hell of a good system in place for managing their stress.  Those that do, thrive.  Those that don’t end up burning out, addicted to one vice or another (I would NEVER want to see the percentages on how many Chefs are substance abusers — from what I’ve seen myself, the numbers are way too high), or becoming embittered towards what was once a great love.

Now everyone has different ways of dealing with these stresses.  Some Chefs are blessed with amazingly tolerant and patient spouses.  Some Chefs take every free moment and go into the wilderness to hunt, to hike, or even to fish in a secluded stream (bait/lure not always used).  I know Chefs who deal with the stress by cooking for themselves and family/friends to keep them remembering why they fell in Love with the food.

Me?  I use a combination of different things to help manage mine: I’ve been blessed with a wonderfully supportive spouse and friends, and I’m a pop culture junkie – I read, play video games, know far too much about too many movies, TV shows, comic books, cartoons (Pixar’s “Ratatouille” is still my favorite) and other games.  They keep me distracted and let me put the stress of a day behind me for a while.

The important thing to take away from all of this, though, isn’t that “Wow – this Chef is a geek” (which, if you ask my wife, *IS* completely true), but rather that if you are going to be a professional cook, you need to be ready for this.  You need to know you’ll have a way to deal with the stress.  You need to have a way to keep bending with each wave of pressure instead of just snapping.

If you work under a Chef?  Believe me when I say that you only see about one quarter of the horrible shite they deal with — cut them a little slack, and watch out for them, like they are hopefully looking out for you.

And if you’ve no intention of being a professional cook, but you know one?  Take them out once in a while, or bring something they like to *them*.  Ours can often be a harsh profession, and a consuming one…  Too many Chefs don’t take care of themselves properly between their stresses and their de-stressing routines, so help a Chef out from time to time.
Serious Gaming
Finally, if there’s no cooks or Chefs in your life at all, well — all of this advice still stands, and stands well.  Take care of yourself.  Take care of others.  Support the team you work with, as well as the one you de-stress with.

Remember: just because you chose a profession for the Love of it doesn’t mean that it won’t stress you out.  If anything, it means the stressers will hit you just that much harder.  So find healthy ways to deal with that stress, and never lose sight of what brought you to that profession in the first place!


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