Over The Edge

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

There is a strain of sub-culture that is common to almost every physical field of work- masochism and martyrdom.

When I was an EMT, it was common to hear the older guys compare stories of calls they’d been on- heroic things they’d done, crazy stuff they’ve seen, and so on. Even more common were stories of injuries.

“… shredded the tendons in this elbow.”
“… ripped apart both knees.”
“… my back sounded like popcorn.”

And so on- folks comparing and bragging about “cutting their teeth”, “taking their lumps.” Physical proof of their toughness, and that they’d been there, done that.

The culinary world is no different, and even a little darker- just because of the people who find themselves there.
Let’s face it- the culinary world has always had its arms open to the freaks, misfits, rebels, and weirdos. If you’ve got passion, it doesn’t matter if it’s a healthy love or a full-blown psychosis- just point it at the food, and try not to kill anyone.

After college (and earning a few lumps as an EMT,) I finally focused on my passion for food. I had already been indoctrinating myself in the lives and works of chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White.

These were the rockstars of my little world. They were famous. They did what they loved, and screw the naysayers.
They were misfits and rebels, like me.

I’m fairly certain I’m not psychotic, but I would definitely say I’m a good fit for cooking. In school, I was picked on. I was chubby, had a stutter, read a lot, played NO sports, and I had braces AND glasses. After finding my tribe (music geeks, nerds, and artists) in high school and college, I took pride in my misfit status- and I wanted to let it shine.

Not just shine. I wanted to wear it like a badge.
I wanted to transform it into a tank, and smash through everything and everyone that made me feel worthless before.
I wanted to rub it in the face of the whole world and yell, “SEE THIS?! YOU SEE THIS S**T?! THIS IS WHO I AM, MOTHERF***ERS, SO BITE ME!”

Very few of my classmates in culinary school HADN’T read Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and drank in every grungy drop of it. Wanton sex on dumpsters during service. Walking into a new job and finding your staff assembling guns in the walk-in. Mid- and post-shift drinking, and drugs drugs drugs drugs drugs to make Hunter S. Thompson look like a choir boy.

A rockstar lifestyle, with gourmet food.

As soon as I joined the professional culinary world, though, I saw the pattern- the same I’d seen as an EMT. People showing off their scars from wayward knives, burns from hot sheet pans and oil splashes. Stories of friends (or even themselves) succumbing to the stress of the life and burning out- through drugs, alcohol, or any number of risky behaviors.

All part of the life, I was told. This crazy rockstar life.

No, my friends. Just, no.

I’d mentioned Hunter S. Thompson earlier- here’s a bit of his wisdom: “The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

Cooks and bakers are artists, and artists are passionate people. We seize upon things at a very deep, visceral level. Often, it can lead to genius and ecstasy. 

Sometimes, madness and isolation.

Sometimes, somewhere much darker.
In recent interviews, Anthony Bourdain has explained his misgivings about Kitchen Confidential- the book that brought him fame. He has since distanced himself from the badboy rockstar of his early years, and has mentioned that he’d be pleased if those years could just be forgotten by the world.

I have read articles by chefs and other culinary professionals who’ve lost friends to the madness, via drugs and alcohol, or who have permanently crippled themselves in an effort to “cut their teeth” and “earn their stripes.”
I’ve been among them, looking down at burns and cuts on my arms and hands with a sort of pride- like they were my own “red badges of courage.”

My friends, this is not the way to go.

Your body- your life- is the best tool you have in your kitchen- and you can’t just go out and get a new one when it breaks. You can’t create and provide for people if you’re too strung out to work.

I have unhealthy habits, and I own them. I drink regularly, though rarely to excess. I used to be a caffeine addict.I also used to be overweight, and in danger of becoming diabetic.

On the other hand, I also exercise regularly. I eat healthier and have lost weight.
Most importantly, I check myself constantly to know when I’m getting too deep- when I need to take a breath and walk away for a moment.
I look forward to a life in culinary- and I’d like it to be as long as possible.

If you see a friend going towards the darkness, don’t let them slide. 
Say something.
DO something.

There are plenty of geniuses in the graveyard, and as I was taught (ironically) in EMT school- “No one needs a dead hero.”

Stay Classy,