Rather Be Ashes Than Dust

    Good afternoon, friends and neighbors.

Another one of us died this week.

Pic from thedolderesort.com

     Benoît Violier had everything going his way, it seemed. Success, accolades- the Michelin guide and La Liste had named his restaurant Restaurante de L’Hotel de Ville near Lausanne one of the best in the world. By all accounts, his star was rising.
So earlier this week, at the age of 44, he blew himself away with a hunting rifle.

Mental health is as murky a subject in the kitchen as in any other field. Even for a chef who DOESN’T make the list, DOESN’T gain notoriety and celebrity, the pressures of being a culinary professional are incredible. Long late hours, being consistently perfect, the demands of being an employer, business owner, and artist- and delivering your work every day with the omnipresent knowledge that, with one bad review, bad night, or even slight misstep, even with everything else going right- it can all vanish overnight.

     The dark side of the culinary life has been covered extensively, by myself and others far more experienced and qualified. The field has historically been a haven for “lunatics, misfits, and rejects”- people who love the long hours, the adrenaline rush, and the frantic choreography of service. They love the feeling of apartness, of noble toil, and that accepting wounds, stress, sleeplessness, addictions, and isolation from the rest of the world is the price you pay for passion, obsession, devotion, and a place in “this thing we do.”
     “Suffering for your art,” like the notion of “the show must go on,” has been romanticized to the point of tragedy. Cooks and chefs compare scars and burns, proudly offering them as badges of honor.
Not all scars can be seen though- and in the end, even the greatest chefs are just human. Too much pressure makes us crack. Much more so when the success that we bleed, scream, sweat, and suffer for can- in the glaring limelight of celebrity- be wiped away in a few moments by a bad plate of food, and take away not just a life’s work, but the livelihoods of every person that chef employs.
     The title of this blog post comes from a poem by Jack London. Years ago, and to an extent today still, cooking attracted people that wanted to “live fast and die young.” If you asked, many maybe didn’t anticipate living past 40. They expected to live their lives as fast and hard as possible and go out with a bang.
Chef Violier now joins a slowly-growing group of chefs that have left us, not with a great flash, but with a sudden stark silence in which to ask, “Why?”

That’s something that we may never know.

When I was in school, one of my chefs gave me a piece of advice I have followed closely and spread whenever I can.

     “Step away from the kitchen. Have hobbies. Meet people that don’t cook. Find something to find release in.”

There is no sin in having something outside of work. You are allowed to enjoy yourself, be well, and have time to kill. There is always time for passion, devotion, and commitment- just like there is time for relaxing and letting go.

I mean, seriously- if freaking Gordon Ramsay knows and can espouse this, anyone should.

To all my culinarian friends, please- stick around long enough to ENJOY your career, not just have it. Stay well, and get help when you need it. You’re not weak, and you should not be ashamed of being in pain.

​     Stay Classy,

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