Self Care For The Culinary Professional

Service industries- especially the hospitality/culinary industry- are some of the most grueling and exhausting jobs in the world. There are certainly jobs that are tougher physically and come with a higher body count (linemen, miners, lumberjacks, etc), but jobs in the service industry don’t just exhaust you physically. Kitchen work absolutely puts your mind and soul through the wringer as well, leaving many of us exhausted and burned out- physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

In order to survive, we cooks have any number of coping mechanisms and habits- drugs and alcohol, unfortunately, being the most famous ones. More and more of us, however, are looking to better and healthier ways to look after our bodies and minds away from the rigors of the kitchen. The lifestyle changes of high-profile chefs like Greg Gourdet, Gabriel Rucker, and the owners of Joe Beef have signaled a change in the “work hard, party harder” atmosphere of the professional kitchen, and cooks- greenhorns and old hands alike- are starting to take their side work seriously.

It’s hard as hell, and the easiest thing in the world. Here’s a few things I’ve learned.

Animated GIF from the movie Ratatouille of the cook pumping his fist and saying "Let's do this thing!"

A Journey, Not A Destination

Back when I started seriously trying to write in this blog, I decided that- along with my personal mission to get healthier– I would try to demonstrate for others that this industry we love doesn’t have to be painful, and that a life of success and creativity does not need to include self-abuse and abasement.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that much of it documents my own journey and offerings for how to live well. I’ve also written a book on the subject (which, by the way, you can purchase on Amazon by clicking here!)

The fact that it’s a journey is important because you don’t “arrive” at healthy living.” Living well is the result of constantly making a number of good, small decisions. Every day, you choose to do the healthy thing, the thing best for you, the better thing. Those temptations and vices will always be there, and every now and again- sure, have fun. Healthy living is not the goal, though- doing it constantly is.

The author, wearing exercise clothes, petting his black cat Cleo on his lap while sitting on the floor.
Petting a kitty is almost always an excellent choice

Physical Health

Your body is the single best tool you will ever have, and you only get one. When you are at work, looking after your body can be as simple as hydrating well, getting help lifting heavy stuff, taking breaks, and figuring out more ergonomic ways to work that will take stress off your body. I can’t tell you how many times I see bakers hunched over their work tables, piping eclairs or doing detailed work, then straightening up and moaning about their sore back/neck/shoulders. Especially for newer bakers, I’ve gotten in the habit of having them put their sheet pans on top of tubs so they wouldn’t have to bend over so much. “We’ve got more tubs than you have spines. Use them!”

A work bench in a kitchen with a sheet pan and a squeeze bottle of white chocolate sitting between two five-gallon buckets.
It only LOOKS like overkill. That bench was really low for a 5’11” guy…

Grooming

You ever get home from work and the first thing you want to do is get in the shower? Have you ever noticed that, even if you just wash your face, you feel more alert and “human” afterward? There’s a reason for that. Looking after your body includes keeping clean, and physical appearance (and the maintaining of it) has the psychological benefit of grounding– cementing your sense of self.

If you don’t already, develop a morning routine and stick to it. Do your best to find ways to make it enjoyable and personal to you. For example, my morning routine includes:

  1. A shower, picking a scent that fits my mood for the day (I love having different kinds of soap to pick from.)
  2. Washing my hair, which includes using oil scented with essential oils that I pick myself. For example, I have a spice-scented hair oil to match my bourbon-scented soap.
  3. Carefully braiding my hair so that it stays out of the way at work and looks nice.
  4. Shaving every morning. I like using the original, translucent Neutrogena bar soap since it fragrance goes with the others I like AND stands well on its own.
  5. Brushing my teeth.

Sounds dandy or foppish? “Girly” even? Don’t care- I feel and smell amazing every morning. You should try it.

The author in a black top hat, vest, and tie holding a pen.
Hey guys- when was the last time a woman told you you had amazing hair?

Eating Right

“Abs are made in the kitchen.” The fact of the service industry is that we can’t afford to eat the food we make every day. We tend to snack and eat weird stuff at odd hours- something not wholly different from when I worked on the ambulance. We eat fried foods, candy, and we pound energy drinks. You get what you put in. If you want the best out of your body, give your body better!

Lately, my bakery has cut costs by eliminating free employee meals. Most of us aren’t exactly keen to spend the money we just earned, but the alternative for a long time was ordering food from somewhere else on the street and either running out on our breaks to get it or paying for delivery (I see you GrubHub, Postmates, and GoPuff…)

This obviously isn’t great for your waistline OR checkbook, so I’ve started my own form of humble meal-prepping. I make a big batch of something that keeps well on my days off, then I just pack a serving in to work. Lately it’s been my Ham and Lentil Porridge, but I’ve also made my own burritos and savory hand pies as well- individually wrapping them and stashing them in the fridge. Combined with a healthy snack (like almonds or light chips,) I can decide what I eat when- AND save money doing it.

Lunch in tiffin containers, laid out on a computer desk with a bottle of water.
My lunch for the last week- Ham and Lentil Porridge, Smoked Almonds, fresh Kiwi Berries, and a small chunk of honey cake.

Keep Your Body Moving!

Physical exercise isn’t just a good way to keep fit, it’s my favorite method of stress relief. I cover the hows and whys of my exercise routines in my book, but suffice it to say- find active hobbies you enjoy and make time for them! Here’s what I’ve wrote on the subject:

Animated GIF of the author carrying a 50 pound sack of flour back and forth
Use what you’ve got!

Mental Health

Your body isn’t the only thing that needs time to rest and recharge. Your mind needs ways to relax too!
It’s easy to forget that using your brain also uses up energy. If you suffer from anxiety and depression, you are exerting more energy than people realize just to reign in your thoughts, and it can make even daily life exhausting.
Beyond the mental health benefits I’ve already mentioned for keeping yourself physically well, here’s some of other habits you should consider developing to keep your brain in top shape.

Daily Meditation/ Scheduled Downtime

Photo by Elly Fairytale on Pexels.com

No, I’m not kidding. I meditate a minimum of 15 minutes every morning before work- usually between eating breakfast and getting in the shower. I started as part of my “Monkey Monk” daily routine, which itself encourages mental and physical fitness.

Sadly, most of the cooks and chefs I discuss meditation with don’t feel ready or capable of meditating. “I can’t sit still that long,” “I get bored/tired/fall asleep/zone out.” That’s another drawback of our industry and our cultures obsession with “multitasking-” it actively harms our ability to focus.

If you want to start meditating, I recommend starting small- sitting quietly for just 5 minutes. You don’t need to chant anything, have a mantra, or breathing techniques (though counting your breath is an easy way to focus/quiet your mind.) You can use a timer as well. The current Apple Watch has a “Mindfulness” app that uses vibration to guide you through breathing meditation. Insight Timer, a free app I use, has a timer function that includes soundscapes and chimes if you don’t want to sit in silence. They also have a number of free, guided meditations from all over the world to help you through specific issues- including anxiety, depression, creativity, focus, compassion, and more.

If you’re like me, that urge to be productive at all times is strong. We don’t like “do nothing” because it feels like wasting time. The truth of the matter is, you need to rest. Down time is NOT “wasted” time. You are not designed to go full-tilt 24/7.


Make time to do nothing. You’ll thank me.

Brainy Quote image depicting a quote from Blaise Pascal, reading "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."

Read More Books

Something I have sadly gotten used to in our industry is the number of young professionals who don’t read much because “they can’t focus for that long.” Yet another casualty of our obsession with productivity and multitasking- the loss of the ability to just sit and read a damn book.

There is much to be said of being able to while away a sunny afternoon outside, just lost in a good book, and I highly encourage you to try it. My Monkey Monk routine suggests 20 minutes every day. I tend to read self-improvement or professional books during my lunch break (having just finished Kevin Alexander’s “Burn the Ice” on Thursday) and I read fiction before bed (currently a collection of Phillip K. Dick short stories.)

Some folks who didn’t grow up reading much just don’t know what they might be into, or what might be available. If you’re not sure what kind of books you might like- consider the other media you consume. Do you watch sci-fi shows? How about people talking about history on YouTube? Maybe you’re into horror podcasts? There’s plenty to find out there- and you can bet the folks who make that media have booklists of their own.

If you find yourself without the time/patience to sit and read, though, fear not! Audiobooks are a great resource for listening while you work, exercise, cook, or do chores. What’s more, there are plenty of ways to listen to them for FREE.

  • Libby is a free app that is connected to your local library. If you have a library card, you can borrow any ebooks or audiobooks in your library’s system, free of charge!
  • If you want to listen to classics or other public domain works, Librivox and The Internet Archive are incredible resources for free audiobooks and other works you might enjoy.
  • If all else fails, there’s plenty of a great podcast shows out here. Listen to the ones that strike your fancy!
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Find a Therapist

Enough said. Just do it. Find one that takes your insurance, or find one that works on a sliding scale. I’ve written enough on here about how I deal with my demons that you should know how serious I am about it.
You don’t have to be “seriously in need.”
You don’t have to be troubled “enough to need a therapist.”
Your friends and family love you, but they. aren’t. therapy. They support you, but they can’t always help you untangle your issues the way a professional can, and it’s not right to ask them to carry that emotional labor for you.

FIND. A. THERAPIST.

Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

Lifestyle

The last things I want to mention are about how you live your life in general. All of this feeds into each other- your physical health affects your mental health, your mental health affects your energy levels, etc. What we’ve talked about so far, though, is what’s going on inside you to improve your life. What you do about your surroundings also has an impact.

Do Your Chores

You have “side work” in the kitchen– all the little tasks like cleaning your station and organizing the walk-in that are no one’s “job” but everyone’s responsibility to keep the kitchen running smooth.

Guess what- you have side work at home too, and it’s just as important.
Do your laundry. Wash your dishes. Make your bed and vacuum your floors. Of course it’s dull and annoying- some of the most important stuff usually is.

The fact is, your surroundings impact your mental health. If you let yourself live in a mess, with smelly laundry, gross dishes, and a fridge full of moldy food, it’s stressful and takes a toll on you. You start to look around and go “I hate mess, I feel gross just looking at all this. Why do I live like this? I must be a slob- I don’t deserve any better.”

So put on some music/an audiobook/ podcast, make time on your day off, and clean and organize your space.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Be Financially Literate

In 2019, Forbes Magazine found that 78% of American workers live paycheck to paycheck. Most of us don’t have savings, and a sudden charge of just $500 would put most of us in serious financial hardship.

Balancing your checkbook is another one of those annoying and potentially unpleasant things that no one likes doing. Too many of us like having an “idea” of where our financial status is, but hate to look at the numbers because it means confronting how close our bills are gonna be, how much money we WISH we were making, and all the things we want but can’t afford yet.

There’s no quick fixes, unfortunately, and for a lot of people “just save more” isn’t an option. All the same, keeping on top of your spending and having a budget is huge. Emily and I use YNAB (short for “You Need A Budget“) to manage our personal and household savings and spending. You can surely do the same thing with a simple Excel spreadsheet, but YNAB makes it a bit easier to see where your money is going and how you can put some aside.

Summing up…

Life is hard. You don’t need to make it harder by pretending your never need to rest, relax, or look after yourself.
There are plenty of ways and resources available to help you look after your physical, mental, and environmental well-being- most of them cheap or free, needing only your decision to look after yourself. Healthy living is not a destination- it’s the result of making good choices for yourself every day.
Starting up new, good habits isn’t easy- don’t try to make a lot of changes at once! Start with just one or two things everyday for a month, and build from there.

What do you think? Any other bits of self-care you observe? Want to share some resources? Drop them in the comments below!

Stay Classy,

The BHB's Top Hat Signature Logo

One thought on “Self Care For The Culinary Professional

  1. Good post, Matt! Thank you for pushing reading, books, and libraries.
    Only one grammatical change: “keep the kitchen running smoothLY.
    That is all.
    Love,
    Mom

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