My friend Renee has- like most of our industry- had a rough couple of months.
Renee is a sommelier back east. She has enough skill that positions in her niche are scarce. She also has lifestyle demands that make the job pool even shallower- and enough contacts and familiarity with a particular scene on the East Coast that discretion is required. As we sip coffees and tea at a rainy cafe in Astoria, Renee spins a saga of staffing and management issues, attending the needs of VIPs, and protecting the restaurants reputation. It all culminates in a storm of uppity underlings, COVID protocols, and curiously nebulous budgets that lead to her (relieved but frustrated) resignation.
“I’m not even fond of wine,” she admits with a short snort. “I’m good at being a somme, but I honestly like cocktails more.” She didn’t even really enjoy the fine dining restaurant life. She was fine with the formality and artifice of high society. The social waters she navigates with ease gives me the willies just thinking about. Managing the wine at a restaurant, though, was “just a box that had to be checked on the way.”
“I think I’m going to pivot to distribution.” she muses as we finish our coffee. “That’ll keep my toes in the world. People keep suggesting I teach, so there’s that too.”
I recount my own experiences at the bakery (I’m almost afraid they’ll bore her- my own worries have been no less frustrating, but far less flashy) and we share a rueful laugh. The tragedy of it all is that none of this is new. “That’s the industry.” We’re both tired, both burned out- and wondering if we haven’t had enough.
It’s a question that a lot of chefs ask themselves. This foul year of Our Lord 2020, however, has stepped up a lot of professional timelines. With every successful night’s service, every broken freezer, every balancing of the books- chefs everywhere ask themselves “How much longer can I keep this up? ”
“What will come next?”
Die A Chef, or Live Long Enough to Quit
For a long time, that was the attitude. Once a chef, always a chef. It was like the Mafia- “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” The fact is, though, that life in the kitchen is a young man’s game. No one becomes a cook or chef to get rich. No one becomes a chef-owner to get rich. The people who sign on to be cooks have nothing else to lose, or- like I did- they don’t foresee anything else meaning as much to them as food.
The lucky ones get to realize they were wrong. They find love and relationships, maybe have children. They develop interests and hobbies that don’t involve getting their asses handed to them over endless servings of steak au poivre. Those with enough wherewithal to make healthy decisions do so, and try to experience some life beyond the double doors. It’s the reason I wrote this blog in the first place- to prove that a happy, fulfilled, engaged life and the culinary industry are NOT mutually exclusive.
The pandemic (let alone running a restaurant through one) has pushed more than a few chefs out earlier than they expected, though. Talented chefs are poking around for prospects, eyeing entrepreneurship, or- as is increasngly common- looking at themselves in the mirror and going “Is that it? I’m done? What next?”
Passions Don’t Die- But They Do Get Sick
What can you do when the industry you love stops loving you back?
You leave… or you find a new way to love it.
Some chefs I’ve spoken to, in the wake of COVID, have thrown off their aprons and turned to other, more secure careers. Cooking is a trade as much as any, and so some chefs choose the route of becoming electricians or plumbers- careers where the college degree they may not have gotten won’t be a hindrance. Those with hobbies outside the kitchen have decided this is a perfect excuse to lean in to what (else) they love and make a side hustle out of it.
A few others, in contrast, see an opportunity in their hardship and double-down on their beloved craft, starting up new side hustles and businesses. When you have “nothing left to lose,” that includes the chains of oversight- why not keep cooking as your own boss?
Most chefs, however, already feeling age or health nudge them out the double-doors, tend to use the contacts and knowledge they’ve built over decades in the field- as well as name recognition, if applicable- and move to lower-impact roles. They work for their distributors to become salesmen or brand ambassadors. Those with a knack for training staff and wrangling spreadsheets set themselves up as consultants. Some with long histories of mentorship under their belts- sign on with culinary schools to become chef educators. The pay in these positions may or may not be better- but the lifestyle and time requirements are almost always more conducive to having responsibilities and loyalties beyond the line.
With more time, more security, and a softer perspective, some turn to writing, crafts- and even cooking for fun again. Their passion never died- but it did need some downtime.
Any Ship Can Sink- So Look for a Lifeboat
When I got fit, I told myself that it was because I wanted to leave the kitchen when I got bored or tired of it- I refused to be retired by my body, or for the sake of my health. Stagnating wages, increasing stressors, the cost of living and desire for security, however- those were a different story. Staring burnout in the face, I started wondering about where my escape hatch would be… you know, just in case I actually had to leave.
It’s no accident that I’ve been leaning harder into my writing, and working on becoming a more prolific reader. If I’m honest, it’s no mistake that I’ve been reaching out to my old teachers for advice as well. I don’t see myself leaving the kitchen anytime soon- but COVID has shown me not just how fragile my employment can be. My own medical situation lately is a reminder of how fragile life is, and that the unexpected can always land in your lap- regardless of how well you take care of yourself.
Any ship can sink, so it’s good to know where the lifeboat is- and if you don’t see one, start building.