“Everyone Else Is Taken”- Finding Identity in the Kitchen

I absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, tell you who you are. You really shouldn’t want me to anyway. Brighter minds than mine have peeled apart the notions of “self” and “identity” for centuries (if not millenia) and even they tend to wind up shrugging and going “I dunno… it’s personal I guess.”

A portrait of Oscar Wilde in grayscale with the quote "Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."

And it is. I wrote a few weeks back about how to find your “culinary voice”– which ultimately came down to an elaborate rephrasing of “garbage in, garbage out.” That’s figuring out how to best tell your story though… finding out who you are takes people their entire lives, and is often subject to change.

So this post isn’t a “how-to”- it’s more of an exploration of the question, and especially what it means for us cooks- whether we are brand new and trying to find a place to fit in, or old hands getting flexed out of an industry that we can’t continue in and survive. Both groups- all of us, really- wind up looking at themselves in the mirror and asking, “Who are you?”

A Place To Hang Your Hat

“In America, the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit. It’s a place for people with bad pasts to find a new family.”

– Anthony Bourdain

For a lot of chefs and cooks, Tony summed up our love of the industry in this one line. In the kitchen, (most) of the classic divisions in our society don’t (seem to) matter– race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, none of it. All that matter is if you can pull your weight, do your job well, and if you’ve got your teams backs. The pay sucks, and we don’t get half the credit, recognition, or benefits we deserve, but that’s part of the life. You have a tribe. A family– and this family is all about the noble toil of feeding others.

For a lot of young cooks who didn’t grow up with great role models or discipline, working in the kitchen quickly becomes part of their identity- it’s certainly part of mine. A team working hard toward a unified goal, with strict hierarchy and discipline simultaneous influences a young cooks developing identity and quashes external influences. “You came up with a new dish? That’s nice kid… but unless that new dish is going to clean the giant bucket of squid I told you to handle 30 minutes ago, I don’t give a crap.”

Much like in the military, for most young cooks, the only identity they get to express is being part of the team, and the only words they are taught to say are “Yes sir!”… or “Yes, Chef” as the case may be.

Action shot of five American soldiers running across a desert landscape
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Of course, the downside here is that people are multifaceted. It’s not healthy to have your entire idea boiled down to one thing, much less something that is ultimately in the hands of others. Cooks who continue in the industry on their own- as chefs, chef-owners, or freelancers- all wind up finding aspects of their identity beyond being “part of the team”- because that doesn’t mean much if you find yourself being a “team” of one.

Even more, I’d say that while working in the kitchen is a great way to find someplace to fit, a strong sense of personal identity is important to walk in with- especially in terms of your priorities, your goals, and your values, to make sure all that work you’re putting in for your team is moving you somewhere you want to be… and that the urge to be “part of the team” doesn’t lead you places you’d rather not be.

This is where having hobbies is important. This is where “remembering to go home” is important, and having friends outside the kitchen is positively vital. They might not “get” what you do for a living or the life involved- in fact, they probably won’t- and that’s good, because the more of life you find outside the kitchen doors, the more you’ll work out what makes you… you.

A young Asian woman in a white shirt looking at herself sideways in a mirror
Photo by JESSICA TICOZZELLI on Pexels.com

“Who Am I Now?

Then there’s those who come out the other end of the industry and, for lack of a better word, feel lost.

Right now, most Americans are feeling economic realities squeeze them out of the industries that were “home” for most of their developing lives- but everything from life events to health concerns to changing situations at home have led people with decades in the kitchen to hang up their aprons. Way too many of these hard-working folks come out the other end feeling wrung-out and ground-under. There’s a feeling of “Decades in this industry, years of honing my skills… for what? What do I have left?”

Who am I if I’m not cooking?”

The webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal did a really good take on this question years ago, but I’ll summarize it here:

In fact, it’s smart for you to do other things- and, because Life is uncertain, you have both more AND less time to do them than you think. What’s more- if your identity means loving this industry so much, you can find new ways to love it.

Who Am I Now?

It’s a question I wrestle with a lot lately.

Growing up, we all try to find our identities in the things we love, enjoy, or associate ourselves with. We pick fandoms, genres, hobbies, sports, crafts, and organizations. We pick from communities, allegiances, those of our families, nationalities, and ethnicities. Our own search flies directly in the face of the categories and divisions we use to make sense of an endlessly complex and wonderous world- we tell ourselves, “I’m allowed to be multi-faceted, but the rest of you are monolithic, single identities.”

It is a life-long exercise in Bruce Lee’s maxim of “Take what is useful, leave what isn’t, and add what is uniquely yours.”
In my life, I have identified myself as a baker, an EMT, a Jewish man, a Buddhist student, a Jersey Boy, a “steampunk”, a “rocker,” a poet, and a writer.

All of them are still true. All of them are still correct- none are mutually exclusive. Being in the kitchen can give you structure. It can inform your identity- but it need not, and probably SHOULD not, comprise it’s totality.

Stay Classy,

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