Back in the early ’00s when my romance with a chef began, cocaine and alcohol were the standard “wellness plan” for dealing with the insane hours put on a young line cook’s plate. The schedule went something like this: Wake up, prep, cook the line after shift drinks, the after-drinks after-party, home at 4 a.m., sleep for three hours, repeat. The environment was not conducive to self care. Back then, wellness was getting every other Sunday off so you could have brunch with your girlfriend or sing bad karaoke at The Silver Swan with your restaurant co-workers. Life as a chef was seemingly different. Working less than 80 hours a week was not an option if you were a young cook. There was no health insurance, and going to the doctor was really just going to Duane Reade and buying Sudafed. The industry has changed a lot over the years and I believe the direction it’s going is on the up and up for personal wellness and mental health.
Nowadays we are actually talking about the mental health of people who work in restaurants. Having watched more than one of our hospitality idols leave this planet way too soon has awoken so many of us to the unhealthy aspects of the kitchen. At food festivals now, we have panels that are just for chefs. We talk about addiction, suicide, and working beyond our mental capacity because our passion proceeds our own wellbeing.
Just recently, I sat on a panel talking to the new class of Food & Wine Best New Chefs. The elder chefs (as in my age) spoke about their own wellness and how they did yoga everyday, went to therapy weekly, and ate healthier than they ever had. The panel members spoke about how we now put our own wellness before the restaurants we owned. One of the BNCs raised his hand and said something along the lines of, “Well if I don’t get in at 9 and hit the ground running until close, then I don’t have a job the next day. How exactly am I supposed to take care of myself before I secure my career’s well-being?” That made me wonder. Has anything really changed?
As much as it seems like things are moving forward, the restaurant industry hasn’t advanced that far. Young line cooks and sous chefs are working more than 50 hours a week, and the life of a cook is still so hard—we are just talking about wellness more. At this round table, we all had our own advice on how to find a moment and answer this young chef. Doing push-ups in the walk-in was the consensus from the chefs at the table. But that’s still not good enough. In an industry that is notorious for putting their own self care behind the care of complete strangers, how does a young cook or chef find their own wellness?
Personally I found my own wellness after a health scare. I woke up one day and realized that I worked too much, I ate too much, and I didn’t know how to be happy. Sure I looked great to the world. Married to a chef, running a successful restaurant group, two happy kids, and three dogs—the American dream right? But it was a facade and it took my going under the knife to really wake up to my own wellness. The thing about self care and wellness is you have to make the choice no matter what your life looks like. You have to choose every day to wake up and find a moment for yourself. You can spend five minutes mediating. Insight Timer is a great free app I use daily that allows the user to pick a meditation based on the time they have. If you only have five minutes, pick it, and do it. Use the technology that we have now to change your day.
The same goes for exercise. YouTube is free. Search for “10 minute yoga” and you will find thousands of videos. Schedule it. Put it in your calendar. Therapy is another thing that shouldn’t be a buzzword. Therapy saves lives. Talking to someone saves lives. And now there are so many options. Download TalkSpace or Mindshift. Sign up for the Chefs with Issues Facebook page. These are options that are free or close to no cost. They make a difference. They help you choose to put yourself first even if all you want to do is put everyone else first.
That’s what you do. You’re in the biz. You can’t help that you put everyone first. Your hospitality gene is strong and it goes to battle with your self care gene daily. But the choice is yours, you just have to choose it.
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