#ChefColumns: Dana Cree on the chef "vacation"

Sort of a real thing.

November 18, 2015 ● 3 min read

Ah, vacation. That wonderful time spent far away from the trappings of daily life, in an effort to relax and recharge.  

Nobody does vacation quite as poorly as chefs.  

Just ask those few people closest to us who occasionally attempt to pry us from our kitchens, poor souls. We don’t separate from our restaurants easily, no matter how much we bemoan the demanding hours or dream about all the places we would rather be at that exact moment.  

However difficult it is, we do leave. Sometimes. Those of us that work in restaurants that close for a week or two during slow seasons have it easiest. Without an operating restaurant to worry about, we really have no choice but to go out and enjoy the world. For the rest of us, we double our hours in the days preceding our time off, scrambling to make sure everything is in place before we vacate the premises.  

We work until we leave for the airport, or drive through the night after completing dinner service, and arrive at our destination as the sun is coming up. Our luggage is haphazardly packed, often crammed with what ever we can grab in five minutes—which is why my family will never let me forget the time I arrived with a suitcase full of dirty laundry, as I didn’t have a spare moment to wash my clothes before I packed.  

If we make it out the door, we insist that our cooks email us after each of their shifts with updates, and beg them to text us if anything comes up. And we worry. Boy, do we worry. We worry about the order from the farm coming that week, the private party that might need finessing, the new dish that was put on a few days before we left. God forbid a refrigerator goes down while we are gone, or worse, someone quits. How’s that Mai Tai taste now?!

It usually takes a few days before we are able to unwind enough to really enjoy ourselves. Thoughts of our cooks fade when the emergency phone calls we are dreading don’t come, and the rich meals start to make us appropriately lazy. Then, and only then, does our mental pace slow down enough to resemble anything like a traditional vacation.  

You’ll most likely find a chef using their vacation time to their loved ones, often the unwilling victims of our flip-flopped schedules. You know the drill: while our family celebrates birthdays or holiday gatherings on evenings and weekends, we work. Because of this, the few days we can pry ourselves away from the restaurant often find us rushing back to family, capturing as much of them as we can before we jump in the trenches, never to be heard from again.  

When we do use our vacation to visit other cities, the deciding factor is almost always the restaurants. These culinary destinations will find us scheduling four meals a day, plus snacks, in an attempt to cram in as many new experiences as possible. Breakfast at a notable bakery, coffee at that place that’s roasting their own beans, lunch at a temple of fine dining, snacks at the bar of the hottest new opening, dinner at that restaurant that’s been on your list for years, and cocktails at the chic cocktail lounge with an ironic name. Wake up and do it all over again tomorrow, but let’s throw ice cream in there as well.  

If our travel companions are a little on the unlucky side, we will schedule stages for ourselves while on vacation. For reasons completely unfathomable to our significant others and dearest friends, we will often insist on abandoning them for a day to work in a stranger’s kitchen. For many of us, the opportunity to see the internal workings of a restaurant we admire is a siren song, and no amount of resistance from our travel companions can stop us from going through with it. It’s one thing to dine at a restaurant, but to spend a day inside, connecting with the creativity and systems that make it tick? That is a chef’s dream.  

Some of us love staging so much we dedicate entire vacations to it. A “vacation” in that case means 12 hours of labor a day without pay, simply for the opportunity to absorb everything in sight. If we are truly insane, we will give up large chunks of our year to pursue a great stage. We’ll quit jobs, give up apartments, and kiss those we love goodbye for months at a time. 

If you want to enjoy a vacation with a chef, catch them between jobs. When the self-imposed bondage of our previous kitchen is over, and the next has yet to begin, we just might be able to vacation like a normal human being. We might be willing to travel to places without famous restaurants, and maybe, just maybe, turn off our cell phones for a while.

Best of all? Only then can we can promise the unpromisable: that we won’t cancel last-minute because we “just couldn’t get away” from the kitchen.

Pastry chef Dana Cree is making the leap from restaurants (and her post at Blackbird in Chicago) to the world of dairy, taking a position as Culinary Director for 1871 Dairy. She is documenting the process in a multi-part series, here on ChefsFeed. | Photo courtesy of Andrew Zimmerman.