Cooking is hard. Parenting while cooking is harder.

For the #chefparents out there.

February 29, 2016 ● 3 min read

It’s a busy Sunday night, and as I get a brief lull in my tickets, I scan the dining room.    

It’s full of the usual Sunday diners; old folks, couples trying to squeeze in one last nice moment to their weekend, families with kids. While kids in the dining room can often cause both front and back of house to collectively roll their eyes over the pastas and chicken tenders and epic meltdowns, I love it. Seeing kids with their families — smiling, crying, just being together and eating — brings a smile to my face.  

Then, without fail, it completely guts me. Envy for the parents that get to see their kids regularly overwhelms me, and I'm only jolted back to the moment by the pantry cook.  

“You ok, jefe?”

Cooking is for the young, the unencumbered. Cooking is long hours and bad pay and hungover mornings. Cooking is being able to say, “This isn't working, I'm moving to Toronto,” and just doing it because there’s nothing tying you down. So, when I found out I had a baby on the way, my immediate thoughts were all selfish, all internal. Do I even want kids? I never even got to stage in Japan!  

A great chef once told me that you have to choose between being a great chef or being a great dad, that you couldn’t be both. The finality of that statement stung. Would my duties as a parent keep me from doing my job well? Will doing my job well mean never seeing my kid? That someday, once I had quit cooking to drive an Uber so I could make time to see my kids graduate high school, they would inevitably confront me with, “Thanks Dad, but where were you the past 15 years?”

I’ve been loyal to cooking, to my craft. All of my hard work has led me to this point where things are supposed to get better, and instead I’m told I have to choose between my family and my career?   

Chefs, by their very nature, have an overwhelming desire to get things right, to not cut corners, so the idea of living life with one foot in and one foot out is unthinkable. When you’re standing there in the dry storage room Face Timing your child between turns, the beauty of a life in cooking peels away. Cooking begins to resemble a utility, a means to an end. There has to be a better way, but I have no idea what that is, and none of my chef parent friends do either.  

So you learn to juggle. You put in insanely early hours and try to make it home for bath time…or you take the kids to school at the crack of dawn, then try to slog through a very late Friday service. You trade late nights at the bar for early morning diaper changes. You push for more responsibility, more events, more of anything that will land you a better quality of life, even if it means less time with your kids than you started with. You learn that while you might think you’ve got it rough, you’re working with plenty of cooks who haven’t seen their kids in years, let alone weeks.

The hours away, followed by the exhaustion at home, become impossible to fight; the escapist fantasies of booze and drug-fueled nights out look even better than they used to. And yet, miraculously, there seems to be the ever-elusive sweet spot. Found, just like in cooking, by pushing yourself to the edge of what was previously possible; now, you’re stacking farmer’s market runs with little league opening weekend parades, followed by menu meetings, service, then a visit from your kid’s urban agriculture club. Somehow, through the chaos of it all, you find a new kind of peace. In the end, it turns out to be far easier to push past your limits of what you think you can take, than to parent your kids from afar between picks.  

In my stronger moments, when I think about how my kids will look back on my absences during their childhood, I hope they will see the virtue in it. Dad worked hard to do better for us. Dad did shit his way. Dad loved us. Dad’s greatest struggle was dealing with being away from us. And, despite regularly cursing the hospitality industry, Dad grinded it out and did well—for us.    

That’s my hope. My best-case. This is what I think about as I begin another 12-hour day, while my kids—who I haven't seen in a week—are with my parents.  

Cooking is not for everyone. It draws a certain type of person who thrives in stressful situations, yet has a delicate grace to their being. But: isn't that type of person perfectly suited to be a great parent?

By Richie Nakano | Illustration by Courtney Moy | Join the conversation: #chefparents