Jason Vincent on Working Hard and Living Well
The chef on his return from a hiatus, and considering the future on the heels of a new restaurant.
May 19, 2016
Two years ago, Jason Vincent — Food & Wine Best New Chef, James Beard semifinalist of the Great Lakes — stepped down from his position as executive chef at Chicago's Nightwood. Sudden departures may be prime fodder for the easily scandalized, but the decision was a sensible one: Vincent's wife was about to have the couple's second child, the option to spend time with family full-time asserted itself in his brain, and that was that.
This is not to say the transition was free from existential fall-out; removed from the kitchens he knew so well, Vincent had to adjust, and consider how to build a new kitchen around a revised set of priorities.
I've been in restaurants since I was 15. This is absolutely the only thing in this world that I ever wanted to do.
It's addicting, when you see people all of a sudden giving a shit about this thing that you've given a shit about for a long time. Nightwood was open for four years before any of it hit, and all of a sudden, you feel validated. On one hand, we got really lucky. On the other hand, we worked really hard for it. We were busy right off the bat, and then sometimes we weren't. I've always struggled with depression or drinking too much or stuff like that, and that really enables those two things. The motherfucker is that the other side of it enables it too: if you're really busy, your adrenaline is like, "Let's go out and drink a bunch tonight!"
I think maybe I got wrapped up in it. I needed a reset.
I got a lot of advice from very successful people, people I look up to, who told me they'd be nervous about falling off the radar. To be totally honest, that made me want to do it more — that's not why any of us should live our lives — but that resonates, it echoes in your head over and over again. Then add on a three-and-a-half-year-old and a newborn, and you're totally sleep deprived and trying to piece together whether you've hit rock bottom, but you're so fried that you can't really string together that thought. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of upsides: you're sleep deprived, but there's a newborn baby and the top of their head smells amazing.
Anything you do in life, there's no sense in doing it half-assed. If you take a step back from your life and say, "I'm doing this career part of my life really well, but I'm just totally blowing it in the other…" It's the same as food: it's got to be balanced. If it's not balanced, it sucks. People can think I'm a pussy for taking two years off, but I'm thinking I'm going to be a better person — and colleague, and father — for it.
Then my oldest kid starts looking at me going, "Why don't you go to work anymore?"
Chicago's an expensive city; there's no way for me to not work again. I got job offers from everywhere from Boston and New York and every restaurant in Chicago. Ben [Lustbader, Vincent's fellow chef/partner] and I talked a lot about whether we wanted to work for somebody else. We're both young and we've been doing this long enough that we know what we're doing, so we took the leap. Going at it with a fresh set of eyes usually boils down to cutting out the extraneous, concentrating on making delicious food and serving people that food in a genial, hospitable atmosphere. It's very easy to get wrapped up in the other shit.
It's terrifying on several different levels: money, and staffing, entering into a partnership with somebody who I've known forever, and then somebody new who I've never worked with, wondering whether this is going to work. There's an oven and we need to heat up food and serve it to people, and I know how to do that, but what me and my partners talk about most now is maintaining quality of life. We're not being naïve; we realize that we're going to be working all the time, but my kids don't all of a sudden go away. They still need a dad, so what do you do?
And it's not just because I have kids, it's because I have a life outside of the restaurant. Everybody has that. The cooks have that, the servers have that, the dishwasher has that. When you internalize those struggles, all of a sudden you become resentful of being at work. We hired great cooks because I want them to contribute, not just be monkeys putting food on a plate. In order to do that and in order to get the most out of them, you have to be supportive.
That whole ‘work hard, play hard’ shit? It's stupid. Why do you need to play hard? I mean, if that's what you want to do, go for it, but I want to sit on my couch and watch my kids play. You’ve got to work hard, but live well. You want a day off, you get a day off. When you're at the at restaurant you are expected to push, to work hard, but when you're not here, you don't have to turn off your phone because you're afraid you're going to get called in. It's wonderful. Enjoy it.
Giant is opening imminently, and that fucking rules. Good things!