Why Cooks Need Brain Breaks
What do you do when your craft beats up on your sanity?
July 24, 2020 ● 3 min read
By Chef Kerstin Bellah | Image iStock via akindo
There is a certain amount of insanity that comes with the desire to live this life.
As cooks, chefs, servers, bussers, and bartenders, the hours are long, the work is hard, and tensions are high. There is a calm before the storm of service—right before you’re bombarded with tickets, and your mind treads water for five or six hours. You spin back and forth, bend into your lowboy, into the oven, up for plates, all while your chef yells, and your fellow cooks heckle. While the ticket machine slows and the guests finish their last bites, you break down your station and don’t leave until it’s cleaner than you found it—which was spotless, because you did the same last night, and the night before. Chef finally hits the lights, and you and your fellow cooks head to the nearest bar to drink off the stress and adrenaline that will otherwise keep you reeling until dawn.
It’s hard to explain to people why we choose an existence fueled by constant pressure, constant instability and an increasing likelihood of destroying both body and mind—especially in a post-Kitchen Confidential world—but it always makes me think of this quote by author Brené Brown: “Creativity is how I share my soul with the world.” That is essentially what we’re doing when we cook, isn’t it? Every time we send out a plate, we’re sharing a piece of ourselves—a piece of our hearts buried so deep in our craft it rarely gets a chance to escape otherwise.
The art of pastry teaches you constantly. It teaches you how to take the basics—flour, butter, eggs, and sugar—and turn them into almost anything. It teaches you how to showcase the sweetest, most perfect fruit of the season and make the guests smile one last time before they leave. Pastry has taught me to be patient, with myself and my craft, but even pastry can’t teach you what to do when the only environment you can express yourself in is fraught with impossible-to-please investors, shit-talking superiors and high-stress scenarios. Things are going to get messy.
I’ve had jobs that made me cry myself to sleep, wondering if I should even keep trying to become a pastry chef. It’s taken bouts with depression, being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and years of resulting therapy to realize the importance of mental health and the effect my jobs have had on me—and I’m still here. I’m here because there is nothing else I would rather be doing. At the end of the day, or an 80-hour work week, I’m proud of what I do and how I can contribute to making people happy simply by being creative. Sure, there are higher paying jobs, less physically demanding jobs, less mentally taxing jobs but as cooks and chefs we thrive on over-stimulation. In a way, we need a certain kind of chaos to stay sane.
Cooks are stubborn, and they’re competitive, especially with themselves. Most of them have huge egos and a quick temper. We seek perfection, pushing towards the elusive every day. In that push, you want to be better, faster, stronger, more creative. You want to outlast your peers, simply to say you can.
But what if we all listened to our desire for inner peace and stability? What if chefs valued their cooks enough to recognize how important their mental health is? What if instead of criticizing those who wave the white flag and leave for less stressful worlds, we respect and commend them? Those of us who take time to give ourselves a little TLC end up being better cooks, better employees, and better people. In this age of evangelized self-care, cooks can have a shot at a life that looks wildly different than 30 years ago. In my off-time I like to spend time with my boyfriend, Jordan (when he’s home from the oil rigs) or at the gym, lifting weights and clearing my head; it’s still adrenaline and pressure, but in a different way.
When you are in charge of a team, it’s important to take a step back and give them room to grow and impress you. You’ve hired them, you’ve trained them and hopefully, you believe in them enough to know that spending a little time away is beneficial for their development as cooks and leaders. We’re humans. We’re not meant to be perfect. Thomas Keller said it best: “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving for perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.”
Thankfully, the negative stigma fueling the back-of-house is changing. As the industry grows and morphs into something of this century, we’re finding ways to improve our mental health and our lives in general. Instead of lying in bed, hungover from the post-service comedown, go for a jog. Read a book, grab a coffee, go visit a friend, do some yoga, call your grandma, meditate, bathe in the sun. Do something to remind yourself that this is a big, beautiful world—and that you’re as important as the food you put on a plate.