Most kids get asked what they want to be when they grow up, and almost every time they are asked, the answer will change. For me, I knew at a young age that I was going to grow up and be a Chef. I always thought I would go to culinary school, make it big by opening a restaurant, or maybe even getting my own cooking show on The Food Network, but I knew that my career would involve the culinary industry to one extent or the other.
I aimed for the stars from the start and wouldn’t stop I was amongst them in orbit. I spent my younger years working towards doing just that, even obtaining a business degree in order to launch my own venture one day, and finally took the first giant leap and signed up for cooking school.
While in attendance, I was to get an internship in a kitchen and learn first-hand what it was like to cook with the best of them. I landed an unpaid position at a locally owned gastropub that infused Asian and American flavors and techniques into a delightfully playful and delicious product. So on top of my 18 hour course work plus a 40 hour work week at a chain restaurant, I added another 20 hours at the internship—and it was my favorite 20 hours of the week.
I feel in love with the culture and pace of the kitchen. I loved the instant camaraderie and feeling of team pride after a particularly rough dinner shift (and mimicked prayers that tomorrow’s brunch shift goes a little easier on us, please and thanks). I loved being the only female chef in the male dominated kitchen—and let’s be honest, I was kicking ass at it, too. My hard work paid off in almost no time at all and soon I found myself working my first real cooking job in a restaurant where I could gain experience and hone in on my skills, all while finally being paid for it!
I was asked to stay with the pub and offered a position as line cook before the internship ended, and soon found myself in the thick of it all. I worked any shift I was asked to, made suggestions for meny improvements, and gave my all to making sure not only, but the establishment itself succeeded. After only 6 months working for my Chef, and finishing up my last semester of culinary school, I was offered the Sous Chef position at the pub, while I eagerly accepted. After all, this is what I wanted to do my whole life and it was basically handed to me on a silver platter.
I would be a fool to pass it up, right? For the next 4 years, I strived and pushed to make it all work and prove to myself that this life is exactly what I dreamed it would be. Then COVID-19 struck the world and life stood still for a little while, giving me too much time to think about the ever declining predicament I was in.
Fortunately, I was never a worker who lost their job due to the coronavirus—food service workers were deemed essential in the state I live, so my restaurant trudged on, my Chef and I constantly watching the news and waiting for the next gut-wrenching, and possibly job costing update. And though the pub stayed open, everything still changed. Hours were cut, customers were few, and the fear of waking up one day and everything I worked so tirelessly for being gone.
While we were able to stay open, local restaurants all around shuttered and the constant fear of being next placed a mountain of stress on not only myself, but everyone in the food service industry. A few months into the pandemic, I did what I never thought I would do and I quit my job as Sous Chef.
Immediately, the weight was lifted. Not just the weight from leading a restaurant through a pandemic, but the weight of working just to impress and not for my own sense of fulfillment. Somewhere along the way, the light was lost. The joy turned to dread and the group gatherings turned into crew meetings that lasted too long.
As the Coronavirus continued on leaving nothing but chaos and confusion in it’s wake, I saw firsthand how fickle the food industry can be, and I realized that while the hustle and bustle of a kitchen is something I loved, the stress of running the kitchen was not something I was ready to give up my next 70-odd years of life for.
Too many times, people don’t recognize their burnout and continue to overwork themselves, thinking “this must just be life.” For some, working those long hours is all you may know about working the food industry. It’s a common trope that chefs work hard and play hard day in and day out, often at the price of their social life, sleep pattern, and sometimes even resulting in missing out on important other things.
If this becomes the case, I recommend stepping back and deciding if the situation is worth the stressors. If it isn’t, it’s time to leave the situation. Luckily the food industry is also a forgiving one, and taking time to yourself to rekindle your love for the art doesn’t mean you’ll fall behind. Keeping up with the food trends is easy and fun to do from home, and when one isn’t doing something for money, they often find themselves enjoying the task more. Once the lure of the kitchen doesn’t seem so shiny, it’s best to take a step back before losing your love for cooking all together.