As some of you already know, I recently quit my job as a Chef. Pastry Chef to be precise. For ten years (with the exception of a few months color-tinting paint, really) I’ve been plugging away in professional kitchens. The beginning is mostly a blur to be honest, I don’t even remember that twinkling moment when I thought “Hey! I think I should enroll in Culinary School!”. I do however remember watching all the cooking shows on Food Network (which I now despise) and purchasing a ton of cookbooks. I know now looking back that it was the imagery of food and the way it can look like art on a plate and on the pages of a book that attracted me to the culinary world – not the desire to work in a kitchen. Hell, I had no idea what the real world of cooking was really like, and how could I have?!

I remember Culinary School like it was yesterday. There was something about the intensity of the kitchen, the pressure of incredibly high expectations, seemingly ridiculous time restraints, and military-like structure, that just spoke to me like I’d always known it. I hadn’t of course, but it felt natural to me. The pressure was intense. The Chefs were badass. One person’s mistake became everyone’s mistake. If some idiot in your group screwed something up – everyone got yelled at. There was no shortage of stories to keep us in line, stories of cooks who cut off entire portions of their fingers and kept working through service. They were training us for the real world. I can’t say what it’s like to attend Culinary programs other than my own, but from what I’ve heard there aren’t many that try to prepare you for the realities of life in the kitchen just as much as they train you to actually cook. Most people can be taught how to prepare a decent meal, but the ones who survive and thrive in professional kitchens are those who are also fast, shockingly coordinated, at least slightly obsessive compulsive, and mentally tough as f@ck!ng nails. Especially if you are a woman. A petite woman.

My first Restaurant Chef whom I loved to hate and hated to love once asked me after what felt like one of the world’s shittiest breakfast services: “do you know what’s going to be your biggest obstacle in this job?”. I assumed he was referring to the fact that I liked to bitch and moan, so I childishly quipped: “I dunno, my attitude?!”, to which he said: “No! Not your f@ck!ng attitude, it’s your size!”. It hadn’t even occurred to me. “How are you going to reach those f@ck!ng plates on the line when the chits are pouring in and you’re getting slammed? You’re going to be slower than everyone else and you’re going to have to work twice as hard and fast as them just to do the same job!”. He was right. But it wasn’t just my size that would become an obstacle for me in my career.

You’ve heard them all before: the giant list of reasons why you’d never cut it as a chef. The hours. The discrimination. The sexism. The racism. The pressure. The sacrifice. You’ll never attend another birthday party, family gathering, wedding, or holiday event of any kind. You’ll never get to call in sick even when you’re legitimately sick as a dog. I know people who’ve come to work with pneumonia. I am not exaggerating. You know who you are ladies. I’ve dripped sweat from a fever over a scorching flat top, tried to hold back vomit over 30 litres of scrambled eggs, and spent plenty of time hunched over milk crates in kitchen corners, suffering like an idiot to get through a shift. I’ve worked 16 hour shifts on 3 hours of sleep, multiple days in a row. I’ve had gobs of raw egg sloshed into my eyes and had sweat running down both legs into my shoes. I’ve had racist, sexist, and other disgusting drivel thrown my way while keeping my cool. I’ve also lost my shit, screamed, cried, and cut myself deeply enough that I have permanent nerve damage. While I’m certainly proud of some of these things – I’m not proud of all of them. I haven’t met a single person other than some fellow chefs who understand why the hell anyone would go to work to cook food for people of all things, while disgustingly ill. I haven’t met anyone outside the industry who can share stories of vulgarity like I can. I don’t expect them to. All I can say is – professional kitchens are truly another world. Another dimension really, and they sure as hell aren’t for everyone. They aren’t for most people.

Of all the realizations you’ll have as a Chef, by far the most sobering is the realization that the more you move up in the culinary world – the more time and effort you’ll have to put in. Even more than before. ‘Moving up’ doesn’t mean the cushy corner office. It means 14 hour days instead of 10, or maybe 16 instead of 12. This is by far the biggest reason I started to look for something new. I knew that the harder I worked and more successful I became, the more hours I’d have to put in and the more of my life I’d have to sacrifice for someone else’s business.

But not all is bad in slinging knives for a living. I left it once before and went crawling back, and who knows what will happen this time around. Only time will tell if this is truly the end or if it’s just a break from my love/hate relationship with being a Chef. What I can say for certain is that I met some of the most important people in my life because of it. That I learned just how tough I am and how valuable my work ethic is because of it. That I appreciate all my free time and all the special events I attend because of it. That I’ve gained the confidence, courage, and connections needed to move cities and even countries because of it. That I feel confident enough in myself to take risks because of it. That I’m not afraid of change because of it. That I have highly specialized skills that I love and cherish because of it. That I stand where I stand today, and happily, because of it.

But for now, I hang my apron.

Now tell me – what in the hell is one to do with several thousand recipes collected and developed over ten years?!

coffee

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by:Ashley

17 replies on “Why I quit being a Chef. Again.

  1. Really interesting read! I guess movies and shows already gave me that feeling that it was stressful to work in a kitchen, but reading this from you it’s like discovering the true story 😉
    As for your final question… A blog & books!

  2. I really love this post Ashley! I’m currently making the transition from Yacht Chef to ‘Land Chef’. I’ve done various stages in restaurants around the world, and find it completely shocking and degrading the treatment some of these young chefs put themselves through to be at the top. Saying that – they seem to thrive off that energy. Me – I just don’t think I am one of these people that has the balls to make it in that environment – far too sensitive!…. Anyway reading your post confirms this!
    The aim – To find an exit plan in the world of food where the art of cooking can be harmonious and enjoyable. High energy – yes…. but that good kind of energy, that produces wholehearted food.

    I look forward to seeing more from you and how you go in your new chapter. I’m sure those recipes have been collected for something great to come!

    1. Hi Shantala! I love your site and your story! I totally hear you. I thrived off of it for years as well, but it eventually tires most of us out and we grow to want more out of life than just a career. That was my plan of action too – to find something to do that still allows me to work with food, but a different work environment. A different mentality. I’m curious how you ended up working on boats?!

      1. I was travelling through Europe and followed some friends to Mallorca who were joining the yachting industry. I had never cooked professionally but somehow fell into a trainee Sous chef position on a large motorboat. That was five years, and 4 boats ago… Somehow I found a career and a passion I never knew I had.

        Now I need to find a way to make it work in the real world! Haha… I hope we can share our adventures!

      2. Wow, sounds like life really took you down the unbeaten path, I love that. Sometimes one thing leads to the next in such surprising ways, but it only happens if you are able to fly by the seat of your pants and go with the flow! I feel that way too. Please do keep in touch and best of luck as a fish out of water, you’ll do great!

    1. That’s a lovely idea. I’d love to teach kids how to cook. Now if only starting up a business was cheap and easy! Definitely food for thought.

  3. Ashley,
    Kudos! it is hard to take such life-changing decision, I know it from experience. At first, you might start rethinking the decision, then you’ll blame yourself and everyone around you when you are not sure where your life is going, and then one day you’ll relax, the anxiety you have carried for a decade will subside and you’ll find yourself.
    Somedays you’ll miss the energy, but after 5 minutes of thinking “well, maybe i could do it again in another way…” then you realize is the addiction kicking in. And that’s ok. After a while, months, maybe a couple of years you’ll look back and see how much you have changed, how much more you are enjoying life, and then you’ll know it was all worth it!
    Use those recipes to keep you connected with what you loved about the kitchen, nobody can quit cold turkey, and use the occasional frustration and anxiety to create something new with them. I’ll look forward to that book 🙂
    Paula

    1. Hi Paula! Thank you so much for the thoughtful message. I really appreciate your insight. I did feel this way the first time around and it took me nearly a year to start feeling lost and outside myself. This time around I’ll still be working in a fast paced food environment as my new job – so I’m hoping it will be a smoother transition. Though those feelings will still be there nonetheless. You feel so important and so needed in high intensity jobs like that, and after many years doing it – it’s inevitable that there is a hole left to fill afterwards. I’m a little older and a little wiser (but not by much, ha!) the second time around, so I’m hoping I’m better equipped to fill the gap. I’m looking forward to seeing where the next adventure takes me. What was the path like for you?

      1. from the kitchen back to school searching for a new passion/career. In the midst of that, i reconnected with a former culinary instructor who advised me to apply for an affiliate professor of culinary for nutrition and hospitality students. I had also applied to a non-profit, Cooking Matters, where i now work teaching culinary skills and nutrition education to families with limited resources.
        I’m still searching for that super passionate route, maybe photography, or writing… whatever it is, food will be a big part of it.

  4. Wow…. The universe is a strange one: I was googling the combination of Thyme and Wasted because I’m looking to start a business with those words possibly incorporated in the name (shhhh don’t tell anyone ;-)), so I wander onto your page and see this post. I could’ve written it. In fact, I have a draft on my laptop that’s scarily similar. My time in the kitchen is a bit shorter than yours, but I have many of the same experiences, and am currently in the transition from a salaried kitchen job to further solidifying my own path in food awareness, waste reduction, and education. I’m in Vancouver, BC. We should connect some time, I’d love to hear where you’re at and what your path is like now. It’s both encouraging and sad to see how many talented people leave the kitchen for the same reasons.

    1. Hi Selma! Thanks for taking the time to write to me, I really appreciate it. It’s really nice to hear about like minds in similar phases. Why don’t you send me your email address, and we can converse some more!

  5. Amazing share Ashley, i’d like to know if you developed lower back pain, or any other form of pain over years of working in the kitchen? I’m passionate about baking and usually baked during my free time. I have a mundane 9-5 office job and thinking of changing career into baking/pastry industry but the thought of gaining permanent damage to my body scared me.

    1. Hi dth, I haven’t had any notable pain developed over the years. It’s really important to wear proper supportive shoes (like Birkenstocks) and to ensure you spend the majority of your day on silicon floor mats if you work long hours in a kitchen. If you are worried about being on your feet for long hours – try to find an employer that understands this, and an environment that is slow paced enough that it allows you to take regular breaks. There are a lot of different types of jobs in the industry, you just have to find one that suits your needs! If you are bored with your 9 to 5 and passionate about baking – it’s worth giving it a try!

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