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?!