Hell Of A Career Choice? Yes, Chef.

For years now, I’ve sought out the relief & enjoyment of a Monday. In the same manner most celebrate the consistency & finality of a Friday, the beginning of a calendar week usually lets those in hospitality know they’ve survived another weekend. I recall as if it was yesterday, considering a career in the kitchen, being told that I may want to check with those close to me as I’m considering forfeiting my nights, weekends, and holidays to jump into a career path that benefits from working to please others while they are relaxing, socializing, & celebrating. I knew when I had the blessing of family & friends coincide with my desire to move forward, regardless of the market research, I was on the right path. But what a path it’s been.

Imagine being an artist, a creative of some sort. Now, include the fact that your work is not something that is so undoable to the average human. Turns out that, additionally, everyone is a consumer of your field. Hell, we’ve all been eating food our whole lives. It’s inevitable that this leads some to be just as knowledgable as us chefs, “foodies” per se, doing what we do as mere hobbies from other careers, or cooking merely to survive. So, what is it that feeds our desire as chefs to put our whole heart on a plate, figuratively? Rather than painting a picture, and setting it in a frame, allowing it to hang in view, waiting for the right person to lock eyes on it, realizing “thats the one!”, our soul often spends ten times the time it takes to make a dish that it takes to be consumed, sometimes eloquently, and many others as quick a shark devours a sea turtle. Our tangible becomes but a memory.

Then, unlike any museum or institute of hard work on display, it’s time for the feedback. The same green bean with a bit of bite is perfectly done to some, yet underdone to others. Some get freaked out over scrambled eggs that aren’t as dry as the plate they’re put on. To each their own. We all have taste (or lack thereof, depending on who you ask). Believe me, those that are in this for the right reasons have a level of giving a fuck what you think more than those in many other careers. Knowing this, chefs are faced with decisions throughout their journeys; using the experience gained in their training & upbringing vs. knowing their audience, and remaining who they are while progressing by pleasing palates. If this was our only focus, it would almost seems acceptably simplistic. Now, let’s welcome in the other aspects. Rarely is there a chair under our ass. We do sit, eat to study, maybe turn a stainless steel table into a desk to jot down some menu ideas, but usually, we our on our feet. It’s a physical job, one where we may stand still making sure a tomato sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, or literally racking up steps on our daily count because its time for service and no one sits still with the echoing of “behind!” & “corner!” throughout the chaos. Occasionally, we will be spoiled with a crew that can share a vision, work as a well oiled machine towards a common goal. Although, there are the times where we, as chefs, become counselors trying to harmoniously gather a bunch of misfits to not take each other personally, to not think too much on their own, and at the same time, do the job necessary without having their hand held. 

But we’re rockstars, right? Or so TV would have you believe. Maybe financially cared for? I mean, these should make any of this tolerable. Reality is, I’ve never mopped so many floors after becoming a chef, nor have I found my pot of gold. I live minimally.. Prioritizing what is needed, but doing what I need to to enjoy this one life that I have. I may have cooked on television at times, but it was a hustle, a grind. Not so much the Emeril “someone tie my apron & handle my mise en place” kind of appearance. 

I live in an atmosphere where I can add to my tattoos without judgement. I have an opportunity to give in to a sometimes vulgar culture, or bring a positive outlook. I can follow a historical presence of alcohol and drug addiction into a hole, or I can show that I can still be successful and sober. Most importantly, I have found a career where I can play with food, and I’m lucky enough to have found people who will pay me to do it. It’s who I am, it’s a key aspect of what makes me happy. How many of us can say we get to live our passions? I’ve made some good food, I’ve eaten my share of phenomenal food. I’ve laughed with clients, and I’ve barely survived services with some bad ass chefs. 

Is our path ideal? Absolutely not. Conducive to a “normal life”? Not for a moment. That said, I couldn’t see my day to day being focused on anything other than food. Dishes I’ve made, and plates yet to be created. Ready for more? Yes, Chef… Hell of a career choice.

The Re-Fire.

Over a decade ago, I found myself working in some pretty decent fields for a number of reputable employers. And although I seemed to thrive in whatever environment I was in, I knew the sole purpose of showing up every day was to earn that check. Now, to almost all of us at some point, this is a no brainer. I mean, who doesn’t need to make a living?

It wasn’t until I had to genuinely ask myself what I believed it was that I wanted to do with my life. I had gone to a JC when I was younger, with no aspiration. I had worked jobs that had paid bills, but slowly nipped at my soul. So what was it? What was out there that could reward me, both financially and mentally? My previous jobs had consisted of sales, which was fine considering I deal with people relatively well. And I had worked years in accounting since numbers always came easy to me. But, neither field sat right down deep.

As I became more independent from family, self-sufficiency led me to have to fend for myself. This obviously included cooking. I knew nothing. Re-heating? Yes. Simple recipes? I could manage. Beyond that? You may as well ask me to speak a foreign language. Strangely enough, there was still some curiosity I had; some desire to learn. I knew I had a chef in the family, but what did it take for him to start in that direction? I had called my uncle, a well-known chef in Maui, HI, to find out what led him to develop a career out of what many people do to merely survive. I explained to him that my trips to the store for pantry staples were becoming mystery baskets of who knows what, and it somehow intrigued me. After some further research, consideration, and effort, I looked into culinary school and went to visit. There, they informed me of the toll this career takes, and that it’s recommended that we discuss with our family and friends their feelings on this, as this life can take away nights, weekends, and holidays as we know them. Willing to make this sacrifice, I moved forward, enrolled, attended (with perfect attendance, I might add..), and graduated with an Associates Degree of Occupational Studies of Le Cordon Bleu. This was a larger task than you may think, as I had never possessed very good study habits prior to.

Upon exiting the educational portion of my new career path, student or not, it was time to pay dues, start at the bottom. Again, all sacrifices I was willing to make. I proceeded to spend a number of years in both restaurants and catering, eventually cooking for tens of thousands of guests, clients, and customers. Being able to take part in restaurant openings, cater events in amazing places, these were all experiences affirming I was on the right path. Eventually, I had gained access to the world of tour catering. Here I would be able to put all skills to the test. This was big time. I began cooking for musicians and artists, traveling the country, riding tour busses, and catering to their needs on the road. All these different opportunities were astonishing. The experiences I was having, the recognition I was receiving, it was all a surreal experience.

Eventually, life was life, and plans changed as they always did. My short attention span, my uncertainty of direction, and constant questioning of the next step came into play. I would soon find myself switching gears to re-enter the world of restaurants. It was time to become a bit more grounded. Get back to living a somewhat “normal” existence, as if I ever knew what that meant. After a gig as Sous Chef of a successful restaurant in Marin County, again success called, and it was time… A chef’s dream. It was time to open my 1st restaurant.

I had been through this process before. From the ground up. But not “mine”, as a partner, financially obligated and soon to be, hopefully, rewarded as well. Latching onto this opportunity, my direction was again set, and the process began. This time around I was going to see what it took behind the scenes to get this thing going. We had decided on a name, had the location, and the dynamics & demographic were calculated. Over the course of the next five months, I sat with my partners through licensing, meetings, contractors, designers, and all of the other aspects of opening a restaurant.

In March of 2013, the time had come. We were successful in our task. The doors to our new lives had opened.

Greeted with open arms from the city of Santa Rosa, CA, everything was right where it needed to be. Or so I thought..

You see, there were underlying personal circumstances that were hindering me throughout. Going back way earlier than I was willing to admit. Normalcy of my behavior, the way I handled life had never been too much a nuisance, at least not to me. For a kid that grew up, blaming a great amount of self-destructive behaviors on “just being young”, similar traits in my later years were not so easy to dismiss.

To this point, I had lived my life with certain theories. Some of these involved the perception I shot for. Convincing the world I was ok, and as long as it looked that way, all was good. I was successful! I mean, who does what I did if they have a problem?

It wasn’t but 2 weeks after the opening that I had broken yet another promise to myself. Another word that I would change for the better, health wise, once things calmed down. What had happened along the way was a change in my motives. The inspired chef who had dedicated his life to mystery baskets, menu writing, pleasing people’s palates, had altered his priorities. I was now surrounding myself in a career that embraced the way I liked to live. I could eat, drink, drink (not a typo), and be merry. Although it was a different story in the morning. It had become more about me. What I was getting out of it. Going from working a dead-end job just to pay bills, to finding a love for a career, had circled right back to doing it for the money and the lifestyle. Being a creative culinary mind ran a distant 2nd. I had deteriorated mentally & physically. It wasn’t until the man in the lab coat spoke to me as I lie in bed that my body was not well. I wasn’t yet to the point of being unable to heal, but that’s where I was headed. It brought all of the initial exterior problems into perspective.

Luckily for me, this last broken promise would be the game changer. There would be no more living life in a way that would cost me what I had worked so hard for. I was going to get back on track, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

After some discussion with my partners, it was clear that certain things needed to happen for me to focus on these changes. Although I loved what we had built so much, it was best I stepped away. The restaurant was going to be a success, and I wanted to in no way jeopardize that. I separated from the restaurant, and put all of my energy & focus into getting me back, mind & body.

Throughout this process, it became clear that the field I was in is very enabling for someone of my personality. So, I had two options as I saw it:  change my career, or do what I need to do to get my priorities back. And thank God I was able to do just that. By following a few simple suggestions.

I found my legs again. I found my drive, my desire, my passion for my culinary life. I have remembered what it was that led me to the kitchen in the 1st place. I have adjusted and my motives are now realigned. I deal & react to life differently, and have a purpose.

To this day, I hold my chef’s knife again, embrace my creative side, and try my best on a daily basis to stay out of my own way.

Recalling working on the hot line in the restaurant world, the last thing you want is a returned dish. Hearing the chef or expeditor call for a “re-fire!” at first sound is a frustration; a feeling of failure. When, if you can put that aside, redo it with an even brighter outlook, it can be even more amazing than the first attempt. Sometimes, the experience of not doing it right is transformed into doing it better than you ever thought you could.

I see where I am in my journey today, and realize everything happens the way it’s supposed to. That said, I’d be naive to not realize what I am experiencing. It’s simply a re-fire of my career, and my life.