Celebrity Chef or Self-Loving Chef: Where is the Love in the Work that We Do?

by Victoria Lister, Brisbane, Australia

For six or so years, across the mid 1980s to the mid 90s, I trained and worked as a chef. One thing I’ll never forget is my first day in a commercial kitchen. I was completely overwhelmed – by the sharp banter of the staff as they prepared for the busy weekend ahead, by the controlled chaos of the kitchen itself, by the pungent, unforgettable smells of simmering stocks and chopped, fresh herbs, and by the stern-looking, mostly silent head chef and the glamorous restaurant owner.

Both the head chef and owner were famous – the restaurant I’d been lucky enough to score a day’s work experience in was at that time widely regarded as Australia’s best. It was out of town and could only be accessed by water, but this did nothing to prevent local and visiting foodies making the inconvenient trek to its doors. It opened for a limited time each week, with staff staying on site for the duration. I was daunted by the rather basic accommodation, and the fact the restaurant would be lived and breathed for days at a time. But I could also tell that the ‘privilege’ of working there out-weighed any disadvantages in the minds of the staff.

Although I found the whole experience overwhelming, I allowed my dreams of somehow becoming a part of this elite coterie of high-end chefs to override my doubts. There was no opening at that particular restaurant, but I did go on to work in a number of respected venues, for I had made it my personal mission to work only in those restaurants listed in the city’s good food guide. Although the era of the celebrity chef had yet to seriously arrive, the food scene had a glamour of its own and like many, I was determined to make a name for myself in the kitchen.

And therein lay my big mistake. Never once during that time did I stop to ask myself if what I was getting into was right for me, both in terms of career choice, and in terms of being a chef and the kind of cooking environment I was choosing – after all, there are many contexts in which one can work with food. More importantly, was it right for me personally, and as a woman? These questions never crossed my mind.

Not that it was all about the excitement of being a chef: I had a very genuine love of food (and still do), and it is very much part of my expression although I no longer work in the industry. And a few years in, I did in fact leave the restaurant scene to work in the food manufacturing business I established with my then partner, also a young chef, at first juggling both apprenticeship and business. The latter was certainly a better choice for me – the hours were friendly, the work day consistent, and we did well. But once I decided to move on from both the business and my partner, I returned once more – now fully qualified – to the rigours of the restaurant scene.

And it is a hard life: the realities of commercial kitchens are far from what we see on TV and in beautiful cookbooks. Kitchens are hot, sweaty and often dangerous places. You’re asked to move super-fast, all the time. There’s a lot of heavy lifting and long, late nights. You get sadly used to having rough hands – often marred by cuts, burns and constant exposure to steam and spitting oil – and build up a resistance to pain in order to get the job done. Stress levels are high and tempers often fray, as has been strangely romanticised on TV with the likes of Gordon Ramsay. Many, if not most, kitchen staff smoke, drink heavily and/ or take drugs to manage their stress or to be collegial after hours, or both. Some staff had serious drug habits and were thoroughly unpredictable and hence dangerous to be around. You usually work when others don’t and as a result see less of your non-chef friends and family and more of your dysfunctional workmates. Ironically, good eating habits fly out the window – you’re so busy so much of the time there’s little time to eat or sit down: bread rolls and strong coffee become staples. You get addicted to running on adrenalin, which peaks and troughs. ‘Up’ times occur during ‘service’ (when the doors open to customers), ‘down’ times are spent prepping for the next wave or cleaning up for the night. This down-time is of course still super busy. What drives all this frenetic activity? It’s hard to make money from food (the profit margins are typically low) so it’s all about getting lots of bums on seats. And beyond that, there’s an ingrained expectation that you should be able to walk into a restaurant and have your entrée in front of you within 20 minutes.

How did I ever think any of this was a good thing for me, or my body? It amazes me now, but I never questioned it: it was just the way things were, and I either had to ‘toughen’ up and get on with it (which I obviously did), or find something else to do… which I also eventually did. (Don’t laugh, but my next career stop was in advertising, where similar conditions often prevail except everyone has better hands.) But it took being frequently ill and chronically run-down to realise I had to get out.

And it’s taken me a further 20 years to recover from what I often referred to as my ‘post-traumatic kitchen stress disorder’. For years afterwards, whenever I ate in restaurants I made sure I sat with my back to the kitchen (restaurants with open kitchens were particularly challenging!). I had frequent bad dreams, reliving the most anxious moments of my working past – usually service, when all those orders were coming in, or the moments I’d stuffed up during a big function. Cooking for myself felt like a chore, as if all the joy had been sapped out of it, and I continued the typical chef’s diet of Vegemite toast and baked beans and other such lacklustre offerings long after I left the trade. And I rarely cooked for friends or family, something I had done growing up. I remember as a small child loving my play set of cook’s things. I would trail Mum around the supermarket, planning my own dinner parties in my head.

A significant step in the healing of my ‘post traumatic kitchen stress disorder’ was the time I spent volunteering in the brand new kitchen of the conference centre where the Universal Medicine 2012 UK Retreat was held. I recall walking into the kitchen and immediately going into ‘assess’ mode: in my last year as a chef, as I was transitioning into ad-land, I worked for a hire-a-chef agency, which meant a lot of emergency cooking jobs. During this time I learned to walk into kitchens I’d never seen and assess the damage, so to speak. First task, get briefed on the situation to hand; second task, investigate the oven and work out how to turn it on; third task, try not to panic; fourth task, proceed with the (often flimsy) resources at hand. So as if the intervening 20 years had not even happened, I stepped into the conference centre kitchen, took stock of the situation, and well, started to panic.

Thankfully, and with the assistance of some sane friends also there to help, I realised the task of feeding the 250 retreat attendees for 4-5 days was actually not my responsibility – there was a catering manager for that, and a large team of local students of Universal Medicine who had elected to forgo the retreat in order to serve us. So I eventually settled down and did some cooking with some of my fellow students and just enjoyed it. My husband arrived to help run the new crockery and cutlery through the new commercial dishwasher for the first time, a job that was to take most of the day. He and another student worked together, devising a beautiful, calm system for getting it all done, even though they had never before worked with a commercial dishwasher in a commercial kitchen.

Over the course of the retreat – as an attendee, and on the couple of occasions I volunteered some more – I enjoyed watching the whole business of feeding 250+ people three times a day unfold in a way I’d never before seen. OK, I’m sure there were some hair-raising moments for the team (it was their first time running such an event, and on such a scale) and that was to be expected. But on the whole, I witnessed a way of working that was 180 degrees from my own experience of ‘professional’ cooking. It cemented a deep questioning of my own – of the validity of the restaurant scene as a whole. Hmm… let’s see… rich, indulgent food prepared by potentially drug addled ‘stress cadets’, versus simple, delicious food prepared by gentle people who shun any form of abuse… I know what my preference would be!

Having said all that, I have no doubt there are those who are more suited to busy kitchen work and can and do handle service with ease. But that person was not me: I now feel my ongoing struggle was just a reflection of the lack of truth in the type of work I was attempting. While I have a genuine flair for food, the arena I chose to express my creativity was just not right. It therefore was not natural to me, so I lacked a true and easy confidence in what I was doing. I had allowed myself to instead be seduced by the possibility of learning from the best chefs and becoming one myself: I was operating from an ideal, with scant regard and nil love for myself on every level.

It has taken me many, many years to realise the truth of this situation. In hindsight, I can also see how every role I have undertaken since has been a version of the same: never, ever, have I chosen a job or industry (other than the times I have been self-employed, which have come closer) that has been truly right for me – in different ways they’ve all been the equivalent of trying to walk to the South Pole – an exhausting, debilitating, ‘personal challenge’.

Now, it feels like time to re-assess. How about work that is supportive and nourishing instead? And on a broader level, how about restaurants and cafes that put their people first? I feel there’s a whole new model waiting out there for how they could be run. Love in work and love in hospitality – now there’s food for thought.

Further related reading:
From Ideals and Beliefs to Making Loving Work Choices
Stress & Work: Learning to Trust Myself As a Woman

140 thoughts on “Celebrity Chef or Self-Loving Chef: Where is the Love in the Work that We Do?

  1. Loved reading this as one of the other participants on those retreat cooking experiences in 2012. I’ve never worked in a commercial kitchen before, and while it is hard work, with lots of dangerous objects moving at speed, at the same time its about bringing the love to the food that is the all important ingredient… not just something that looks and tastes good but has been abused all the way through its journey to our plate!

  2. From my own experiences in the hospitality industry I can agree it is sadly void of the love that would either nourish its staff or its customers. I can only imagine the profound effect it would have on the world if the industry was run with and embraced true service… offering all who walked through its doors a healing rather a perpetuation of abuse.

  3. A wonderful sharing Victoria. I can relate and fully understand every part of your article. No, I have never trained as a Chef, but I have spent some time helping in a commercial kitchen, preparing food to feed up to 150 odd people. When you are on, that’s it, there seem to be very few breaks and a tired body at the end. It took me a bit but over time I learned that when I choose to be steady and present the job was nowhere near as hard or tiring. There is much to be examined when it comes to how we work our bodies, with presence, grace and respect, or with push, drive and disrespect.

  4. The first part of your blog describing the kitchen made me feel exhausted just by reading it!!!! I have worked in restaurants as waiting staff and I have also worked as part of the Dining Room Team at the Universal Medicine Retreats and agree with what you share, the difference is about love and the quality in how tasks are done with the understanding in how they are done affect the customer. This is the philosophy of Universal Medicine .. how we live, including how we work affects both our health and well-being and also others as everything is energy and so has a knock on affect. I know I would rather have a meal prepared by someone who took care with themselves and the quality they are in, saying no to abuse than have a so called ‘amazing’ dish prepared by someone who was stressed, rushed, abusive and taking drugs. Reading this ‘And therein lay my big mistake. Never once during that time did I stop to ask myself if what I was getting into was right for me, both in terms of career choice’ is something I can really relate with as well. Of spending half my life in a career that was not what I wanted to do at all. When we make it about connecting to our truth and essence first a lot less time is wasted going off on a path that is not in line with who we truly are.

  5. I have been of the mindset that I thrive of busy, stressful environments where there is no time to even go fo a pee when needed. The result of that was to get seriously exhausted. It took me over a year to recover from the level of exhaustion I had driven myself into, but now I can look back and appreciate how far I have come in my willingness to put myself first. And if I slip into old disregarding ways, by body instantly reflect this back to me so I am cannot just push on through as I once did.

  6. Re reading this article tonight what really stands out is the difference of the energetic quality of those chefing in stress, overwhelm and pressure, as opposed to those working with steadiness and presence. From my own experience when working from steadiness, presence and openness the achievements in the day are often way beyond that we could achieve when under stress and pressure.

  7. This relates to so many industries and areas of life Victoria. How often is there a ‘carrot dangled’, that we wilfully grab onto for all that it purports to promise us – only to be left at the mercy of a lot more than we actually bargained for.
    To actually step outside of the square and see it for what it is is deeply empowering – that then we may choose whether or not to stay in that industry or related activity, and how we may bring ourselves to it.

  8. There are most definitely areas I’ve worked in and been active in in my life that I can relate to this Victoria. One is music. How often, rather than honour myself and what I knew to be ‘off-kilter’, did I take the preference of instead pushing myself and indeed expecting myself to ‘be more’ in order to ‘do the job’? The answer, is many, many times…
    It took many years and a far deeper energetic understanding of the ‘product’ I was dealing with – i.e. music – to see past any lack of worth issues I had brought to the table, and actually recognise the harmfulness and self-abuse inherent in much of what I had been doing, and striving to ‘do better at’, for so many years.
    Exhausting, isn’t it… and then what is to be celebrated, is when we can see the truth of an industry/situation and actually then know that there is a different quality that can be brought to it, founded in absolute harmlessness, love and integrity.

  9. Victoria, your blog has been a real eye-opener for me on how life in many busy restaurants, plays out. Reading about your life in the early days of your career I get the sense that the busy chaotic environment in many kitchens where food is being prepared, does not lend itself to the harmonious flow of food through the customers digestive systems. The energetic quality both of the environment and of those preparing food cannot but affect the taste of the food and also the nourishment available for the body to assimilate.

  10. Thank you for sharing this here Victoria – a great opportunity for me to deepen my appreciation of those who are working in that very same kitchen on this years Universal Medicine UK retreat – which is on right now. Seeing, tasting and experiencing a plate of beautifully prepared food is a wonderful thing – but it seems clear that the visual feast might not always be a true mirror of the conditions many kitchen staff work in.

  11. That’s a thesis of the food and industry hospitality trade, and therefore all industries. I especially take note of how work was for you Victoria – “the lack of truth in the type of work I was attempting”, “It therefore was not natural to me, so I lacked a true and easy confidence in what I was doing”, “I was operating from an ideal, with scant regard and nil love for myself on every level”. Many people in work could benefit from this intelligent perspective. Are you in the right industry that ‘feeds’ you back? Does it naturally flow? Are you in an industry when your not at work you ‘work’ to set yourself up to bring all of you when you actually clock on to work – this is passion and we all have it for something, and we certainly feel it when we receive this quality of service from another. Work is life.

  12. I can relate what you share about working in famous commercial kitchens Victoria, one of my son’s has chosen that as his career, so all you share is so true. The day is usually16-17 hour shifts under pressure, and without a decent meal or break, and can be 5 – 6 days consecutively. My son has a genuine love of what he does, but I do wonder what the long term implications of working under such conditions are as you point out in this blog from your perspective, “post-traumatic kitchen stress disorder”. Great that you had the opportunity to work in the kitchen at a Universal Medicine Retreat and so could feel and appreciate the difference of how this kitchen was run.

  13. The hospitality industry could do with a huge injection of love – the stress is unbelievable and the way people treat each other mainly abhorrent. Jealousy is rife as are poor eating habits, lots of alcohol, smokes and drugs. People are buckling under the pressure but the investment can seem too big to do the sane thing and either change the scene one step at a time or get out if you can’t.

  14. Putting people first and making work about love is all we have to do. The rest takes care of itself. I have seen this in practice in my daughters cafe.

  15. Loved reading you blog and your experience Victoria, there is a huge amount of stress in commercial kitchens, they are all about producing the end product as quickly as possible, yet when you start to appreciate staff, and build up communication between them they are extremely efficient and food starts to have its own flow as they all work together. When we work from love first the rest takes care of itself.

  16. You’ve unpacked a lot here Victoria, how far off our true ‘calling’ many of us end up and we do things without fully taking into account ourselves and our bodies. If we approached life from our bodies it would be very different, we would choose different jobs and be very different in how we operated in them.

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