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