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

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

  1. My experience of 9 years in commercial kitchens is the same. The way it is currently set up is not supportive of the staff. We used to have buzzers in one place to tell us to go pick up food and when out with friends to eat I’d hear that buzzer and flinch or look around to get up! Over time the more I cared for myself, the more I realised that hospitality, as it’s currently run, was not for me. It needs to be about all people first, not just those paying.

  2. Goodness hearing about your experience in the professional kitchen certainly offers food for thought ( 🙂 ) about where you eat and what work conditions you want for your fellow human beings who offer you a paid service. I am sure food made with love and without that level of stress tastes so much better than food made with stress and intense pressure.

  3. “How about work that is supportive and nourishing instead?” This line totally changes how we look at work, instead of it just being about performing, it becomes about the quality we express at work and how we feel at the need of each work day. I don’t feel anyone would consider work ‘supportive and nourishing’ – but why not, it is possible!

  4. One of my sons is a head chef in the environment you describe in this post. I had not realized how full on it was, 24/7, until he started in this profession about 10 years ago. He loves it, but as you say, his wife, and family hardly see him.

  5. Having worked in a few commercial kitchens at every level I full relate to what you have shared Victoria, and having also experienced a Universal Medicine event from a kitchen. So the love at a Universal Medicine event is poured into every aspect, offers true nourishment for our bodies and Soul. Our responsibility then becomes one of not over-eating such yummy foods, as this is my great lesson this life, maybe listen to a fully connected body will deliver less food on my plate!

  6. We have such a long work life and examining how and why we choose the work we do feels very important. It isn’t such a common conversation, nor is talking about love and self care at work. There is enormous potential for so many industries and occupations to change if we were to put people first, and to support staff to work with a foundation of true self care.

  7. This is a great story that asks us to ponder on what true success is. We might strive to become something or get somewhere in our career, but when we get there, who and what will be doing that job?

  8. The environment that you describe at the start of your professional kitchen career seems harsh and confronting, relentless and imposing, and yet you decided to stay and to make this you place of work. I can relate to this decision, in that there have been so many times when my first reading of a situation would be spot on accurate, but my other more subtle and needy motivations would take over and override any sense of clarity that I had, enabling me to push headlong in to something which perhaps in hindsight would have been better to have been left alone.

  9. Each time I read this article I feel something different in its offering. Reading how the intensity of working in a commercial kitchen is so stressful tonight, I felt how important it is for each of us to know our worth and our strengths. With such solidness of knowing ourselves those stressful moments and situations in life will be much easier to navigate.

  10. Food has been thoroughly glamourised and so have the people involved; the work is stressful and the divide between the floor and kitchen staff unpleasant if not acrid. Does anybody really want to put the end result of that into their body?

  11. The saddest thing is that the pace of commercial kitchens is simply a reflection of the pace of society. Until we all take stock of our racy lifestyles and truly feel the harm they cause our body and all others we are in contact with, the model we now have will continue. However as Victoria has shared there is another way to work in a kitchen and to live in society. For those who are willing the benifits to ones body will be great and the service provided to humanity will be based on people and not on profit.

  12. Putting people first, regardless of what work we do – feels so important. When served with love and care simple food can be truly nourishing.

  13. “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” – and mine too! If what you share here is the reality of what goes on in commercial kitchens in order to serve the public at large and meets our needs, it begs a question as to what our demands are.

  14. Our craving for recognition can all too easily take us on a deviation and up a long and false path only to find that at some stage we have to acknowledge how empty and insatiable this way can be – the blessing being our awareness of this allows us to correct it.

  15. Hi Victoria, what an insight in the restaurant business you supply. If commercial kitchens are run in this way, what is then the quality of food being offered to the clients? We all know the saying “cooked with love”, but the scenery you describe is far from it.

  16. Why do we run away sometimes in the completely opposite direction from what is being truly asked of us? Recently I’ve become much more aware of this running away, really speaking running away from who I am and what I was to bring through my chosen work letting go of all those avenues that were trying to entice me into in one way or another. I feel much more at ease with myself keeping things simple and much more with myself honouring my body and what feels true to me. I know and have always known what I am to do in my work… I just needed to not hold back and take responsibility wholeheartedly for that which I am to bring to the world through my chosen profession.

  17. Thank you Victoria, I reckon so many people, and very much me too, can relate to this experience of knowing deeply something that you wanted to do or a certain way that you wanted to contribute to life, only to find yourself caught up in an industry that at first seemed to promise all that your expression was looking for and yet when lived, turned out to be so far from what you felt to be true. I experienced this with art and after going to college felt so disillusioned with what the art world had to offer, even though my original impulse or inspiration to create works of art had a purity to it that actually never needed to be educated in the way it was, but rather simply nurtured as an expression, and even supported to remain playful and joyous. As with yourself, this has been a great lesson for me in learning not to look to the world to provide an avenue for my expression, but rather to take responsibility for this myself, and to bring my expression into my every way of life. Therefore not making anything that I do be owned or controlled by any industry, but determined by what I can see as truth.

  18. Yes and I wonder, just wonder as I don’t know, but I do wonder if that could contribute to how many people are having trouble digesting food. There are definitely restaurants that I love to be in and there are others that I just don’t digest well afterwards – and it can be the same meal apparently. How we do what we do is felt by the recipient – I know that from other industries so why not the catering industry?

  19. There is so much in this blog that I would love to comment on!!! I also volunteered in the kitchen that retreat and was blown away by the simplicity of what was being asked and what was done. All I had to do was chop and the humour and playfulness was a turnaround for me. I remember how there was no crashing and banging of plates going in and out of the dishwasher, there was no-one screaming at anyone else, if we needed a break we had one. It really should be a model to repeat. Working hard without the abuse.

  20. My first job as a teenager was washing up in a commercial kitchen of a small local restaurant and it was a total shock to the system! It was exactly how you’ve described Victoria, and my hands used to flake off skin for days afterwards after washing up with no gloves (everything was done at such high speed the gloves just filled up with water and got in the way). While my hands might not be flaking to bits these days, fine-tuning the relationship between what needs to be done, and giving my full attention to it, while not abandoning my body, is an ever-deepening process.

  21. “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 completely get where you’re coming from here. No matter how hard I try to make it natural and flowing, it continually seems to allude me and I generally finish my shift with some level of frustration. Waitressing is a true art in itself, let alone being a chef or kitchen hand. The environment is all that you have described here, and I find it difficult to work in those stressful conditions.
    I just can’t imagine how it could be any other way. To hear of your retreat experience sounds wonderful and extremely unique for a commercial kitchen.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

    1. It amazes me how it is romanticized. There is so much physical abuse. I think the more open kitchens we have the better. So the staff are accountable for all they do, because they are on show to the public. This seems extreme but it feels like time for these measures due to how abhorrent it can be in a commercial kitchen.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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!

    1. Yes, I had helped chop and also stack plates and it was such an incredible experience to consider the impact on others of the way I did something, the way I moved down to the level of if I was present of not! I had never even considered how I worked and the impact of that till I had experienced a very different way of working at that retreat.

  37. I love your idea for a new model, it feels like you are the perfect person to pioneer such a change in the world. What if we brought true care and true love for people into our work places? Our health and our stress levels would dramatically improve, the ripple effect throughout our whole lived would be massive.

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