Balancing Act

Chefs live on the edge of a knife.  In some moments, quite literally; in others, only figuratively.  In all cases, the edge is sharp and dangerous whether literal or not.

We teeter on that edge day and night, day after day night after night.  Trying to find the balance between a thousand things, things that vary from {how quickly you are able to complete knife work with how accurately you are able to do that work} to {should I go out with the other cooks, or go out with my other friends} and everything in between and beyond.

The balancing act – walking the edge – it is what drags many of us back into the kitchen day after day.

The rush.

The tension.

The fear mingling with adrenaline and excitement.

Your heart racing, as it seems, in time with the ticket printer.

It’s like a drug, and we are all addicts.  Our justifications are widely varied, as are our specialties, backgrounds and tastes.  But, addicts one and all.

The thing is,  as much as that rush may tame our anxiety during working hours… as good as the fix may be…  we have to learn to leave the blade at work – to indulge with moderation.  After all, If you don’t step off of the edge once in a while, you become statistically, progressively, more and more likely to slip.

And when you fall, you fall hard.  That edge you hone so carefully will slice you wide open.  For some, there is no recovering.  The burnout, the disgrace, the loss of family and friends.  The very real addictions to alcohol and drugs.

It is imperative that we learn the balance between the fix and our lives outside.  That we learn moderation.  

Some of us, myself included, have a hard time finding that balance.  My work has a tendency to become my life.  The line between dedication and consumption is very, very fine, and quite blurry.

I spend a minimum of 10 hours in my kitchen every day. I go in early and leave last most days.  That means that I spend more time with the people in that kitchen than anyone else.  Even my fiancee, if you don’t count the time we are sleeping.  They become my family.  My dysfunctional but loving parents, brothers, sisters.  So, there is this part of me that wants to be with them even when we aren’t on shift.  But I resist. I don’t.  There are a lot of reasons why.  For the purposes of today, we will limit ourseves to my mental health.

Here’s the thing; If my whole life is surrounded by the same people, the same conversations, the same bullcrap 24/7, inside and outside of that kitchen, I’ll go crazy.  You can’t go to the bar with your coworkers and bitch about your coworkers.  You can’t go drinking with someone one night and be friends, and then go back to the kitchen the next day and be the boss again.  It might work for a little while, but eventually, the lines of ‘friendship’ and ‘leadership’ get blurry.  Respect is lost, willingness to obey is lost.   Eventually you need to talk to someone else. You have to have friends that won’t be hurt that you think that the proteins cook is an asshole, or that the GM guy is always going down.  When you leave the kitchen frustrated with your colleagues, you can’t go out with your colleagues to get your piece of peace.

It is a challange, as a chef, to maintain friendships and relationships outside of the restaurant.  I know.  There is a very limited subset of the population that work the same hours as you and can tolerate your schedule.  It can be tough to find those people.  But even if there aren’t many other people and it’s hard to line your schedules up so that you can have a beer together, or go for a ride, or a hike, or whatever, you have to find something to occupy yourself outside of that environment.

If I could make a couple of reccommendations, to help you find that balance… indulge me.

If you like to have a nightcap after your shift, find a good industry bar and go by yourself.  

Talk to the bartender.  Talk to the sad, burnt soul next to you.  Leave your brothers behind at the restaurant and go somewhere that other restaurant people go.  Those people, they will understand.   You can say whatever you want, to someone who understands, get some feedback, and go home feeling better.  And maybe you’ll make some friends along the way. Friends who get it – the hours, the burns, the pressure, all of it.

Find a hobby.

Something that gets you outside and active.  It’s hard to have the energy sometimes, I know.  I’m not saying you have to go run 7 miles before service on Saturday after getting your ass kicked on Friday night.  But the fresh air helps me clear my mind.

Walks with my dog can be so therapeutic … more than any glass of bourbon or beer.  I can say anything I want to her… and you may think that’s crazy, talking to my dog.  I get how it might seem that way. But, I can say whatever I want to her with no fear.  She may not have any solutions or resolutions, but just getting it off of my chest can feel like a weight lifted. I’m not saying get a dog (because unless you have someone to help you out, let’s be honest, you don’t have time for a dog), but get yourself out there where the air is clear and you can relax.

Talk to the trees or the sky or God or the universe, out loud or in your head. Whatever you’re comfortable with. It will make you feel better.  And it doesn’t just have to be about your frustrations.  Maybe you’re trying  to work your way through a new dish, or whether or not to hire someone, or making a pro/con list about what your next move is.  Nature is therapeutic.

Do new things.

I know that our days off are precious and that we often spend them recovering and recouperating and recharging…but you can recharge places other than your couch.  Go to a park or a beach that you’ve never been to.  Go to an afternoon minor league baseball game.  Go to a brewery or a winery or a distillery (whatever you prefer) and do a tour and a tasting.  Discover a new restaurant (and maybe some inspiration along the way).  Explore your city.


The most mentally fit people I know are also the most physically fit.  Burn off frustration, energize yourself, learn a new coping mechanism.  I can’t afford a gym – you probably can’t either if you are reading this.  But, a good pair of running shoes and a TRX workout system aren’t super expensive and will do wonders.

If you’re saying in your head “yeah right I don’t have the energy to exercise” you’re just making an excuse.  You may feel a bit more tired for the first week or so that you are working out, but let me lay some knowledge on you:

It is scientifically proven that the more you demand of your body, the more it will give you.  Energy is not finite.  It can be built up, stored, increased.  How do you think marathoners do it? Triatheletes? They build their energy stores over time.  You can do the same thing.  Boom. SCIENCE. So go do it!

Here’s to your health and happiness.  I hope that you are able to find it.  I am still searching for my balance, but I have help along the way and it is a beautiful road.

Good luck.


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