A Chef Reconsiders

Sometimes, on a dull-feeling day, maybe when I don’t have to be into the restaurant until later than usual, I start to ruminate over the good, the bad, and the unresolved feelings I have after 30 years as a chef. In moments like these, I begin to reflect: How did I get here? Have I really accomplished anything? Sure, I’m the Executive Chef of a large, usually busy restaurant. We have lots of regular customers who frequently praise the quality of our food and service. Is that enough? Am I enough? This business has provided for my two boys. They are loved and cared for, and have a roof over their heads; they’re happy and well. But I’m never sure if I can keep them truly safe. The teenage son of a good friend of mine ended up in the ER not long ago for the second time. It seems he and his buddies have developed an appetite for Xanax. It scares the shit out of me. My boys have yet to get into anything dangerous and I’m grateful for that. I spent a good portion of my teenage years and twenties ingesting whatever drugs and alcohol were put in front of me. It’s a wonder I never ended up in the ER or jail.

I guess all I can do is offer support to my friend. And love my boys a little harder. Be an example they want to live up to.

But I do find myself asking again about this word, success. What does it actually mean? I’ve been through some struggles and I’m still here. We’ve managed to keep the restaurant afloat through this pandemic and it looks like we’re making it out the other side. Also, I continue to create. I’m writing for the first time in my life, with a book on the way. I’ve launched a YouTube channel with cooking demonstrations. I’ve started this blog in the hopes of reaching out to others in a difficult time, and of getting noticed. Moving out of my comfort zone and pushing through feels good. Helping both the people and the business I love feels great. But I keep looking for that elusive answer to the definition of success. When will I feel that I am enough? I know in my heart that the answer must be that I am. I am enough (we all are). Yet I still have my doubts.

A frequent question I ask myself: am I falling short of what’s expected of me as a leader? What IS expected of me as a leader? Who expects these things from me? The employees I’m directly responsible for? The person who signs my checks? Is there a general expectation that the entire restaurant team has for me as Chef? Actually, I’ve felt fortunate throughout my career that, first and foremost, it has been my own expectations of myself that have been the biggest driver. But have I fallen short by my own standards? Absolutely!

But maybe, sometimes, I’m too hard on myself. Because one of the ways I’ve often felt I’m not measuring up to my own yardstick is when I find myself in a situation that feels a bit like Groundhog Day, confronting a stubborn reality that is not of my doing, but is instead a flaw of the existing restaurant industry. Here’s the scene: I’m sitting with the owner of a restaurant, advocating for our staff, for subsidized healthcare, for better pay. I explain that taking better care of them will save us money in the long run. I point out that it’s been far too long since they’ve received a raise. I promise to find creative ways to save money or increase sales to make up for it. But I fail to make the change that I know is necessary; once again, I fail to find a way to push things in the direction I know is right.

And in all this, of course, I never even get around to advocating for myself. I realized the other day that I have two main goals as a chef. The first is to serve excellent, consistent food that our customers will enjoy, created in an environment that my staff wants to be a part of every day. The second goal is to make my life as fulfilling as possible. I have great admiration for my staff. They deserve respect and are hard-working people who contribute just as much as I do (if not more) to the success of the restaurant. One justification for my second goal is that the easier I make my job, the more I can focus on what my staff needs to be happy.

And they need a lot more. More time off, health insurance, the ability to call out sick and know they can still pay the bills. They need enough security that they can expect to retire some day or at least slow down and not work so hard or as many hours. As a leader in the restaurant I desperately want all of these things for the staff and have no idea how we get there. Tell a better story? Just keep raising prices? I’ve tried most things that have come to mind.

Sometimes I think that the only way to make the change I long to see is to stop being an employee, to take the risk and find a way to make my own place happen. The question here is: can I do this and still live the kind of life I long for? After all these years of giving up too much to the job, I want to spend more time with family and friends. I need this. My kids only have another 5 years before they get out of high school and I’m just not willing to “not be around” for it. Maybe taking on my own place is too much if I want to ensure that I’m here for them full-on. Maybe I’ll just have to continue to advocate for my staff, and even advocate for myself a little bit more.

Either way, I know I have to keep exploring different ways to structure the restaurant business as a whole. We, all of us in the restaurant industry, have to do this. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us in a new way just how much value restaurants bring to a community. We were a lifeline for folks during this time, and we’re a gathering place in the good times. But too often those that are the backbone of these businesses are underpaid, over-worked, and have no opportunities to lift themselves up, spend more time with their families, or have any real security. It’s not right that for most restaurant staff, the next time they get sick or their car breaks down, they’ll find themselves with no other option than to work longer hours sacrificing the very things they are working hard for.

Whether it’s profit sharing or a restaurant cooperative, we have to get creative and put our people above anything else. It’s going to take innovation and an ability to tell our stories better so that our communities understand the true cost of what we provide. I hope that giant, three-hundred seat restaurants with massive overhead will become a thing of the past and that smaller community-based establishments that focus more on the people and the quality of their lives will be the future. I envision an industry where the dishwasher and people that clean the floors every night have the same opportunities, the same access to health care, paid time off and even the ability to retire after 25–30 years as the owner or chef.

Equitable, profitable and sustainable: this IS something I think we can achieve together in our lifetimes. I’ve always thought that I’d never want my sons to work in kitchens. But sometimes I’m also reminded of all that I have gotten from this business and how much I believe that restaurants are worth fighting for. Although there are a lot of “old school” owners in this business that think it has to work THIS way, the current way, I think there are enough progressive thinkers and voices present that the change can happen faster than we might have imagined. The kind of restaurant I envision? I’d be proud and happy to have either of my sons work there.

So on days like today, I’ll try to change my context. I won’t try to define what I’m doing, or quantify it. I’ll just try to bring more value to the lives of the people around me, be extra kind and helpful. I am able to do this. I’ll keep following my passions, new and old. I won’t forget for a moment that my boys love me and that I’m in love with this business and this restaurant family that has held me up through the years. I won’t stop advocating for compassionate change.

That sounds like success to me.

Executive Chef and author with 30 + years in the service industry. I have two amazing sons and a passion for food and the restaurant industry.

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