A Chefs Guide to Self Care

Chef Paolo Neville
5 min readFeb 14, 2022

The term “self care” is a major talking point these days; it’s everywhere. But even the mention of those words always made me a bit uncomfortable and I’m not sure why. So, being the kind of person who is curious about my own reactions, I thought it would be a good idea to explore the reasons behind my discomfort.

Fact: the hospitality business can accurately be described as the business of taking care of people. By giving them time to relax, to enjoy friends and family, to put aside whatever causes them stress, we offer our customers a chance to participate in a ritual of nourishment, celebration and connection. We give them the opportunity to choose, if only for an evening, a form of self care.

But ironically, for those of us working in the hospitality industry, the hardest thing can be taking the time out to care for ourselves. For many of us, even the concept is foreign. How many times have I sucked down a quick bowl of pasta straight from the sauté pan because I’m feeling a bit light headed as the printer continues to spit out tickets? This isn’t nourishment as self care, but cramming food down for mere survival. And although I’m around a lot of other people all day, which can be a good thing in a culture where there’s so much loneliness, the short bursts of words we bark at each other in order to keep the system flowing hardly qualifies as meaningful social interaction.

So I’m thinking: cooking for many people every day for thirty years may have everything to do with my discomfort with the idea of self care.

My twenties were spent doing what I would now consider the opposite of self care. Think of long grueling days spent on a line, up to six days a week, constantly looking for a two-minute window in which I could sneak out back and suck down a Marlboro Red. Or asking a server to bring me a glass of milk to settle my stomach because I’d been moving as fast as I could for six hours and hadn’t eaten since the night before when I’d drunkenly stumbled into a 7–11 at 2am and inhaled some chili cheese nachos and a microwave burrito. Cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes and weed were typically my form of “self care” and I have to say that for quite a few years this seemed to work pretty well. Until it absolutely didn’t.

There came a point in my career when I realized, shortly after I got out of rehab, that the things I had been doing to “take care” of myself were going to destroy me if I kept them up. I needed to find a way to protect both my mental and physical health if I wanted to stick around much longer. The realization that I needed to change everyone I hung out with, the places I hung out in, and practically everything I did in my down time was daunting, but I went all out with the transformation … with one exception. I was a chef, and my livelihood depended on my ability to remain in the hospitality industry. I did briefly try a few other things, but every fiber of my being called me back to the kitchen.

So I knew I would have to restructure the way I worked, rigorously questioning how much and what I could afford to sacrifice in service of the industry I love.

I began consistently taking time to get some form of exercise. I still sucked down a pack of Reds every day at this point so it wasn’t easy physically (three-and-a-half years have now gone by since I last held a Marlboro Red between my lips and I’ve never felt better), but I saw a huge benefit immediately in my mental health. Exercise alleviated my stress and gave me some peace and mental clarity. I also found a group of men I could talk to openly, honestly, fearlessly. Most of my male relationships had been the “sup bro” sort; the “let’s have fun and party together but never talk about anything real” type of friendships. Finding a support system of other men who I could open up to was life changing. I also shifted that habit of eating as fast as I could on the line, in between tickets, and began to sit down for at least ten minutes when I needed to eat, chewing my food and taking more breaths between each bite. I became more aware of my water consumption and always try to stay hydrated.

Another thing I do every day is to find something to stimulate my brain. Learning and growing isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about self care but for me it is essential to keep me from getting bored, feeling burnt out, or stuck in my life. I also try to keep things light in the kitchen. Having fun doing what I do is important for me and, I believe, everyone I work with. I am still direct and clear about the way I expect things to be done in the kitchen but I try not to take myself so seriously. This business in many ways is hilarious. Humor is a great reminder that we’re doing this often difficult and challenging job to make things better for everyone, including ourselves. Finally, a daily meditation practice is something that has eluded me, but I’m aware of its value and when I do make the time to practice, I find that little things don’t stress me out as much and I become a much better listener.

Exploring all of this, I realize that, at its heart, my discomfort with the term self care probably began with my mistaken idea that self care is some kind of singular, occasional act that we need to fit into our schedule in order to feel better. Whereas, without labeling it as such, I have been working hard since my thirties to try to live in a way that makes self care a foundational state of being. To be completely honest, “try” is still the operative word. I do have a much bigger box full of useful tools than I did twenty years ago, but I still have to — and don’t always — make the choice to employ them. There are days when it feels nearly impossible to do anything even approximating self care when working in this crazy business.

But we can always start, maybe just by slowing down and taking some deep breaths. Self care doesn’t have to mean a long bath or a massage, a leisurely meal or time spent at the gym, as good and useful as these can be. It can mean simply slowing down and noticing how we are doing, acknowledging, without judging ourselves or labeling things as bad or good, how we feel in that moment. And then returning to our breath, letting go of our troubles and expectations before moving back into the stream of life

Ultimately, I’m grateful for this fine but stressful business and all the lessons I’ve learned from it. I hope to continue to explore and share the best ways I’ve explored to support myself and the wonderful people who work alongside me as we open our doors each day and invite our customers to feast … and take care.

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Chef Paolo Neville

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.