Never in a million years did I think I’d be reentering the restaurant industry voluntarily. Even in the throes of my most chaotic and addictive years as a career server, I’d understood that industry culture was a petri dish of toxicity and gaslighting. And I’d spent the latter years of it crawling and scratching my way out of what felt like an inescapable trap.
“I’ve worked 80 hours this week. I’m so exhausted, I feel sick,” I’d lament from the server station.
“Yeah, but you’re making money though, right?” My bartender would retort, usually high on a 30mg adderal and a few shots of whiskey.
But I didn’t care about the money. I’d usually spent it on booze and drugs, anyway. I was miserable, and I knew I was miserable, and somehow the culture was constantly convincing me that I was just being a big baby. That this was just “the way things are”. That this was the price we paid for a life in the industry. And that if I didn’t like it, I could leave.
So I did.
And finally, from this distance, I felt validated. I began a career in sales and wrote freelance on the side. I met countless ex-industry folk who recounted their restaurant days as some of the most emotionally destructive in their lives. And as for those who’d managed to miraculously avoid jobs in restaurants, I could make them gasp and gag with my borderline unbelievable stories of restaurant life.
I knew I wasn’t crazy. I knew that I wasn’t being treated fairly. Finally, I had proof; the experiences of others who felt the same. But even after all of this, years later, I still found myself applying for entry level kitchen positions. On purpose.
But this time was different; I had a plan.
Since the end of my almost decade long serving career, I’ve managed to find stability in “mostly” sobriety. I’ve also learned how to take care of my body, eat food with nutritional value, and exercise regularly. These may seem like basic acts of self care to the average person — but to someone who works in a restaurant, these are impossible balancing acts that seem like wildly distant dreams.
Just imagine asking someone who works 60–70 hours a week (on their feet with no breaks) to sleep eight hours a night — asking them to get their laundry done regularly, cook themselves healthy meals, use the gym four days a week or clean their house. It may be even more laughable to ask them to foster healthy relationships with their spouses and children, with whom they are given little to no quality time to spend with them.
Unfortunately, we don’t hesitate to do so anyway.
The leadership in most restaurants ask the unthinkable of their staff without batting an eye; to work twelve hour days without breaks to eat meals, to manage themselves “emotionally” as if they have the time and resources to attend to their mental health, to bring in doctor’s notes for being sick even though they don’t provide health insurance, to exercise their creativity into ground-breaking plates for their menus (though we know damn well this is unlikely unless our basic needs are attended to).
And this toxicity spreads, like a kind of Stockholm syndrome amongst employees, who end up normalizing these demands and glorifying their long hours, lack of food, and alcoholism as if it were one big joke. Chefs playfully one-up each other with how many hours they’ve worked as servers recount tales of drunken debauchery the night before. They measure their neglected responsibilities next to each other, as if competing for the first place prize of “biggest derelict”. They discuss their broken relationships with resentment and sorrow. Then, they tease each other endlessly for expressing any sort of discontent or discomfort.
If employees in a professional office were treated this way, they’d run for an HR office without hesitation. They’d be researching how to unionize. They’d organize protests and spur investigations from labor divisions. And media outlets would report on this deplorable situation: Inhumane Working Conditions Forces Office to Strike; Company Crumbles.
Instead, the industry treats these injustices as rites of passage. Then, it asks itself why the performance of its employees are so dysfunctional.
While we’d all love to believe that employees put themselves in these positions and perpetuate their own misfortune by “not believing in their potential”, or whatever (looking at you, self help industry) — this problem is entirely systematic at its core.
Cultures are not spontaneous. They are shaped and created by the beliefs and core values of leadership. If your core values are to cut labor costs by paying your servers below minimum wage and forcing an understaffed kitchen to work overtime, the culture of your restaurant will directly reflect it.
Even if you put ten cooks in a kitchen that had all of their quintessential lifestyle ducks in a row — say, they meditated 30 minutes a day, were all sober, and slept eight hours a night — they would all collapse over time under the colossal weight of the industry’s expectations.
Hell — if you were to put the Buddha over a flaming hot french top for twelve hours, dodging the sharp knives of his coworkers and burning off his knuckles as the ticket machine beeps and clicks away, even he would crack.
This is not to mention that, if you are a decent human being, you probably agree that such a person deserves to work a normal forty hour work week and make enough money to support themselves. And even if you sway more to the right on this issue, you may recall the “unalienable rights” of the constitution: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But under the conditions that industry folk endure, you might also notice that having thirty minutes of free time a day is barely a life — and certainly not a glimmering example of freedom or happiness.
Unfortunately, I have no solution for this problem at large. I’m afraid the issue is profoundly rooted in a broken economic and political system, which is not something to be fixed overnight or with the power of manifestation (still looking at you, self help writers).
But all hope isn’t lost. There is something we can do, something we must do, as lovers of food and cuisine — to take back what is ours: our identities, our creativity, our culture.
I was not prepared for my first go around in the restaurant industry. I was young, reckless, and pleasure seeking. I fell victim to the woes of the culture because I had not yet discovered who I was or what I had deserved or what exactly it was that I wanted. My own two feet were not yet firmly planted into the ground, so I stumbled and sank and drowned.
But between my industry exodus and five months ago when I began applying for prep cook positions, I had managed to explore many different lives: one as a top salesperson, one as a world traveler, one as a writer, one as a yoga teacher, one as a body builder, and one as a business owner. From moving in and out of these varied pursuits, careers, and lifestyles, I gained an extensive amount of perspective about myself and my needs as a balanced human being.
My success in the kitchen and the circumstances of my new career are no doubt a consequence of privilege, as well as an executive chef who is empathetic and sensitive to my needs. On the other end, my incredibly fortunate hours and having the days I want off are the result of my demands. Demands that I came up with as a result of years of self study, coming to understand my needs as a mentally/physically/emotionally healthy person, and advocating for those needs relentlessly.
Setting these boundaries has been crucial to my success in the kitchen. Because if I am not at my best, I cannot perform or create at my best. And if I’m not performing and creating at my best, I do not want that career to be a part of my life.
I believe self advocating like this is an act of what we’ve repeatedly and annoyingly dubbed “self love”. In my opinion, this term has lost its meaning with its incessant repetition and excessive exaltation. “Self love” is valid and important — but it is not what we think.
It’s not having a moonstruck affection for every aspect of who you are. Rather, it is understanding yourself. It is knowing yourself. And it is respecting yourself enough to advocate for your needs. Additionally, it is believing in them firmly enough to walk away should they not be met.
I want to call for all the talented and industrious chefs who read this (as well as FOH staff) everywhere to follow suit. Take the necessary steps to find out what you need. How many hours can you work a week, while also balancing a healthy life and relationships with your loved ones? How many days off do you need? Are you getting enough breaks throughout the day to eat?
Once you figure these out, and if those needs are not being met, do yourself a favor: walk the fuck away.
There will always be another job for you — one that sees your self advocating as a strength, and is willing to give you what you deserve. And there will never be a career in this world that is worth losing your health and sanity for the sake of lining some dude’s pockets.
You will be ridiculed and teased by your coworkers and leaders by not working as much as they do. You will be challenged by the industry status-quo every day, in this sense. During these times, remember that you are a human being as well as a chef/server/manager.
And then, as you hold your partner, pet your dogs, enjoy a cold beer alfresco on an autumn afternoon, go for a jog, and get your nose stuck in an amazing book, repeat after me:
Fuck them. I am happy.