Becoming A Chef Ruined My Life
How burning out took me on a journey of rediscovering my love for cooking.
My love for cooking was born out of my mother’s repulsion for the kitchen. While families across the world were sitting down to lovingly prepared home cooked meals, mine was hovering somewhere over a menu filled with shrimp cocktails and surf and turfs. Not that I didn’t relish in a good gluttonous meal fitted with all of the accouterments of Caesar salads, filet mignons, stuffed filet of sole, and skyscraper soufflés befitting of royalty. But, at a certain point, this routine became tiresome and bred a boredom that could only be alleviated by the mystery of my elusive kitchen, which more or less sat vacant and untouched.
It was here, in the late 90’s, that my curiosity was satiated with the birth of a TV station dedicated to food and home cooking. It was the beginning of an era of food pornography, which would quickly develop into a fascinating obsession for millions across the world. I would dutifully sit in front of my TV watching Morimoto, Emeril, Bobby, and my chambray queen, Ina, simmering, grilling, searing, whisking, laughing, and eating, while I emulated their moves in my now no longer empty kitchen. The dinners out didn’t stop, but the seed had been planted, and at the age of sixteen, I knew that one day I would be a chef.
It started off slowly with a fruit tart at Thanksgiving, a seven-layer coconut cream cake on Easter, a chocolate gateaux on Fridays, but the further I delved the hungrier I got for more. At this point, I was a freshman at the University of Buffalo studying everything and nothing all at once. Instead of preparing for exams I voraciously flipped through cookbooks searching for the flakiest piecrust, the lightest mousse, and the most luscious cakes. By my second semester, I had come to a decision. I dropped out of college and enrolled in a culinary program in NYC the following fall.
For the first time in a long time, I was certain I was exactly where I was meant to be. I spent days pouring over books that would teach me how to make the clearest consommé, I flambéed crêpes, perfected my brunoise, learned the art of vinaigrettes, how to take apart a whole chicken, and every time I put on my starched white jacket and hat I felt like I was coming home. So of course by the time my year of learning was up I was confident and ready to step into the real world of restaurant kitchens to prove my knowledge and worth. I was so fucking wrong.
For the next eight years, I changed jobs more than I changed my own bedding. I spent time working in a famous cupcake shop as a professional cupcake decorator swirling my way into oblivion. I spent time out in Denver working as a grill master on a Korean BBQ food truck in 102-degree weather, which meant that inside the truck, was closer to 120. I would go between searing kalbi beef over an angry open flame for our kimchi bibimbap to running outside for a quick puking session. I served as a farm hand up in Rhinebeck cultivating an array of stone fruit to be used in a line of pies that was picked up by Fresh Direct and sold to various farmers markets around NYC. I learned how to drive a truck during this period of time so I could make the 100-mile trip without having to be trapped with our less than virtuous male drivers. I worked as a pastry chef in an all-male kitchen where the word dick was thrown around almost as much as oui chef. I didn’t mind the word dick as much as I minded by co-workers acting like one. Although I was the only one in that kitchen that had any pastry experience, every decision I made, every dish I put out was met with hesitation and pushback.
During these years my ambition to be the most well-rounded cook I could be had finally hit a wall and I was tired. So much time had been wasted trying to justify that I was just as good, just as tough, just as badass, that my actual talent and skills were being neglected and suffering. I had let myself burn out and I didn’t like cooking anymore. The kitchen was no longer my safe haven, it was my prison and my white jacket that I used to love with such conviction had become my shackles. So I left. I had originally gone to college for creative writing, so I picked up where I left off and traded in my whites for a keyboard thinking that was the end of it.
Being a writer suited me better than I would have thought. I was able to combine my knack for storytelling with my passion for food and cooking and was actually making a living doing so. Everything was great…until the jobs stopped coming in. The problem with freelance writing is exactly that. It’s freelance. No certainty, no steady paycheck, no security. So after about a year of working from home, I was back to square one and looking for a part-time job.
After countless discussions with my wife and overflowing glasses of wine, I’d come to the decision to give kitchens a second chance. Finding trails was easy, getting over my aversion to stepping foot into another kitchen was the challenging part. Every tiled kitchen I stepped into felt like impending doom. My stomach would cramp up, my palms would start to sweat, my pulse would quicken and I’d want to run out of there as soon as I could. I even trailed at a lovely restaurant in Tribeca where the Executive Pastry Chef was a woman and that still didn’t alleviate the PTSD I’d clearly developed over years of self-induced punishment and resentment. I was at a loss until I discovered a small boutique catering company in Brooklyn. Poppy’s Catering had been on my radar for a little while, their presence always popping up on Instagram and on podcasts I listened to, but I never gave it much thought. If Michelin starred restaurants were at the top of the restaurant industry food chain, catering companies were definitely the bottom feeders. But, I needed money so I sent in my resume and set up an interview for the following week. What was the worst that could happen? This would only be a minor blip on my career's trajectory.
It’s been over a year now since that interview with the Executive Pastry Chef. I’ve been promoted and now work full time at Poppy’s. I cringe when I think about how I first snubbed this opportunity, but then I remember that this way of thinking was ingrained in me, it didn’t always exist. A little background on Poppy’s is it is a woman owned, run, and operated business. The owner Jaime Erickson is a wife, mother, and our fearless leader. She didn’t necessarily seek out an all women staff, but that isn’t to say it wasn’t encouraged. The Executive Chef, Sharone Yaron, is a woman, our Director of Sales & Production, Rachel Warshaw, is a woman, my boss and mentor Caren Tommasone, is a woman.
All of my notions about catering turned out to be unfounded and working at Poppy’s showed me a modern and revolutionary style of catering. Gone were the days of cheesy canapés and pigs in a blanket. At work I was blown away every day by the fresh, clean and inventive dishes being churned out of the savory and pastry kitchen. Ideas brought to the table and executed by women daring enough to be original and fearless enough to try new things. And the most shocking thing of all was I got to be apart of it.
For the first time in my career I was given the opportunity to not prove my self-worth, but to prove my talent and abilities. This seemingly minor detail opened up a world of possibilities to me that weren’t hindered by my constant self-doubt, but empowered by talented, capable, hard working women. Over the last twelve months I have seen my skills improve, my confidence grow and my voice slowly get louder and louder. My fear of the kitchen has been replaced with a new sense of purpose and determination that had been previously worn away. For this, I am thankful that I get to be a warrior in the kitchen.