A Passage On Wellness
For all of my brothers and sisters in the industry, back and front of house…
“Suicidal Thoughts” ain’t just a Biggie Track
The restaurant industry has been known to attract elements from all walks of life, especially those who may be considered as part of the fringe elements of society. A decade or so ago, cooks and chefs were seen as pirate like figures working to the bone and living rock and roll lifestyles after hours. The kitchen environment became a sort of safe haven from the realities that haunted so many of them. In recent times, the culinary profession has been gaining quite a bit of legitimacy and respect in the view of the public. Parents are now boasting to friends about how their son or daughter is enrolling in one of the upper echelon of culinary schools in the same light as others would speak of Ivy League accomplishments. While the broadening of public appeal towards the culinary arts is highly beneficial for chefs and restaurants, the realities of the culinary profession seem to become increasingly distorted on a mass scale. Glamorous cooking competitions and television programs are fun and entertaining, but fail to unveil the dedication, sacrifice and hard work that go into advancement in the culinary industry.
Straight out of culinary school with little prior experience in kitchens, cooks who want to work for the best chefs typically do so at or around a minimum wage salary. This means 70 – 80 hour work weeks under strenuous conditions with student loan payments making it difficult just to get by paycheck to paycheck for several years before advancing or choosing to learn from a different chef. This cycle of long, laborious hours under immense pressure to uphold the standards of that particular chef and restaurant can continue for at least a decade, before any real advancement in position or salary is possible. It is during this time that many cooks and members of the front of house—servers, back waiters, captains, etc…-- are most vulnerable to the detrimental temptations that come with the pressures to perform at an extraordinarily high level for excruciating hours, on such limited pay. Especially in a large city, where the access to alcohol and drugs is omnipresent, the development of harmful habits consumes many members of this eclectic industry. More recently, wide eyed culinary school grads who come from white collar upbringings and have never been exposed to such a plethora of stimuli tend to very easily become wrapped up in such extracurricular activities that would make their families cringe if they were aware. Being away from family and constantly missing out on different occasions and events pushes many members of the industry further into the grasp of various negative influences on their paths to success. In addition to the difficulties of missing out on family occasions and events, the daily stress of pushing oneself to measure up to the standards of such esteemed chefs takes a heavy psychological toll on self- esteem. While I experienced these hardships firsthand, I would wake up the next morning, blast my music on the subway ride to work and go in with the attitude of constantly improving. It was not always easy, hell, it was the most difficult time of my life, but I kept myself on the right path for one reason only: family. I knew that any harm I caused to myself would devastate my family. Even though they didn’t always agree with my decisions, I always responded to the tremendous love that they showed me. If it weren’t for my loving family I may not have been able to overcome the hardships I faced in the big city. That is why this project is so incredibly important to me. It represents much more than the concepts that follow, so much more than some vanity project for an ego boost. This project represents a victory in overcoming many of the obstacles that I and many in this industry face on a daily basis. I currently wake up early every single day to jog for five miles, take care to eat decently well and limit my alcohol intake. I can truly say that I have achieved a strong level of wellness that I could not have imagined without the love and support of my incredible family. That being said, I know firsthand that not everyone in this industry has the same love and support from family that kept me going. Therefore, I would be remiss to fail to acknowledge and speak out for all of my brothers and sisters in this incredible industry.
It is my hope that all members of the hospitality industry who feel like they do not have a solid support system can find solace and comfort in the words I am laying forth. If you are strong enough to receive a tongue lashing from a manager or chef and return to work the next day with the attitude of working harder to improve, than you are more than strong enough to overcome any obstacle thrown your way. If you are strong enough to withstand the heat of the stove, chill of the rigid and serene dining room atmosphere, then you are strong enough to beat addiction. We are an incredibly passionate and driven network of individuals who need to support each other towards the ultimate goal of achieving internal wellness in addition to properly balancing a successful work life. Obviously, some individuals may be in desperate need of professional help and should not be afraid to seek that help, but for those that fall into cyclical patterns of negative habits please read this passage and remember that you are strong! And even if you think that none of this applies to you, look out for your friends and colleagues in this industry because for some, you may be the only support they have.
Chefs and managers can also help by making small changes in the typical weekly routines. Instead of rewarding the cooks or wait staff with alcoholic beverages after a busy Saturday night service, bring in revitalizing sports drinks to re-hydrate the team. This will refresh the crew and also replace alcohol as a positive reinforcement for a job well done. Encourage everyone to skip the late night bar scene by bringing in food late night or having a post service family meal after which the team is happy to head home and wake up feeling refreshed rather than hungover. Also, pay closer attention to more than just the performance of your crew. Have weekly one on one meetings with each and every one of your employees and make sure they are comfortable about being completely open with you. As managers, we know exactly what our hourly employees are going through and have no excuse to let members of our tight knit crews fall through the cracks. Be better to yourselves, better to your colleagues and strive to be well on your Pursuit of Passion!