Chef Life Brigade Bulletin Volume 2; 03-21-23
File under Self Care
As chefs, we strive for mastery over our craft.
It's been drilled into us since we first put on an apron.
We've been trained, shamed, and conditioned to put up with unbearable heat, cramped quarters, dysfunctioning equipment, and tables set so low that we stand for 12-14 hours at a 40-degree angle until the muscles in our stomach give way and lose their elasticity leaving only our back muscles to support our bodies.
[Check the image above for a reminder.]
Have you ever seen a banquet cook so tired at her station from bending over that she spreads her feet far apart to lower her center of gravity and no longer has to bend?
We pivot, pike, turn, lunge, stutter-step, slide, hips on ball bearings, head on a swivel doing everything - and anything - necessary to sell that table out of the pass to get to the next call.
And we love it.
Or so we say to anyone within hearing distance, "taking pride in the grind, babee."
If you can't hang, well, then you're just a citizen, a rube, a poser, or a wannabe with more money invested in a set of Japanese knives without the ability to wield them with any authority.
Suck it up, sunshine, suck it.
We can take the punishment, we say, as we slap each other on the back, heading out the door to self-medicate the stress, cortisol, and adrenaline out of our bodies so we can unravel our nerves just enough to get a couple of hours of sleep before we roll out of the house to do it all over again.
We tell ourselves we love it and that it's the price of admission to the crucible of greatness.
The Grind Is Required.
We'll even brag about how bad we have it to prove to everyone else that we got the minerals to overcome all those obstacles to put out that perfect dish, the one that glistens so beautifully in the dim shadow of the overhead lighting that you know you kicked ass, even if no one ever said as much.
This veneration of overwork, this pride in overcoming the odds, the bragging rights, the badge of honor we pin to our chest just so we can taste the blood because we fucking deserve it - this fucking grind - is a race to the bottom.
And the price of your pride will be your body, in all its youthful, elegant, and effortless flexibility and mobility.
Sure, you can hang. You got this.
Until you don't.
When was the last time you saw a sixty-year-old broiler cook?
How do I know?
Because right now, I'm sitting in a chair with the most un-fucking-believable amount of pain I've had to endure in a very long time.
I haven't felt this bad since 2007 when I underwent a major back surgery that fused three lower vertebrae and then bolted the whole mess down with twin titanium rods and eight screws.
When it was all said and done, I couldn't wait to return to the grind; my pockets stuffed with opioids clattered with every step I took; Daddy's little helpers.
You would have thought I had learned my lesson, but nope, not me.
"Put me in, coach; I'm ready. I got this."
Really? What an asshole, my body must have thought.
I had to get back in there because without it, who was I?
A few months after returning the work, we participated in a charity event at the Ft. Lauderdale Art Museum.
We humped in tables, bins, lexans, and cooking equipment from the street where the van was parked.
We were almost set up before the event was scheduled to open. Quickly taking stock of the competition, I noticed that there was still an empty table across the hall from us.
As I wiped my brow and struggled to stand up straight, several Asian cooks casually strode in like they had all the time in the world.
"Oh right," I thought, "it's that sushi place."
I stood dumbfounded while I watched them take "number 10 cans" and place them under the feet of the table, jacking up the table to the "correct" height.
I immediately spun around and looked at our table with two sous chefs hunched over like they were mining gold, sweat dripping from their faces onto the empty plates shingled on the table like so many playing cards.
"What the fuc..." I said to myself.
Then these masters of their craft (and their environment) started stacking boards onto the table, setting their cutting boards upon them to a height that would enable them to roll to their heart's content, backs straight, and elbows at 90-degree angles.
I was struck stupid. "What the fuc.." I said again.
I turned to James, my sous chef, and said, "What, are we stupid? Why are we killing ourselves while these guys across the hall got this clocked?"
James looked up at me from under his brow. He was engrossed in the task with minutes to spare, "Dude, I'm busy," he offered in response.
"Busy? Yeah, like, no shit. Too busy," I thought to myself.
Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.
And when it did, I felt like a fool for having put us through so much simply because I thought it was supposed to be hard to be great.
Our crew had been so focused on looking good, grinding for the cause and our reputation that we forgot the first rule of mastery:
"Work smart, not hard."
In every kitchen I have walked into since that quiet humiliation, I find cooks struggling over tables set too low for the ergonomic function they represent.
That's when I send someone to the storeroom to get some "number 10 cans", and I hand the nearest cook a channel lock plier from my back pocket, "Work smart, Padawon, not hard."
I'm suggesting, dear reader - brother and sister - that sometimes, in our rush to prove how hard we can be, just how much we love the grind, how much we're willing to give away, we overlook the choice that will serve us in prolonging our career longevity.
Remember what Warren Zevon said on his fiftieth birthday, "Well shit if I knew I was gonna live this long, I would have taken better care of myself."
I'm looking at another surgery now, and I have no one else to blame but me.
My life, my choice. I own every bit of my consequences.
You see, I too, loved the grind....
...until I didn't.
Stand Tall & Frosty Y'all
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