Updated: Aug 29, 2021
One thing all older Chefs have in common, we all got hooked on cooking the same way, though the flowery story we tell non-chefs is distressingly similar. We might claim that we watched our grandmothers cook and that we were always pulling on her apron strings- blah, blah, blah. That story is more relatable to the general public and for sure more romantic than the truth. The truth is we all got hooked the same way, by feeling the rush of adrenaline while cooking on the line.
That said; Father Time is a motherfucker.
Father Time bestows on us at a very young age this incredible sense of invincibility, we think that we will feel young and virile forever. Mix that with energy to burn, a sense of belonging to something for the first time in our lives, and finally finding something that we're good at that feeds our souls. There is no better feeling in the world. He gives you the most addictive drug of all, adrenaline, but like all drugs, it takes its toll over time. And like any good addict, we chase that dragon all around the kitchen looking for the fountain of youth like we're fucking Ponce De Leon.
Like I said, Father Time is a motherfucker. The line cook's body is always the first thing that starts to go, whether it is the wrists or the hips, those generally go first. As the body goes, the mind says not to worry, that it's temporary, just a minor pain that will pass like the rest always have. Every ache and pain passes when we are young, they fade away as quickly as they come on. The cruel beauty of youth is that we think everything is temporary and that this particular bliss will last forever. All the while our bodies, like time, slowly fade.
While the body is going, the mind stays as sharp as a French knife, and thinking three steps ahead is part of our mental MEP (mise en place). As older cooks, we own the young cooks in that department as we have seen it all before, we're smoother and have vanquished wasted movements. Old cooks are poetry in motion. Richard Chen taught me NO WASTED MOVEMENTS. Over and over again. This is our mantra.
And that is where it starts, over and over again. Like I said, it is the body that goes first, over and over again. Every chef knows that to be great, the first thing you have to be is consistent. Consistency breeds success in this business, McDonalds isn't successful because their burgers are delicious. No, they are successful because you can get a Big Mac in Boston, Baton Rouge or Beijing and its going to taste the fucking same. Brilliant, but not delicious. That is consistency, not Le Grande Cuisine.
Over and over again. Whether it's fast casual, or three star Michelin, if you ain't consistent you ain't shit, and you are never going to be successful long term. If you master consistency, you have a career, no matter what. Over and over again. The constant, physical repetition is a mother fucker on the joints. Over and over and over again. So why do we do it? Because we love it.
That's good that we love it, because at a certain point, waist deep in our careers, we start to feel like we're not qualified to do anything else, plus if you're like me, the euphoria of being in this position makes you feel like Jack Dawson on the Titanic. You're king or queen of the world, or at least, the kitchen. You cannot even imagine doing anything else, plus you think that those people that got out are quitters, they couldn't hack it because they were weak. The thing is that they had it right all along. This job is not for the geriatric and they were smart enough to see it. They got out while they could still build a good career in another, less taxing, food-related field. A job that would allow them quality of life and a chance to see their kids grow up, you really can't beat that. I couldn't do it though because I was stubbornly clinging to the idea of being king of the world on a doomed but glorious journey. Give me a sharp knife and a 50# bag of onions and I'm happy, even if the ship is sinking, that band continues to play.
Though there are things you can do to fight this fucker, in the end Father Time is undefeated. Self-care is totally in your control. Buy good shoes for work, the $160 you spend on the Dansko Clogs will pay for themselves. Think about what other industries that make their living on their feet. For me, healthcare always comes to mind. No one stands at their job more than nurses, and there is a reason they recommend these shoes, trust me, they know.
Standing on your feet for any extended period of time on the hard floor of your average commercial kitchen is taxing on the body. Those rubber mats that you find a pain in the ass to clean every night, save your body needless wear and tear. Where your mental health starts in your head your physical health starts at your feet. Take care of your feet, your ankles, knees, hips and back will thank you later. Your hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders are another matter entirely. I have no answer for that.
We have talked about your physical wellbeing, but what about your mental health, your mind? You know it is a terrible thing to waste, and it is not as easy. First, there is the fear that creeps in around your 40's, after doing this for about 20 years now and it's not getting any easier. Sure, you get the work done, and most of the time faster and more efficient than most. But it never ends.
Older cooks know what "it" is. It is the new F&B director to whom you have to prove yourself again; You think, "Fuck, not another one." Or it's the new Exec job that comes with the promise of more pay and quality of life, and right after you get your hopes up, you are passed over yet again. It keeps you in the business sometimes longer than you are meant to be. Hoping that the next job is the last job, the job you could retire from and finally fucking relax. If you could just cook like you did when you were younger and you were only responsible for the food on your cutting board. That is when earning a living cooking was easy; not just easy, it was fun.
The grass is never greener on the other side my friends, it's just a different shade of brown. You feel like quitting all together, but its just not in your DNA. Quitting means failure, failure to get the job done, and you have never not delivered. It all takes its toll on your psyche, to where you think about ways out. Ways out that aren't all that healthy. You are crippled and you cannot ask for help. You may spiral at this point, and sometimes you cannot help yourself. But you are smarter, thankfully, you know better than to give in to your base impulses at this point in the game. Doing that would get you another shit job, going nowhere, where there is no future. So...still, motherfucking Father Time remains undefeated.
Ask for help. There are always people ready to listen, whether you realize it or not. Use that health insurance that you pay for from the job you fucking hate. You're lucky to have it now, remember your 20's? You wouldn't have been so lucky then. Use it and be grateful for what you do have; you are luckier than most. Fucking health insurance comes in handy, who would have thought?
Go out more, ride a fucking bike, find a cool new hobby, take a walk in the woods with the birds, hug a tree, or whatever other happy-hippie-dippy-feel-good shit you want to subscribe to just to make you feel better, it starts with you. Figure out what works for you and go at it full bore. We're cooks, that's what we do. Feel good, feel better that's the goal. I wish I had more insight on this, but to get right in the head is different for everyone. What works for one does not always work for another. I will say one of the best things I have done is to be honest with myself, and cut out most of my vices. Most, not all. Calm down Francis, none of us are saints.
In the end, where do all old cooks go and how do we go out, in a flambé in our booze of choice? God, I fucking hope so. Do we go out to pasture like the livestock we so lovingly prepare, chomping on cud? If that cud is soft ripened cheese on fresh baguette, sign me up. Our retirement days should be easy, lord knows we all deserve it. I want the beer to be quality and always ice-cold, served in a bottle, poured into an old man's chunky crystal glass. The sun should always be shining and the laundry, folded and put away. We can smoke weed indoors and all our old cooking buddies are there to relive tales of old. Maybe Ponce will show up one day when he finds that fountain. Then we can finally beat Father Time and go back to cooking on the line, where we were happiest.
I believe Mick said it best;
What a drag it is getting old....
RIP Charlie Watts, drummer for the worlds greatest Rock and Roll band.
Until next week,