Love to Cook, Hate to Eat
A look at the relationship between a professional cook, and personal food - and why our creativity dies.
Let me start off by saying I love food, cooking, and everything in between. I'm passionate about where my ingredients come from, the farmers who grow or raise my products, and I'm borderline obsessed with keeping up with the newest creations and innovations in the culinary world. I just don't normally like eating. Contradictory, I know, but bear with me.
I spend my whole day cooking and serving food for other people to enjoy. As a cook, I'm as much a people pleaser as I am a creative. I like to ensure the best experience possible for my guests - not just for revenue, but also because it brings me a sense of joy and accomplishment to see other people enjoy a meal I've cooked. Yes, lots of this is rooted in ego - but it's not bad to have an ego if you can back it up, I say, and temper it with humility when appropriate. Regardless, the reality is that I love watching people eat - actually sit down and enjoy a meal - because I rarely get to do so myself. Most of that is my own fault - I could wake up and have a hurried breakfast at my table before heading out to work, or make dinner after getting home past ten o'clock at night - but the energy is somewhat lacking. To be completely honest, I've met very few young, single cooks (or attached ones, if their partner is also in the industry) who actually have groceries at home. Not to mention that the last thing I want to think about - let alone do - after a day at work in a kitchen is make more food - and consequently, dishes. It's much easier to grab take out, eat it while walking home (at least it's still warm), before falling face first into my bed. And staff meals? Assuming there's time, those are shoveled into my face as quickly as I can before the next bill comes up - mostly while sitting on a milk crate or over top of a garbage can. At the rate food enters my body, it feels like most days I barely taste it, let alone enjoy it.
Realistically, one would assume it's the cooks who, out of all of us, would have the full fridges, the stocked pantry, and the desire to cook up a storm every night at home. Often, it's the opposite. It's becoming a fundamental issue - not just from a health standpoint, either - in the industry today. It's an issue of creativity. Every cook is a creative, on some level, and the actuality is that most of us create the same thing day in and day out, often a menu designed by someone who doesn't actually cook the food themselves. I happen to be one of the lucky ones, working in a small, local restaurant where my chef is very involved, and lets us, as cooks, be involved as well. With a seasonal menu and new features that we sometimes get to design, it keeps things fresh and interesting - but even so, it's often the same ingredients, and forces us to be creative. Alas, creativity in such a high-stress environment is sometimes a hard thing to come by. As I said, we're people pleasers. We want to make sure every plate is perfect before it goes out - and sometimes there isn't time for adequate development or testing, the same leisure we'd take while at home, does not always exist in the restaurant. Cooking at home gives me a chance to try new things, new techniques and recipes, without having to worry about the bottom line. Or it would if I had the energy and the will.
Turning a passion into a career has become a Schrodinger's box of cultivating and destroying passion all at the same time. However, success in this industry can only come if you're constantly learning, constantly practicing and honing your skills. In our hearts we, as cooks, are creatives, and our minds rebel and dull without a stimulus. I've seen so many friends and coworkers lose enthusiasm and quit the industry - not because of a lack of skill, or talent, or work ethic, but simply a lack of fulfillment and enjoyment. I understand; in such a harsh environment as a kitchen can be, it needs to fill some sort of passion within you if you want to make a career out of it and not burn out. I, myself, took two years away from the service industry before returning. In that time I cooked for myself, and my friends and it was in that freedom that I felt the passion return - enough so to throw myself back into the fire, so to speak.
Do I think that a two-year break is an answer? Probably not. But maybe, a chance to learn to enjoy food for ourselves again, not just by proxy of other people's acclamations, is the first step to becoming re-inspired. Artists don't paint new visions without inspiration, without reference, and as cooks we need to expand our horizons constantly, to give ourselves those references to create new things and become better cooks for the future.