It's time for us to stop glorifying our own masochistic behavior and find a healthier way to be, says chef Graeham Henderson.
Editor’s note: In November, we launched Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.
Graeham Henderson has been working in professional kitchens since the age of 15. It’s all he’s ever known as a career and calling. A Johnson & Wales University dropout, preferring the path of mentors to study under over the collegiate classroom. Currently he is the newly minted executive chef of Le Meridien Hotel & Amuse Restaurant in Cambridge, MA. Previously, he worked as a vendor chef within Google Food’s programming, and lived in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Boulder, CO. You can follow along for pretty pictures of food on instagram @hendersonchef, and social / industry musings on Twitter @hendersonchef.
Chefs are always measured by our willingness to work hard. Whether it's by peers on the stove, or by those who come to dine at our table, our lives and pursuits are viewed from afar like a museum exhibit. The toil, the sacrifice, and the pushing ourselves beyond the limits most would ever consider reasonable prove the ultimate benchmark of our worth. Nearly every conversation about those who have been deemed worthy champions of the hospitality world, or those of us in the fray working towards some glorified oblivion, centers on our willingness to sacrifice ourselves unhealthily and push endlessly without hesitation.
For generations, this has been the only way, and the singularly-celebrated badge of honor. It's touted at late-night round tables stained with excess and self-medication. It's rationalized by a common, masochistic thread. All of us throw ourselves willingly into the cauldron. No time to question, no real desire to pause and wonder why. Always, the task at hand overshadows the obvious reality that this life is in no way sustainable in the long run. It's a nagging voice of truth in the back of all our minds, and truth be told, in those times of unrelenting work to be done, ignoring what we inherently know is best—we get off on these moments.
“I just worked 29 hours in the last 48.”
“Yeah? I’ve worked 28 days straight, 12 hours a day. I was going to keep going, but my fucking grandmother died and I had to cut it short.”
The latter is a real example from my own life, and you can bet your ass I told everyone I knew who wore a chef’s coat.
Never spoken but always implied: It had to be done. Anything less is weakness, anything less is failure. An 18-hour day evokes the sense of selfish pride in our own sacrifice that is described by those who have fallen into addiction and ruin in the pursuit of more. More what? Pride. Acknowledgment from our peers that we’ve pushed beyond the boundaries of our duty. Being the one who at least appeared to stand tallest under inconceivable circumstances. That lifestyle has always been our accepted culture—an innate need to generate self-worth from external praise and admiration, rather than from within ourselves or our community. This has been our call to the flame.
But what are we left with? The brutal, raw, and honest reality must be faced: We have watched our heroes die because we have been so afraid to display our own fears or be perceived as weak.
Chefs are craftspeople. It is a practiced trade. Artists are few and far between, stars shooting through the sky once or twice a generation. The rest of us are left to pursue a life that leaves ourselves, and many times those around us, shattered, lacking enough accolades and positive input. We're scraping by, day after day, to rise every morning (or afternoon) and do it all again. There's never an end in sight, only the faint and all too often unattainable dream that I may not have to do this to myself someday.
Charlie Trotter. Homaro Cantu. Bernard Loiseau. Countless others have left us too soon. And of course, now Anthony Bourdain. Tony held open the door welcoming an entire generation of us to pursue the pleasure and pain of this life. His honest tales of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and the kitchen formed me, like so many of my peers—a world of misfits, junkies, those without a better path, and those of us called to the mayhem.
Even now, pondering the essence of this existence, it’s 12:48 a.m. and I will rise by 5 a.m., to give myself to my trade for 12 to 14 hours. Lack of sleep? It's a measure of commitment. Every singular unhealthy step taken along this path is a show of galvanized loyalty. This is unquestioned, always piling on excess and sacrifice. It's the badge of honor we wear.
However, mercifully, there may be a change in the winds. The heroes of this current generation are finally breaking the silence. We're prioritizing and caring for our health, and mental health especially may no longer be the scarlet letter of our world.
Andrew Zimmern. Matt Jennings. Jeremy Fox. Tony Maws. Jenn Louis. At last. These and a small handful of others, the first pioneers of the modern chef life, have finally begun the dialogue allowing a path that doesn’t end in lives broken down over time, or worse.
To be flawed, to at times feel deeply in pain, but also to seek balance, may finally now be possible. Prioritizing love and joy away from our spoons and knives, reaching out to those in our lives who provide support, leaning on those gracious figures around us outside of the chaos who can provide an essential foundation in this, our chosen world. Love and joy are the true gifts of our human experience and that must absolutely form the fabric of who we are, if we are to continue exploring a better road in the industry that defines us.
I cannot, nor would I try, to paint a poignant summary of the lives and legacies of those heroes we have lost—now, most shockingly amongst them, Tony. So many in our world, with so much more eloquence and grace, have articulated the love we’ve felt for a man many of us never spent time with but all of us connected to permanently in a part of our souls. Now, out of the grief, maybe, just maybe as his final act as the mentor all of us adored so personally, Tony’s death will spark the flame that unites us. We must allow ourselves to find the balance and joy that everyone in the "normal" walk of life that we have turned our backs on strives for and deserves. As do we.
This is not a conclusion with a neatly wrapped bow. This is a call to those heroes of our world. This is a call to the rest of us, gathering to join them. This is the hope that we may rise unified as a singular voice of reason, moderation, and balance. These truths must be acted upon, with no sense of shame, no sense of guilt, no hesitation, and no reservations.