When you leave your restaurant late at night, your mind is still spinning and can't yet rest. Chef Greg Baker calls this "the empty hour."
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.
Greg Baker opened The Refinery with his wife; Michelle, in 2010 in the historic neighborhood of Seminole Heights, Tampa. His menus incorporate the flavors of the vast countrysides from across the globe, mixed with classical French technique all the while keeping in mind Florida’s rich cultural history. He is known for resurrecting nearly lost Florida ingredients and cooking techniques, for whole animal butchery, whole vegetable use, sustainable seafood advocate and for being an avid defender of farmer worker rights and policy reform.
One of the hardest things for me in the restaurant business is that we run on adrenaline at the times where most people are relaxing. When the rush is over and it’s time to go home, our bodies are exhausted but our minds are still running full-bore and most of the world is asleep. What are we supposed to do with that combination?
I got indoctrinated into the weird hours of restaurants early. At 16 years old, I was working either swing or graveyard shifts at a 24 hour diner. Swing was 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. and worked through both the dinner and the after-bar-closing rushes. Graveyard was 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. In either case I would leave work and I really should have been thinking about going to bed, instead my brain wanted to solve all of the world’s problems. Ridiculously unconnected thoughts were racing through my brain and they weren’t going to stop anytime soon. I’m not saying that my solution to this problem was healthy, but I was 16 and opted for the two choices that a bored teenager in a suburban Florida town had at their disposal: Drive around and get high, or get high and drive around, just to get my brain to the same point of exhaustion that my body was in.
This kind of behavior continued through my twenties. By then I was old enough to drink and I incorrectly equated going out every night until the bars closed with people who worked straight jobs hitting happy hour after work—albeit with a few more bar fights, awkward assignations, drug use, and other such undesirable behaviors in which all parties involved would have been much better off had they never happened.
The underlying reason remained the same; I was physically exhausted, but my brain was still in hyper drive. Here’s where I reckon I should mention that there was a monkey wrench thrown into the mix in my late teens. Due what I would later find out was undiagnosed bipolar disorder, my thoughts had turned a lot darker. I had become so uncomfortable and sometimes genuinely afraid of just going home and being alone with my thoughts that the poor life choices were worth it. I craved social interaction until my brain had run down to the same level of energy as my body had so that I could just go home and go to sleep and not have to be alone in my own head. I eventually got therapy and drugs and changed my life circumstances and things mellowed out for quite a while.
Flash forward a couple of decades. My wife and I now own a restaurant together. She’s only at the restaurant during the daytime these days, working from home the rest of the time. Most nights I get home around 9:30 or 10, we talk for a while, we eat dinner, and we go to bed, just like normal people do. That bit of interaction at the end of the night is enough to take my brain down from its typical end of the night chaos to, "Cool, I can sleep now."
On the weekends or the odd really busy weeknight, it's another story altogether. My wife is typically already in bed by the time I’m getting off work. Our dogs are asleep and no good to hang out with. The cats haven’t proven particularly good company. I’m faced with that empty hour that I always hid from: the time between getting off of work and coming down from the adrenaline rush enough to do something normal like eating dinner, maybe watching TV or reading a book. That’s the loneliest time of day for me. I’m completely wired and there’s no one around. And it’s also the best time for those dark thoughts come a-calling.
The old behaviors that I relied on in my younger years just aren’t that viable or even sane for a married dude in his fifties. What, I’m gonna go close down a bar with my employees? That’s just a bit weird for all involved. So I go home try to cope with the empty hour. Most of the time, I’ve got a handle on it. Other times, it gets a handle on me.
I stumbled pretty hard in the later part of last year. Anyone who owns their own business knows the stress involved under the best of circumstances. Sometimes, the circumstances get downright ridiculous. In September, our city found itself in the projected path of Hurricane Irma and a good chunk of the population either evacuated or spent the week ahead of the storm getting ready. We weren’t too badly hit, but those who left couldn’t get home for up to a week and those that stayed had major cleanup to do. So largely, we lost a huge percentage of our sales for two weeks at the beginning of the slowest six weeks of the year.
When the power came back on and people finally got home, they were greeted by local and national news reports of a bonafide serial killer in our neighborhood. The media-generated perception was that if you were to come into this neighborhood, you were setting yourself up to be a murder victim. Cue another 10 weeks of terrible sales and trying to hang on what staff we could, because on top of being freaked by the thought of being shot after work, they weren’t making any money. All the while wondering how long we could keep the doors open with business like that.
I was getting home later than normal quite frequently and that empty hour was crushingly lonely and desperate for those couple of months. I resorted to drinking heavily on the daily and trying to use social media for any tie to humans who might still be awake, because I was truly terrified to be alone with my thoughts. It had such a handle on me that it almost cost me my life; the thing that I was so afraid of facing in my younger years.
I worked through that episode and have spoken with other people in the industry about their routines to wind down and deal with that empty hour. As with most things dealing with mental health, there is no one-size-fits-all cure and I’m still working at finding mine.
Suggestions included exercise (it’s midnight, my bone-tired, broken down ass ain’t going for a run), taking my dogs for a walk (would love to—hell, I’d love to just hang out with them, but they’re asleep by the time I get home), yoga (great for the mornings, just lack energy at night), and meditation (works sometimes, but other times, there’s no calm voice from an app that’s gonna be heard above my racing thoughts). I found that reaching for a cup of tea rather than a shot of whiskey and trying to force myself to focus on a book for 15 minutes is a mental exercise that shuts the thoughts down quicker.
It’s a work in progress. Sometimes rational thought and good life choices win, sometimes they don’t. I’m cool just with having more good nights than bad. When I look back on where I was and where I am, the obvious question arises: “Would you do it again, if you could?”
The 51-year-old me who still loves this business would have some advice to give. Then again, the 16 year old me probably wouldn’t listen. But maybe with the tools that are at hand now that didn’t exist then, the outcome might have been slightly different; perhaps a little less substance abuse and perhaps just a little more mindfulness.