Richie Nakano talks with fellow chefs about how they are coping with exhaustion, and if it's still worth it.
Sarah Rich is tired. There’s the 6 a.m. wake-up call so she can get to her oldest son to school.
Then she immediately heads to her Michelin-starred restaurant, Rich Table, in time to start pastry production. There are administrative meetings, and visits to RT Rotisserie, her fast-casual chicken spot a block away. After a full day at work she picks up her kids and ferries them around town to swimming, jiu-jitsu, or rock climbing. Around 6 p.m. she cooks dinner for the family, followed by homework, then bath time, then reading. When the kids finally go to sleep around 9:30, or if they’re being difficult, 10:00, she gets a little bit of time to herself until she falls asleep around 11:30.
For most working parents this is just another typical day, juggling work and life, treading water to stay afloat. But the restaurant industry has never been very good at providing work/life balance. And the profession in its current state has brought along challenges that most chefs never envisioned when they started out many years ago: unprecedented staffing shortages, rising wages and rents while menu prices stay the same, and the daily crush to generally stay relevant in a world of endless "best" lists. Are chefs having fun anymore?
“I'm tired everyday. I'm not that young anymore," he says. "It’s mentally taxing on you. I'm stressed out. Last week we lost power and had to close and lost a day of service, and as a small business, that can be crippling. On top of that, there’s so much competition out there, and everyone wants to talk about the newest places. I always knew it was going to be hard, but the day to do stress is something that I didn’t expect.”
Most of the chefs to whom I've been raising this question have accepted that the current state of the restaurant industry is just the new normal. Sure, they could complain, but they would still be down two cooks and fighting off their latest online review. What has changed is how they're coping with the added pressure.
In years past, much of the kitchen crew would hit the bar after service to pound back shots of Jameson (sometimes accompanied by a bag of cocaine), but all of the chefs I spoke to said that exercise is now what keeps them going. Gregory Gourdet sneaks in his runs late at night after work. Philip Speer hosts a run club for his staff every day before work. Some chefs spin, others lift weights. “I have to get that workout in every day or I don’t feel right,” says Gourdet.
Without an existing model of health and personal sustainability to work from, chefs are having to figure this out for themselves, and picture what a future might even look like.
“Sometimes you have an amazing staff and everyone has been there for years and you’re just rocking it.” says Rich. “Then other times every week somebody else is putting in their notice to go work at Airbnb. It’s ebbs and flows. But overall it's still really fun, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
“There are a lot of restaurants out there with bigger PR budgets than us, that have social media people that work for them.” Lachaine says, but at Riel, it's all on him. "It takes away from me cooking, from being an actual chef. I started doing this because I love cooking, and I hardly ever get to cook anymore.”
A couple days after our talk, I texted Rich. After a particularly hectic day running around with my own kids, getting them to and from sports practices, doing laundry, making dinner, and everything else, I had to know how she managed to make it all work, with the added pressure of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“The honest answer is that it is not sustainable,” she replied. “I will work as hard as I can every day to be the best chef and cook I can be in the compacted and manic amount of time that I have each day at work, and at home to be the best mother and wife that I can. I will fight to find time to take care of myself, exercise, and get my mind right, but unfortunately that's the first thing to go if time is an issue.
Rich knows she has to keep on fighting, but she's coming around to the idea that she doesn't have to take it all on alone. "It is exhausting and stressful, and a real push every day," she says. "I am terrible at asking for help, but that's the only way to get it done. I am not a superhero, but I try.”