Chefs Share 10 Strategies for Finding That Ever-Elusive Work-Life Balance
At the inaugural Best New Chefs mentorship program, industry leaders spoke to the new class of up-and-coming chefs about how they take care of themselves (and their businesses) without burning out.
On a sunny morning in May, this year's class of Best New Chefs gathered around a table at Loring Place to snack on omelets topped with plump fried oysters, crisp pastries, and smoked salmon pizzas. Despite the lavish breakfast spread right beneath them, the young chefs had their eyes glued elsewhere: by the windows, where Extra Crispy senior editor Kat Kinsman led an intimate discussion on self-care with chefs Nancy Silverton, Seamus Mullen, and Dan Kluger.
The gathering was the first of three BNC mentorship program sessions (and the first of two extravagant breakfasts) that lasted into the early afternoon, with stops at Beatrice Inn and Empellon Taqueria, where industry leaders including Gail Simmons, Angie Mar, Alex Stupak, Mike Solomonov, Andrew Carmellini, Melissa Rodriguez and Vicki Freeman opened up to the chefs about the lessons they learned, sometimes later than they would have liked, from years of working in restaurants.
As could be expected, a recurring theme—and pain point—was work-life balance. As a chef or restaurateur, how do you manage your personal life and your business without making sacrifices in either? Is that even possible? Faced with the relentless demands of managing a kitchen and a restaurant, how do you make time to step away from it all and breathe, if only briefly?
Below, the best tips our panelists had to share about staying sane while navigating a chaotic career.
Embrace the power of audio books (and long commutes.)
"I remember ten years of coming home every night pissed off, talking about work. It takes time, but now I’ve gotten to a point where even on a bad day, I’m able to separate everything. I live in the suburbs, so I have an hour commute every night, drive home, put on an audible book. I think that ability to shut off for an hour is really helpful, and then I walk in the door and I’ve forgotten about work." - Dan Kluger
Cherish friendships outside of the industry.
"I have a very small group of very good friends, and they’re my friends from high school. I’ve always tried to have friendships outside of the industry as much as possible. I know in my own brain, when I obsess over something, I’ll get caught in it and get stuck in this vicious cycle ... Oftentimes it becomes this of thing of just complaining: Can you believe the labor laws? I can't find cooks! The rent is too damn high! etc. For me it's been helpful to have friends outside of the industry because they have no concept of what it’s like. And I tend to not want to explain it to them." - Seamus Mullen
Consider going home right after work.
"I don’t go out anymore. I understand that a lot of times after work and certainly after a hard night, a lot of our cooks like to go grab a drink, I do understand that and I was young once too, but that’s one thing I really stay away from. When I’m done, I go home." - Nancy Silverton
Let go of some control. (Delegate.)
"For me, going from player to coach was really hard. I was used to being in the kitchen running my staff. Then, to have to go to hands off, hiring a general manager and letting them hire and fire people ... delegating was my biggest issue. I'm still learning. Over the past two years, it's been finding the best people that I possibly can that run my kitchen, run my floor, run my bar, run my wine program—people that are better than I could ever be—hiring them and creating value for them here, because they’re better at all of those things than I will ever be. Being able to say: I trust you, and letting them go do their thing. That’s whats made this restaurant strong, is me letting go of some control. It’s a scary thing. My name is on the door. It took me a few months to realize I couldn’t do it by myself, and I’ll never be able to do it by myself." - Angie Mar
If you work with family, practice patience and spend time together outside of the restaurant.
"We learned how to get along as business partners and as husband and wife. It's still not perfect, there are still those moments, but we learned to listen to each other, and put ourselves in the other person’s place. I had to put myself in the chef place, and he had to put himself in the front-of-house place ... Surprisingly enough, we actually see less of each other now. Now that there’s four restaurants, it's fun to come home at the end of the day and go, 'How did things go for you?'" - Vicki Freeman
"We still get together every Sunday for Sunday supper, and we don’t talk about work." - Angie Mar
"I work out five days a week, two days with a trainer. I use that as kind of my counseling session: to spend time not just talking about work but having someone to talk to as you’re working out and talk about other things." - Dan Kluger
"I start my day every day with an hour-long walk. I walk with weights. It’s the time of day that I really clear my head. Even though it’s in the beginning of the day, it gets me in the mode to deal with the rest of the day." - Nancy Silverton
"We talk a lot about illness being contagious, but I think health is even more contagious. We have to make positive decisions in your own life, and that starts to radiate to the people around you. I’ve watched a number of my staff stop smoking cigarettes and start going to the gym. I go to the gym with some of my cooks every week. When you start to do that self care, it encourages other people to do it themselves." - Seamus Mullen
Treat yourself when you can.
"I indulge in two luxuries. One is getting a facial every month, and the other is getting a manicure every two weeks. Just looking at my hands – no polish – but just not having the cuticles. For so many years I was such a wreck, and had no time to do anything for myself. So I'm making it up on the backside. By doing the little things that give me a little bit of pleasure." - Nancy Silverton
"We often forget that taking just a small break, or giving yourself a small moment, the healing effect of that is really really important. Small negligence has a very powerful negative effect on your health." - Seamus Mullen
Spend time outside of restaurants.
"For too long we’ve encouraged people in the kitchen to be one dimensional. What makes really great cooks are people who see art in art, art in nature, art in craft—outside of the kitchen and in other disciplines. Whether going to Gucci Garden or staging with a cobbler—I have a cook who is really into leather work. The more well-rounded you can be, the better. Cooking is complex; it's also very simple. We often get too hyper-focused. For a long time I was so concerned with what's the next restaurant that’s opening, what dish is so-and-so doing, but as I got older, I stopped caring about that." - Seamus Mullen
Learn to walk away.
"If you’re not into it, don’t do it. I learned to walk away from things when I easn’t ready to do them. I can’t walk away from work, but I can walk away from that point in time. Sometimes I have to just separate myself for a few minutes." - Dan Kluger