Want to Avoid Culinary Career Burnout? Stop Doing These 3 Things

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You’ve followed your heart’s calling and made a career out of your “culinary obsession.” You’re now a professional and a survivor. But this article isn’t about surviving your career or life, this is about thriving — enjoying every bit of it, even the perceptively crappy parts. 

Maybe you’re finally sitting down after a long shift to enjoy a well-deserved adult beverage while your mind races with the replay of tonight’s service. You’re feeling strong, sleek, and crafty, and you’re certain that you’re hitting your stride and the crew is coming together into the synthesis of blood, steel, steam, sweat, and flame that creates a living, breathing cooking machine. As you finish your first drink, the burn in your belly widens. You might, for just a second, wonder just how the hell you’re going to keep this thing going. 

Maybe you’re just starting your day, shaking the cobwebs from your brain as you wonder how you’re going to get yourself together for, you suspect, an ass-kickin’ shift. You shake your legs to get the blood moving, stretch the kinks out of your muscles, and check your head while checking your morning face in the bathroom mirror. As you suit up and get your game face on for another day, you might, for just a second, wonder just how the hell you’re going to keep this thing going.

There are things about being a chef that are beyond your control — overzealous catering sales people, arrogant or inflexible managers, dropping sales, the price of bacon this month, critical staff shortages that have you strapped to the stove.

Let’s look at three things you can control and should stop doing right now in order to enjoy a long and successful culinary career:

1. Stop trying to find balance.

OK, let’s get one thing out of the way: “Balance” is bullshit. And if it’s not, then at the very least it’s highly overrated. Our lives should be a series of connected moments when we are diving in and giving our all to that moment, which might look like prepping a banquet for 500, creating a great spreadsheet to better organize your team’s production, or hanging out with the kids on a Sunday afternoon at the movies. 

Trying to “find the balance” is a great excuse to keep you stuck from doing what’s presenting completely and fully, a wonderful distraction from the here and now. I have missed so much of what was happening right in front of me because I was focused somewhere else on something else — tomorrow’s prep list, next week’s staff meeting, the holiday plan, even engaging in the cardinal sin of worrying about work when I was with my kids. I’m not saying that handling business is not a priority, I’m just suggesting that there is a time and place for all thoughts, discussions, and action and we all could be a little more present to what’s happening right now in front of us. Worry is an anxious preoccupation with an anticipated negative event that hasn’t even happened yet. Want to handle that worry? Then be mindful of this moment and be here, fully, letting go of worrying about tomorrow, next week or the next quarter.

2. Stop ignoring your body.

Your body is talking to you all the time; think of it as your perfect feedback loop. It’s also where stress will manifest itself into physical ailments, pain, inflammation and stiffness.

Check in right now, what’s your body telling you? 

Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative, says,”Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”

While we, as culinarians, are in almost constant motion and rarely sit down, we are prone to what I am now calling Degenerative Repetitive Motion Syndrome (DRMP). We find ourselves often standing in one place, shifting our bodies on the axis of our hips, knees, and ankles while bent at the waist over tables and equipment that are set too low. Whether cutting four cases of chickens, holding down the sauté station during the dinner service, or expediting, we are moving our bodies repetitiously without using the full range of motion, hardwiring inadequate muscle memory.

As we bend over our work stations, gravity pulls our bellies forward, weakening the abdominal wall which, in turn, weakens our back muscles. Pretty quickly, in order to compensate, we’re unconsciously holding our bodies, and the physical wear and tear, in our hips, glutes, and quads.

Do you believe that because you’re young, strong, and fit that this won’t affect your work and life in the long term? According to the National Institute of Health, of 7,100 culinary professionals interviewed, 71 percent reported having significant back pain.

Don’t want to be a statistic? Walk it off. Take frequent breaks, straighten out, and breathe deeply. Drop your shoulders, reset your hips, and shift your head back on your neck. Engage in some sort of body movement exercise. I’m a big fan of pilates, but yoga, CrossFit and swimming have proven beneficial for both physical and mental health. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re too young, too fit, or too busy to make physical activity outside of work a daily practice.

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3. Stop self-medicating.

Our jobs have some of the most stress outside of an active battlefield or surgery theater. Some of it is the environment that we choose to work in, some of it is our own doing — holding high expectations, fearing our inability to match our efforts to the business flow, even the familial estrangement that comes from working long hours in a pressure cooker.

We all choose the weapons we wield in order to mitigate the stress — chocolate, exercise, alcohol, illicit drugs, food, or cigarettes. Some are perceptively “better” for our bodies, families, and society than others. Rather than get into a debate about their moral efficacy I’d like to point out that whatever you’re using to combat stress, it’s simply a tool.

I was self-diagnosing, and self-medicating — eating, drinking, and imbibing substances that I thought at the time was the quickest way to make myself feel a bit better so that I could carry on like the good soldier I was. At any point I could have made a different choice of what tool I was going to bring to bear and ultimately I did, but there was a rather high cost to my choice of medication.

The other thing I learned was that the pain I was trying to ignore was a voice that I should have been listening to the entire time, one that, once heard, I could take action on.

Make good choices for yourself when it comes to the tools you will use to mediate the stress that we will all fall victim to. It’s easy to grab a beer, but a bit harder to take a long walk and let your mind go where it will without the need to control it.

Make associations that will support you. Often, your career, mental and spiritual growth — or lack of it — is directly related to the community that you plug yourself into. Find something other than work that you enjoy doing passionately. For me, it was being in a band, which, strangely enough, started with a bunch of guys in the kitchen. Music has saved me more times than I care to count.

I hope something is this article spoke to you enough for you to take action on, even if it’s a small change.