Baby –> Toddler –> Kid –> Adolescent –> Teen –> Young Adult –> Chef –> ??
Often, as I tour a kitchen-in-need-of-remodel with a general manager, architect, and/or developer and I’m introduced to the chef as their kitchen designer and former chef, the look of disdain on his/her face falls into one of green-eyed envy. After the initial design programming meeting, said chef pulls me aside and asks, “How can I do what you do?”
I certainly recognize the ragged edge look of the burnt-out chef, wanting ––no ––needing to DO SOMETHING ELSE. I saw it in myself 20 years ago in my thirties, a new mother, my forehead bruised by my own palm smacking it daily, punctuating the “what was I thinking?” rolling across my hopeless future. Nightmares of fixing the grey hair of middle age under my chef’s hat. Never having anything more than checked pants and jeans in my wardrobe. Doomed to dine out on Mondays forever. Missing out on every Easter egg hunt and Christmas morning with my child to poach eggs in a giant kettle for golfers. Yeah, I know, I could go on.
The fear here for any chef with a large enough ego (I know, I know) is tossing away the experience of those years cooking, managing, organizing, drinking and perfecting the art of pulling prime rib or cooked shrimp from your rear (figure of kitchen-speak for those who do not know, as in, “It was so fucking busy last night, we ran out of rare prime rib and I had to pull it out of my ass!”) which is quite a talent, I’ll have you know, and one that shouldn’t be wasted.
When I arrived at this crossroads, two careers peaked up from the horizon of my misty future: teaching cooking and designing kitchens. I felt qualified for either due to my vast kitchen experience in international kitchens from Hawaii to New Orleans to Canada to Australia. Never mind that I stuttered unless I was cursing at dishwashers ––minor detail. I was pretty good at brushing over my own flaws and insecurities if I wanted something badly enough.
The stars lined up in such a way that I landed a job for a commercial kitchen design firm in town. Somehow my persistence and gumption trumped the fact that my people skills and my wardrobe were at the bottom of the humanity well. But I wouldn’t be sitting around drawing kitchens all day as I had envisioned. I’d be selling.
Yep, cold calling. With a stutter.
I’ve known chefs who have easily transitioned into food sales mode; calling on all their chef buddies with a smile on their 40-hour-work-week face, toting a book offering canned goods. And this is a natural way to morph for those of lighter hearts and smaller egos. I couldn’t do it. Too easy.
The harder achievements in life are more rewarding and my transition from chefdom was very hard. I wanted to offer carts at Wal Mart many times. It wasn’t learning how an exhaust hood actually works and how to be nice to everybody no matter what and how to avoid costly mistakes. It was the self-doubt, the erosion of my precious ego, the STRESS of this new life.
But I persevered and now it’s kind of fun. I draw a lot of kitchens now and you know what? We need more people like me in this industry. A lot of self-proclaimed kitchen designers are equipment sales people. Or they have engineering degrees. Or they were aeronautical engineers. Who better to design the most efficient and cost-effective kitchen than a former chef? Who better than a chef to ensure there are spice shelves and a sink on the line, enough space in front of the food wells for a plate and that the kegs and flowers don’t get stored in the food walk-in? With all the commercial kitchens in this country and worldwide, there should be a school for designing kitchens. And there is! Working in one.
So chefs, if it’s time to launch into something else, get ready. If I can do it, you can.
For more about life after Chef Life see: So You Want to get out of the Kitchen? Part One