Holiday Mental Wealth
We’re here. The thick of it. We barely exist to the outside world during the holidays. Our families, pets, friends and anyone else normally deserving of our attention have fell to the wayside. While all the 'normies' who work bank hours are being dismissed from their jobs early, spending time with loved ones and attending company holiday parties; we are doing just the opposite. Isolating, licking our wounds, staying at work late, surviving. This time of year is without a doubt the most difficult for hospitality professionals but it doesn’t necessarily require you to be miserable in order to make it through.
I have failed my family, ex-girlfriends, employers and myself in probably every imaginable way during this season over the years. Working a 28 hour shift one year I completely ghosted on an ex and her family for Christmas Eve and the following day. My parents have all but completely given up the thought of me even being a recognizable human being in the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Years. Instead, like looking at a mangled body after a car wreck, you’ll see the looks of “that’s not my son” as they gaze upon the service monster which is me. As a young cook I’m sure I’ve pissed off my share of Chefs by my whining around the 14th double shift in a row and as a Chef now I truly regret that behavior as I am now on the receiving end of it.
Personal failures of holidays past are not an option for me anymore. As a leader I need to remain unaffected externally, regardless of how profoundly I may be suffering internally. Once the line is crossed and the outpouring of emotions is seen by the ones you are responsible for being in charge of - your ability to lead comes into question. Crossing that line from professional chef leading some understandably damaged and exhausted cooks to an actual human being capable of feeling may not seem huge but it absolutely can be. That display of weakness, however brief, is like a tiny scrape on the bottom of your foot and the kitchen is the hot, wet jungle. Left untreated and it will inevitably fester resulting in complete loss.
There are very simple steps in preventing one from losing anything this holiday season. I could have it all summarized by saying take care of yourself and manage others expectations but its a little more complex, you’d also probably stop reading if it were that simple. To be honest, it actually is that simple. Here are a few points, probably madly disorganized, but worth addressing.
We are working in an ancient industry which anyone from the outside can tell requires physical longevity. What they may not realize looking in from the outside is the mental exhaustion we experience. The industry is slowly beginning to recognize that well-rested, healthy employees are consistently more efficient than the overworked. Although your restaurant may not be able to afford giving anyone 4 day work weeks at this moment and the reality of an 80 hour work week is more real than ever during the holidays, remember you are only human. Take time to get a breath of fresh air, sit down and eat family meal, pick up the most mind numbing job you can in order to just shut your brain down for a little bit. Going full speed covered in sweat for a 14 hour shift is nothing short of Olympic, but remember that those athletes only need to compete once every four years.
I prefer to jump on the dish machine for an hour or so when my mind needs a break from the restaurant collapsing around me. I still get the sense of accomplishing something, the staff appreciates that I don’t think the most menial tasks are below me, and they also generally assume I’m angry for having to cover someone who is late or didn’t show up which means they leave me alone.
Sometime around 2004 was probably the last time I was invited to Thanksgiving by my family. Over the years the question concerning Christmas from my mother has evolved to “what do you think about the 26th?” I surprised my parents by showing up for Thanksgiving one year, the convulsions of happiness from my mother are something I really cant describe but can still picture clearly.
They get it.
They know what I do and they are insanely proud of me. They know that special occasions are what draw people to dine and that holidays can make or break the financial year on paper. I am grateful that they understand the demands of our industry but they also witness the toll it takes. This all results in a very simple equation: If I am honest about what is expected of me concerning work and they are supportive of my endeavors then everyones expectations are met, no-one is unhappy as a result. If any of these factors aren’t in place the equation doesn’t work. If you aren’t upfront about the fact you will be working Christmas Day to your family or significant other, especially if they aren’t in the service industry, chances are there will be conflict. There may be conflict even if you are honest but as time goes by the ones that “get it” will stay by your side.
Ask for help
For someone who doesn’t follow sports, I find myself relating cooking to it very often. Professional cooking is a team sport, 100%. The chef may be the quarterback or pitcher but he or she can not do it all alone. This may seem generic when I say you need to ask for help but I say it in a way you may not have anticipated. Of course I believe the best line cooks are the ones who recognize when they are in the weeds and ask for help in order to get caught up but I am saying ask for help in all aspects of your life.
We need each others support not only in the kitchen but also in life.
The industry may be changing in order to address issues of mental health and addiction but it will not change overnight. Many of us, myself included, are working through such things and need the guidance of those who are doing so as well.
You are not unique.
Being a chef requires you to assume so many roles throughout your day in support of the ones who you cook with. At the end of the day when you get home chances are that you are just as lonely and depressed as anyone else. More chefs are coming forward every day with diagnosed mental illnesses than ever before. Online communities such as Chefs with Issues have thousands of contributors from all over the country and around the world. These people are experiencing, struggling and working towards overcoming the same conditions which you or someone with which you work very closely with are.
Help Someone Else
Look for the warning signs. Listen to the choices in language a colleague is using. Outside of a restaurant certain things are clear and others are not. Within a restaurant it can be much easier to determine someone is suffering. Restaurants are machines of habit. What some may see as monotony of task we see as consistency of execution. Signs of depression could be obvious in the workplace such as punctuality and attendance, cleanliness, overall performance. They can also be more subtle like someone having an overall negative outlook, inability to complete small tasks, inconsistent temperament.
Chances are that if someone needs to be scraped off the floor they will respond to any type of outreach. Even checking in on someone who isn’t struggling could really improve their day. As mushy and sentimental as this may sound, a little holiday cheer goes a long way.
It is said that you dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Well, sorry. The village people aren’t really looking for people so you’ll need to just go get that Bragard Jacket dry cleaned and not show up looking like a wrinkled mess that just rolled out of bed. Look professional and you will be treated as such.
Even though the majority of kitchens never actually face the diners they are feeding, it doesnt mean that their appearance shouldn’t be held to certain standards. You as the leader of the kitchen should emulate the standards you want your staff to strive for. Facial hair, teeth, clean shoes, pressed whites - all very standard examples to set.
What about mental hygiene?
Reacting to the issues that happen on a daily basis is inevitable and hopefully calculated. The difference between a chef and a great chef is never reacting emotionally. When a chef is not fit mentally to face the task at hand frustrations mount and explode, generally at an inopportune time. Demonstrating you are able to handle even the most challenging of scenarios with poise is paramount when leading a kitchen.
I can not tell you how frustrating line cooks suffering from what I refer to as “temporary walk-in blindness” has been for me in the past. Everyone needs something they don’t know how to make or can’t find. Equipment isn’t operating how it should be or is just flat out broken. The dishwashers are fighting with the bussers in two different languages, the barista is harassing the hostess who is drunk off kitchen wine she got from a food runner. Building management just told you that there’s garbage piling up in the hallway which happens to be the only means of egress for BOH employees in the whole building just as you notice a grease fire flare up on the broiler station.
The nightmare can go on any number of ways but it all needs to be managed. The severity of each issue may vary but the common thread running throughout all of them is that your job is to address and solve all of them. If every single thing that happened in a restaurant went seamlessly it wouldn’t need to be managed and you wouldn’t be needed. Accept these challenges with grace as they arise and prioritize them accordingly. Obviously a cook who can’t find parsley could take a back seat to the grease fire being extinguished while your back hallway gets cleared of garbage should your Ansul System be triggered.
What do we torture ourselves for day in and day out? Unless you have some serious masochistic tendencies, chances are you are working in order to enjoy some aspect of your life outside of the restaurant. It is easy to fall into a pit of despair without something to look forward to in the near or at least not so distant future. Christmas is less than a week away which means only 2 more weeks of insanity. Plan that vacation you’ve been thinking of, write it down, book a flight. It will do wonders for your whole outlook.
Don’t lose sight of the results
Remember that your ultimate responsibility is the guests experience. But also don’t forget that you are training the future chefs of this industry. You are touching more lives in one dinner service through guests and your cooks future cooks than you can probably wrap your simple little mind around. Stay positive, lead by example and do the right thing.
To be clear, I am not saying that I have any of this figured out at all. My girlfriend, through tears, accused me twice in the past 3 days of not being emotionally available or supportive and she’s right. What I do know is that this holiday season I am a better and more effective leader than I was last year. Constant improvement is the ultimate goal which actually implies there is never completion. Just remember, no matter how difficult the service is that you are in - it ends. It is never do or die because we are not surgeons, you’ll get to walk away from the shift and chances are that no matter how poorly it went you will walk away from it better than you came into it.
No matter how organized or prepared you think you are going into each day, especially during the holidays - something is going to come up. Approaching your day with any type of naivety thinking that you may get out early or everything will just go swimmingly is setting yourself up for failure. Curveballs are inevitable and not anticipating them is a huge mistake. Manage your expectations as well as others, take care of yourself and your colleagues. I guarantee you will come out the other side alive.
Also, valentines day menus are due second week of January.