A Chef's Confession: It's Tough to Always Be an Outsider

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Restaurants are filled with friendship—but this restaurateur longs for ordinary pleasures that the cooking life lacks

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Restaurants are odd and intense places to work. We are outsiders in many ways, and this creates a bond among the people working together. In a good place, the bond is respectful and solidifies the team and makes us enjoy our job and support each other. We work odd hours and we work weekends and holidays together. Sometimes we work through death and divorce together. Through it all we continue to show up for work and keep the restaurant running, because if we didn't it wouldn't. If you call in sick to an office job not much happens, but if you call in sick to a restaurant job, in the best-case scenario your co-workers all have to work twice as hard to make up for your absence. In the worst-case scenario, the work simply cannot get done and the restaurant cannot open.

We work long hours trying to give people a joyful experience, and afterward we want to relax and unwind. But it's 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, and the only people still up with energy are our co-workers. We dissect the night over a couple bottles of wine in the restaurant or in another bar. We argue about the weirdo at table 53, discuss whether or not the kitchen could have timed things better, and fret about what we could have done differently.

This sense of closeness is rarely sustainable once you leave the restaurant. But often within the group, people become close and wind up socializing together both after work and on their off days. Over the years I've been close friends with people in a work environment, and then as soon as I changed jobs (or they did), we found it impossible to spend any time with each other at all. All the same, most of my closest friends today are people I have met through restaurant work.

I always loved the outsiderness of the restaurant world. It attracts people who aren't comfortable with office jobs and normal schedules. People who happily give up normal holidays and weekends so they don't have to feel ordinary, or so they can support their extraordinary ambition for something else. I liked the fact that when I went to the beach on a Monday there were less people then on a Saturday. I liked going to movies at off hours and waking up late and sitting at the coffee shop with no one else.

But recently, I've looked around the restaurant and felt a loneliness and a longing for the ordinariness of other people's lives. Here's a table of five women out for a girl's night out. I'm jealous of the normality that allows them to schedule social time in their lives; I'm jealous that they get to sit around a table together and unwind over good food and wine. I idly listen to scraps of their conversation as they discuss the latest movie or a friend's marriage or their vacation, and I realize I don't know how to do that anymore. I wonder what it feels like to have time to leave work and take an evening class or go to a play or a concert. Any time I try to do something like that, I feel guilty because I am not at the restaurant: I am stealing time for myself by taking it away from my job, or, worse, from my real family. I no longer want to stay out eating Chinese food or drinking until the wee hours of the morning.

And yet the facts remain the same: Porsena is open for dinner, and even if I leave at the early hour of 10 p.m. I'm too wound up to just go home and sleep. I go home early and lie in bed reading, but still I can't sleep until three or three thirty. Meanwhile, it becomes harder and harder to see my friends who don't work in the restaurant. Sure they can come visit me here, but I can't give them the undivided attention that our friendship requires; I can't nurture our friendships with continued shared experiences, because we don't have them anymore.

I don't want to be like the chefs of old, chained to my stove and unable to leave without closing the restaurant. But I also want to remain committed to my restaurant. I don't want to be so consumed with maintaining my brand as chef that I don't actually have time to cook anymore. I want to be in the kitchen, nurturing the people who work with me, validating what we do and create. But I want to experience a normal social life as well. I am no longer so enamored by the outsiderness of it all. I want to be inside too.

Image: Ed Yourdon/flickr

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Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. She runs Porchetta, an Italian sandwich shop, and Porsena, a casual restaurant focusing on classic Italian pastas. More

Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. As Mario Batali put it, "She is one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat." Sara is also the author, with Mindy Fox, of Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond, released by Houghton Mifflin in September 2008.

The daughter of a foreign correspondent and a food writer, Sara grew up all over the Mediterranean, eating her way through several cultures and learning to cook what appealed to her. She began her professional career in the kitchen with Todd English at Figs in Boston, then went on to work as a chef in Florence and the Tuscan countryside, as well as on the Caribbean island of Nevis, before returning to the U.S.

In New York City, Jenkins became chef at I Coppi, earning that restaurant two stars from The New York Times. After similar turns at Il Buco, Patio Dining, and 50 Carmine, she began work on her own cookbook.

In September 2008 she and her cousin Matthew opened Porchetta, a storefront in the East Village focusing on porchetta, a highly seasoned roast pork common in Italy as street food or festival food sold out of a truck as a sandwich. Porchetta has been wildly successful in New York City, both with gourmands and ordinary folk alike. Porchetta was awarded the top spot in Time Out New York's "100 best things we ate in 2008" and also received a four-star review from New York magazine.

In 2010, Sara Jenkins will open Porsena, a simple and casual restaurant down the street from Porchetta focusing on classic Italian pastas.
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