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

By Sara Jenkins

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

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/07/a-chefs-confession-its-tough-to-always-be-an-outsider/242563/