A new Bravo show is unusually honest about the challenges of a culinary career.
Remember that great scene in the film Up in the Air, in which George Clooney, professional downsizer, cans J.K. Simmons (a.k.a the dad from Juno) from his nondescript corporate job?
"Your children's admiration important to you?" asks Clooney.
Simmons answers yes.
"Well, I doubt they ever admired you."
Clooney talks about how kids admire athletes because they follow their dreams, and then shames our-soon-to-be-unemployed friend for selling out his own ambitions to secure a modest but steady income for his family.
"Your resume says that you minored in French culinary arts," Clooney continues, "Most students, they work on the fryer at KFC, but you bussed tables at Il Picador to support yourself. Then you get out of college and then you come and you work here." Clooney concludes with a motivational speech about destiny and sends Simmons off to begin a brand-new life—presumably as a chef.
Now observe the current Bravo reality-TV show called Life After Top Chef, in which the cameras document the lives of four Top Chef alumni: Richard Blais, Fabio Viviani, Spike Mendelsohn, and Jen Carroll. Let's consider this piece of cinéma vérité in the light of living out one's vocational dream and ask: Is the nonfictional struggle for culinary success as admirable as Clooney thinks?
Turns out, there are other ingredients involved, such as (1) what one does when one isn't chopping and dicing and straining in the kitchen; and (2) the difficulty of maintaining deep relationships after years of 12-hour work days. Life After Top Chef shows that though the call of a creative career is seductive to those of us in office jobs, those professions come with the same strains on personal life as any other line of work, if not more.
While the culinary world looks pretty glamorous to outsiders, Life After Top Chef reminds us that it is in fact rather grubby. Ten minutes of watching Life After Top Chef will leadto the following conclusion:Working to make a name for yourself in the food biz is long, difficult, sometimes demeaning work. (Watch this chef awkwardly pitch a restaurant idea to Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin! Watch that one get intimidated by the investors when talking about the ingredients on his menu!) This show is about how the process wears down, in various ways, the four folks profiled on LATC.
The Top Chef who suffers the most is Richard Blais, the pointy-featured, Atlanta-based winner of Top Chef All-Stars. Richard gets the largest share of viewer sympathy because his wife Jazmin hassles him about, and he feels guilty about, being insufficiently available for her and their two kids.
But what did they expect? Richard is not just a chef, but one trying to get a brand-new restaurant off the ground. He's consulting, he's flying off to Aspen for the Food & Wine confab, he's a major actor on a new reality show.
In a LATC blog post, Richard says that he and his wife used the show as "a sort of therapy," pointing up his willingness to discuss the difficulty of managing "so many professional projects, as well as my most important job, being a husband and dad. I could have bypassed those issues, instead, waxing about the most amazing parts of my beautiful life, which I do indeed have. But the struggles, I believe, are common for any professional, in any industry, and for any family." Jazmin seems to agree: "Richard and I always talk about how hard it is to be in the industry and have a family. It's a delicate balance," she tells the website Married to a Chef.
And yet, for all these cool off-camera professions of understanding, it's clear that things can get extremely fraught between these two, and that the balance Jazmin describes is not so much delicate as impossible. (Watch this uncomfortable scene, in which Richard gives Jazmin a trip to a handgun range as a gift. He makes some awkward jokes about fearing for his life.)
The people on LATC find themselves in extra trouble when they try to open their own restaurants. Must a Top Chef contestant open up a restaurant? The answer is: No. But to watch LATC, it's clear that everyone sees restaurant ownership as the only possible step after five minutes of quick-fire fame. One must monetize one's small-screen time, and fast, before the public forgets you ever won a single Healthy Choice-sponsored challenge.
Note to all past, present, and future Top Chefs: Owning and running a restaurant is exhausting and, by its very nature, leads to an unbalanced life.
Fabio, for instance, never stops marketing himself, and is vastly overstressed (his Mama says so!): so much so that he seems headed for a heart attack, even though he's in his mid-30s.
Spike Mendelsohn is crazy busy working in his various family eateries, though his youth and lack of family responsibility allows for some recreation.
And Jen—poor Jen—blindly runs around hoping to find someone, anyone, to invest in her "Concrete Blonde" restaurant concept.
All our Top Chef stories suggest the following: Becoming a business owner will liquidate your free time. It will turn you into an absentee father/husband/son/daughter/pal. (And we're not just talking about Richard here. Fabio is divorced from his wife and separated from his parents by an ocean. Jen doesn't have a husband or kids, and seems to spend quite a bit of time with her parents, largely because she doesn't have a restaurant to run. The only reason this doesn't seem to affect Spike is that he comes from a restaurant family, and the Mendelsohns seem to have no separation between their personal and professional lives. )
And then there's the obsession with media exposure, which nearly all the LATC chefs seem to wrestle with. Once these folks appear on Top Chef, once they've competed and started to build an audience, the self-promotion can never stop. They cannot afford to miss a single second of airtime. If Bravo calls, they had better respond. If Food & Wine needs them in Aspen, they go. They must maintain their social media feeds and wouldn't dare hole up too long in their test kitchens because now they've got a taste of fame, build a bit of a following, and the beast must continually be fed.
Which means that our LATC people must now live on two at least two planes: the reality-based one; and the virtual plane of TV and social media. Fabio has mastered this best, largely because he's a natural spotlight hog (unlike Jen) but also because he doesn't have a young family to provide for (like Richard) or a family business to support him (like Spike). In small doses, having a second life, a virtual professional persona, can upset the work-life equation. Appearing on a national TV show, however, will swamp it for sure.
Because if your business depends on being on TV, you'll do anything to keep the invitations coming. You dread the day Bravo stops calling you. You come to rely on camera crews increasing the value of your name, face, and food. In the process of giving your time and energy to all the virtual relationships, your attention to the non-virtual ones (not just your spouse and/or children, but the real people who eat at your real restaurants) will suffer.
It's not just chefs who have a hard time with balance. If you seek to become rich and/or famous, you will have to devote most of your waking hours, most of your best energy, to that pursuit. But all too often, a creative career is presented as a way out of the work-life struggles that most people face. Kudos to Life After Top Chef for being honest about the fact that work-life balance is a struggle for anyone with serious ambitions.