Everyone loves to bitch about their jobs. But if you have a friend who works in the restaurant industry, you know that they can almost always one up you in the bitching department.
Steve, in marketing: Man, my day sucked. I have a huge project due on Friday and half of my team is out with the flu.
Emma, a cook: That’s nice. I can’t feel my left pinky because the oil burn from last week got cut open today while I was slicing lemons, and my girlfriend made me sleep on the couch last night because I couldn’t wash the smell of fish water from my hair even after a 40 minute shower.
Cooks are always on their feet, always cutting and burning themselves, and are always achy and exhausted from too much fast paced work and manual labor. Plus, kitchens are fatalistic environments, even compared to other modern American workplaces. Cooks brag about their injuries and horrid working conditions in a never ending zero-sum game of “whose job is shittier?”
When I look back at my decade in the restaurant industry, all I can really remember are the bad parts. All I remember telling my friends about my work days were the chef screaming and throwing hamburger buns at me; the time I ruined a stack of baguettes by bleeding all over them before I noticed I had cut myself; the nights of working until 1 AM scrubbing out fish containers and then coming back at five hours later to start the veal stock. I told them of these things partially to gain sympathy. But that wasn’t the main reason.
I burnt out eventually, like so many cooks do. But while I was there I loved it. With passion. And this is true for so many cooks. They hate it, but they also love it? But why? Why do they love it when it is full of so much awfulness? I wondered about this for years. Cooks won’t tell you, because talking about enjoying their job isn’t part of cooking culture. But you can see it. In the middle of the dinner rush when flames are leaping off the grill and pans are being tossed around in a symphony of clangs and crashes. You can see it in the eyes of the five cooks who dance around and yell at each other and the servers, interweaving in desperate, adrenaline flavored elegance.
The answer is flow. That mind state where you are full and completely absorbed in a task, to the point that your movements are both entirely deliberate and utterly effortless. Where every thought and breath are infused with purpose and synchronized with function. Where every part of you works as a single unit, immersed in the moment, and distant from it. You are both the performer on stage and the audience drinking the performance in. It is the closest most of us ever get to transcendence. To, dare I say it, enlightenment.
When it’s good–when it works–professional cooking is non stop flow. At a busy restaurant, on a good night, with a good team, you can spend hours in flow. It’s why cooks can be drenched in sweat and barely notice or care. It’s why cooks and servers can scream at each other and go out for drinks afterwards like old friends. It’s how that saute cook can work on 12 dishes at the same time and not burn a single crab cake or put one chive out of place.
There’s a lot to hate about professional cooking, and really only one thing to love.
But damn. With love like that–with that kind of passion–who cares how terrible it is? Sensation in your fingers is overrated anyway.