As always, the night started with cocaine and ended with alcohol. It was romantic in the mind of a young, eager cook, in high end kitchens to buy into the idea that they are some shade of Rockstar, and that drugs and alcohol are just part of the uniform.
You lace up your non slips, button your freshly pressed whites, trim your nails and beard for inspection. Thermometer: check, Sharpie: check, tweezers: check. You are the picture of professionalism. That is the appearance, but you know that your mis isn’t truly en place until you have partaken in the communal pre-shift round of cocaine; as common, at one time, as the communal pre-service family meal.
Seven hours of break free prep work follows, before choking down family meal as quickly as you can before line up, and service starts. You down the only water that you have had time to drink all day out of your plastic quart container so as to ensure that you don’t pass out during service, and then, the sprint.
Fueled by the second bump of cocaine that Chef does with you just before service, or energy drinks, or the absolute terror of disappointing Chef – ending up like the last kid who was publicly humiliated before being told to “Get the fuck out and never come back” – or all of the above, you Ride the White Horse through the next six hours of dinner service. The Michelin starred Mecca is at a manic pace that is almost a high in of itself.
For each elegantly plated, perfectly timed, methodically executed dish that you put out, a small rush of euphoria darts through you, as Chef first studies, then tastes, then approves your plate to be of high enough standard to go out to the guest. You and your station partner’s dance around each other like sweat drenched ballerinas, sautéing, saucing, tweezing, and dotting your way to the break down (in nerve, and tempo, and otherwise). On the opposite end of the kitchen, the Pastry Chef stands behind one of their assistants, Lashing at his or her back with the whip of their tongue, as the young apprentice breaks off a jagged piece of dehydrated Meringue and lays it gracefully on the plate as garnish. “This is my body, broken for you.”
Adrenalin hurricanes flood your Hypothalamus , and lightning bolts of Serotonin and Dopamine erupt through your Neurotransmitters , as you burn through the night. You are on tonight, and on-top-of-the-world, in a way.
But as Richie Vallens, so regrettably demonstrated; what goes up, must come down, and soon after the Cortisone producing service ends and your station is spotlessly broken down and cleaned, you find yourself in the dirty back alley behind one of the highest-rated houses of haute cuisine in the city, splitting a 24-pack with your brothers (and sisters) in arms, reveling in the come down. It’s just how things go.
Your perception glowing from the beer, you peacefully sway your way to the bus stop, and catch the hour and a half ride across town to your $1,400 a month, 230 square foot San Francisco apartment, hobbling up the four flights of stairs to your door, because the beer is now wearing off and the stiffness is creeping on.
You spend thirty minutes of “down time” studying your prep list, and order sheet, and planning your way through the weeds of the next day that you are already in, down your blood pressure medication (which you are way too young to be needing) with one last whiskey nightcap, and you fall into a deep sleep. Five O’clock rolls around and you jolt awake to the phantom ticking of the ticket printer going off. Order in! Time to get up and do it all over again. It’s the common denominator of the up and down mind altering substances, long periods in high anxiety situations, and the unbroken cycle of going through it day in and day out, that trains your brain to stress in cycles in the future to come.
It’s no secret that a cook’s job is demanding – very demanding. After all, we like to talk… even brag, about our masochistic love for the pain that we endure every night, like a faithful servant of their Church, chastising their body with every tightening of the Cilice. Glory to the cause, on and on, Amen. But few of us are aware; at the time, of the long term effects of this gloriously brutal lifestyle, and all the bipolar elements that contribute to it.
Ten years later and fresh out of your third stint in rehab, the effects are now crystal clear. You’re still on drugs, only now they are prescribed by a physician to treat your Anxiety disorder, and the depression that comes when you have resigned yourself to no longer knowing how to have a social life.
Scars from popping hot grease spatters decorate your hands and forearms, like the perfectly spaced dots that you once used to adorn your beautifully presented plates with. It’s a high price you pay for your craft, and you pay it! But that was then and this is now, and as Bob Dylan says: “The times, they are a changin’.”
With the slow, but steady, transition from the old, militant French way of running kitchens, a new generation and breed of more socially-conscious Chefs, who put more value on quiet, Zen-like dinner services, in acknowledgment and combatance of the epidemic of psychological disorders, and drug habits that the kitchens of yesteryear propagated, are rising high.
The “Shoot From the Hip” brash attitudes of Chefs have, more and more, given way to a “Move at the Hips,” approach more akin to Tai-Chi, than the old “move out of my way,” approach, more resembling Tai-Bo. Slowly, cooks are trading their cocaine and alcohol addictions, for a more sustainable lifestyle of gym memberships to get up, and mindfulness and meditation sessions to come down (after all, we still have a love affair with the grind).
We are becoming more conscious; these days, of lifestyle techniques that allow us to endure that grind longer, in order to try to ensure a longer career, and a more pleasant life thereafter (or at least on that isn’t plagued with mood disorders), in hopes also, of avoiding the once imminent Burn Out.
The professionalism of a cook’s lifestyle behind the scenes, nowadays, is quietly catching up with the professionalism of the outward image that was kept so religiously for the line-ups all those years ago, and the people, and the food they make, are; in a truer sense of the word, becoming more refined.
Editor’s Note: this poignant article was written by an excellent young chef just before the passing from accidental drug overdose of Chef Paulie Giganti, 36, of Hell’s Kitchen Fame, and a beloved chef of the Philadelphia restaurant scene. Drug and alcohol addiction in the restaurant industry has been a problem for years, but today, it is an exploding crisis. We hope this article will bring this issue to the industry’s attention. Photo courtesy of AOL.com.