A list of “50 Things They Never Told You About Being a Chef” is going around on Facebook. Naturally, I clicked. Why wouldn’t I? I enjoyed the list. Clearly it was written by a cook who’d paid some dues. There were obvious things included, like: “You will not cook gourmet dinners at home. You’ll be too tired, and too fed up of cooking.” As I type, there are three sorts of greens and a half-pound of salt pork in the fridge awaiting my attention. Gourmet dinners? How about any dinner at all?
My long-suffering boyfriend (hereafter referred to as “LSB”) has probably eaten more delivery pizza than the spouses of all my non-cook friends combined. This is a pretty universal complaint in chef families, especially if there aren’t any children to provide proper nutrition to. What nobody ever talks about is the guilt it creates.
If I come home after working 15 hours, you can bet I’m not cooking dinner, and of course no one expects me to. But, during the course of that shift, I probably tasted 20 different wonderful things, and ate at least one full-ish meal (granted, probably cold buffet leftovers from a paper plate while standing in a hallway). LSB, on the other hand, had raisins and sunflower seeds for dinner. “It’s OK, baby,” he’ll say. I’m sure his doctor would say otherwise. I certainly would say otherwise. I can barely stand myself some evenings, knowing he has had to fend for himself with yet another sandwich or can of soup.
“You will always be exhausted” is another list entry. If you’re doing your chef job right, this is undeniably true. Exhausted. Painful feet, back and hands. This is par for the course. We stand up all day. We lift heavy things. We burn ourselves regularly. The pace rarely slackens. Did I mention the foot pain? Some nights I come home and take off my shoes and socks, and although LSB offers to rub my feet, they are so painful I can’t bear to let him.
“You won’t become famous.” Nope. Probably won’t. Not only will you not become famous in the wider world — you won’t even become famous in the food world. Sadly, you won’t even become famous where you work, unless you’re exceedingly lucky. I remember my mother being so excited when I decided to make cooking a career. She’d been watching a little too much Emeril on the Food Network. She would giggle and say “BAM!” when we talked on the phone. I’m sure she didn’t picture me deck-scrubbing at 1 a.m., or struggling to lift an overstuffed garbage can to the lip of a Dumpster by myself.
“At least one year out of two, and maybe every year, you will work Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, bank holidays, Halloween, your birthday, and pretty much every other day of celebration on the calendar.” Yep. This is true. Folks who have the means to pay others to cook for them have this crazy habit of wanting it to happen on holidays. It’s not that crazy, actually — if I were independently wealthy, I’d want the same. But this means we cooks rarely get to celebrate with our friends and families.
To cooks, “Derby” is a dirty word. “Mother’s Day” is an epithet. “New Year’s Eve” is an unfathomable tidal wave hanging over us all. I once spent four hours in a freezer piping meringue on baked Alaska for New Year’s Eve-goers. Another year, I food-styled a magazine cover for a Valentine’s Day issue and then had to recreate that heart-shaped dessert for 175 patrons, even though I’d negotiated “if I do this, I don’t have to make them for service, do I?” during the photo shoot.
My favorite bullet point from the list is this one, though: “You will never be irreplaceable.” This is the truest truism on the whole list. If you get fed up and quit, your absence will be as notable as water closing over a stone thrown in the ocean. Someone else will step into your clogs. In this town? There are thousands of cooks.
But the end of the list was really uplifting: “You will fall in love with your job and never look back.” This is also true. We love what we do … if we didn’t, why would we do it?
If you’re reading this, and you’re a cook, please find the best home you can and make it your own; do what you love. Good luck this Derby. To all those who wear the apron, I salute you.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of Juleps Catering.