By Paul Sorgule, M.S., AAC
There is little question that working in a busy kitchen can be very stressful. The demands of time (never enough), consistent execution, business volume, multi-tasking, the uncertainty of order pace and the need to protect very tight profit margins weighs heavy. Stress is real and in some extreme cases can result in physical, mental and emotional complications. The presence of stress in restaurant operations is inherent and to a great degree must simply be viewed, as “This is the way it is.” How cooks and chefs deal with this stress is by far more important than the existence of this inevitable reality.
“A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” -Webster’s Dictionary
From the moment a cook or chef steps through the back door of the kitchen, the pressure begins to mount. As much as we might like to control this, it seems like so much is simply out of our control. A certain amount of stress can be beneficial – it gives some that nudge to step it up. Unchecked, this stress can continue to mount and will manifest itself in different ways depending on the individual. Far too often, a kitchen crew will manage within their threshold and store up their release for the end of a shift. In this case, it is quite common to see cooks and chefs release their stress in ways that can have a long-term negative impact on their health and well-being. Statistically, the following methods of stress release have brought even the strongest kitchen warriors to their knees:
- Substance Abuse
- Alcohol Abuse
These methods can relieve stress in the short-term, but will chip away at your ability to stay healthy, alert and focused, and may even result in serious physical and mental health problems. So, how can cooks and chefs address the issue of stress and maintain a healthy lifestyle? Here are some thoughts that are very appropriate for anyone working in stress-filled environments:
- BE PREPARED FOR TOMORROW – The best way to let it go at the end of a shift is to put down thoughts about tomorrow. Take the time to make your lists for the next day and take care of as much prep as possible. This will allow you to relieve a bit of the looming angst about the day to come.
- THE END-OF-SHIFT POST MORTEM – Chefs and cooks need to take a few moments at the end of a shift to talk through that night’s service, identify things that did not go well and rationalize how to avoid the same problems tomorrow. Remember not to point fingers at individuals, but rather look at how the team can respond better.
- LISTEN TO MUSIC – Whatever music makes you feel good, use it to take you to that happy place. Music is one of life’s best medicines.
- POWER WALK – Any time that you are able to walk instead of ride is great therapy. Walking clears your head, it allows you to breathe fresh air and enjoy everything that surrounds you outside of work. If you can walk in the woods, then this is even better.
- SPORTS AND GYM WORKOUTS – Any kind of sport or exercise demands your attention away from the range. Team sports, in particular, add the dimension of camaraderie and even a little healthy competition. Build this into your weekly routine.
- TAKE THE TIME TO EAT WELL – Cooks and chefs typically do not practice what they preach about nutrition and well-prepared food. We are always in a rush to eat; we oftentimes eat standing up while working and fail to create the balance of a healthy diet into our routine. This is our fuel that can build a body’s strength or slowly tear it apart.
- PUT DOWN THE CELLPHONE – Our connected world has created a new level of stress. Insisting on knowing what is going on every minute clutters our minds and our souls with unnecessary angst. Check your messages and then turn it off until tomorrow.
- WRITE – Writing is very therapeutic. Some people keep a journal, others write blogs and many simply take a few moments to reflect and write down their feelings in the moment. If you think you can’t write, then start anyway. The more you write, the better you will become.
- NURTURE NON-RESTAURANT FRIENDSHIPS – Every cook needs a life away from the kitchen and away from the process of cooking. Find and build friendships with people who have nothing to do with the restaurant world, except maybe individuals who simply enjoy eating. Spend time with these folks; they will help you to find release and balance.
- LAUGH WITH RECKLESS ABANDON – The greatest tool against the damages of too much stress is laughter. Hang out with people who make you laugh, watch mindless comedies that bring a smile to your face and forget who might be watching you buckle at the waist and gasp for breath during fits of laughter.
- CUT BACK ON CAFFEINE – Caffeine is the drug of choice on the line. No question, it will help with that boost of energy that you need, but back off as you come closer to finishing service. You will need to control that adrenaline at the end of service and avoid the crash that will come after drinking too much coffee or Red Bull.
- READ – Grab a novel that is interesting and enjoyable. Curl up with a good book at the end of a shift and note that it is usually much better than counting sheep.
- SHOWER AFTER WORK – Wash off the smell and sweat from a 10-hour day in the kitchen. You will feel better and will be able to remove one more reason that you are feeling the weight of anxiety.
- GET ENOUGH SLEEP – By far the best medicine for a stressful life is the ability to close your eyes and dream about something else. Follow the list above and you might be able to hit the pillow and close your eyes straight through to morning.
Be in control of the stress in your life and don’t let it have the upper hand.
We want to hear from you! What are your tips for managing stress? Tell us what works for you and your kitchen mates in the comments below.
Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at www.harvestamericaventures.com.