Kitchen life post 40, a chefs survival guide……

One chef two very different sets of whites!I’m 41 years of age and I’ve been working in commercial kitchens since I was 12, I got my first qualifications in the industry when I was 16 so this is the official start date of my career in my mind. With this in mind I’ll be celebrating 25 years cooking at the stove this year but it’s nothing like you would think, no banners or parade, no champagne or party just another busy ass week, we’ve been full for Mother’s Day for weeks and Easter is around the corner so the limited down time and quiet period is about to end abruptly with a 300 cover Sunday lunch to kick us off!

The normal panic is starting in work with the stark realisation that we’re nowhere near up to our comfortable level of staffing with at least 2 chefs short and easily 2/3 kitchen assistants down so unless we miraculously magic up some staff things are about to get tough, very tough. My average week consists of 50 hours over 4 days which will increase substantially as the season progresses but I’m at the twilight end of my career supposedly it’s no mean feat boxing out 13 hour shift on your feet all day under pressure, with little or no breaks during the busy days. I know guys in the industry doing 16 hours a day 6 days a week admittedly 20 years my junior and pushing for top accolades but still, it makes me think we as an industry have a long way to go to make this a sustainable career for all involved. I’ve written in previous blogs about how the darker aspects of kitchen life can take hold if you let your guard down.

I’ve known a lot of chefs over the years who have fallen fowl to the vices of drugs and alcohol which helps them to unwind after a busy shift, I used to enjoy a drink myself when I was younger but realised it wasn’t doing my health much good so I packed it up.

As I’ve got older and wiser I’ve begun to understand my body more and realise I’ve got to take care of my physical and mental wellbeing.

I read with interest an article about Gary Jones Head Chef of Le Manoir Quat Saison he had suggested young chefs should exercise and perhaps do a martial art to help with fitness and focus in the kitchen. I couldn’t agree more and would add it’s just as important for us old kitchen veterans to keep fit too.

It occurred to me that this was exactly how I felt when 2 years ago I joined my local Karate club, I was looking to obtain a level of fitness and focus that would help me stay sharp in the kitchen. It’s not the easiest of things to pluck up the courage to go along and fumble hopelessly through class realising that coordination was possibly not your strongest point, to work with a group of people far younger and far more proficient than you’ll ever be, most of whom were still in school or college. I watched in awe of how they absorbed Sensai’s teaching and repeated effortlessly, I looked consciously at my own stance and posturing realising that this was gonna take a lot of effort on my behalf to progress in this world. It was a very steep learning curve of which I’m hardly around the first bend. I don’t have a lot of time to practice and it is starkly apparent that a second lesson a week would undoubtedly pay dividends. The important thing and the reason why I’m writing this blog is the holistic view point of the whole experience part of the journey and it doesn’t matter really what belt I obtain or level I get to (although it’s very satisfying when you pass your grading and move to the next level) it’s about having a period of time that I can push myself in a non work environment. The physical benefits of keeping supple with all my joints pay dividends when I’m on my feet all day at work, bending low several hundred times a day reaching plates out of the warmer, twisting and stretching reaching in, over or around people and objects whilst moving hastily in and out of the oven. I’m grateful for the opportunity to exercise, stretch and de-stress even if it’s only an hour or so a week.

But it’s the mental fitness that I personally benefit from, I like the history of the style of karate we do. It’s the understanding of a system that has been created for maximum efficiency and a real art form, it appeals to my creative mind and I enjoy the learning experience and the spirit of Karate do.

I also do tai chi and meditate throughout the week that helps to keep my stress levels down and also keeps me supple. I would recommend that anyone thinking of a career and perhaps longevity within the Hospitality industry should keep themselves fit and as Gary Jones of the 2 star Michelin Le Manoir suggests that taking up a martial art would be hugely beneficial to stay sharp and focused in such a fast paced environment.

A novice or commis in these whites.

Keep fit, keep focused staying healthy and strong in a career notorious for bad habits.

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