TL:DR Being a chef is hard as fuck and burnout is your own damn fault, but it’s avoidable.
Burnout sucks. There’s no real way to sugar coat it, when you get burnt out in the restaurant industry it really becomes difficult to go back. There had been a couple times where I thought I had burnt out, but a short 2-3 day vacation alleviated those thoughts and feelings. Recently though, I actually did burn out.
Burnout, at least in the food industry, is when you no longer want to deal with the stress that comes from the intense physical and mental torture. Essentially, you decided that you don’t want to cook anymore. The pilot light has gone out in your soul. More often than not, that light can be re-lit and the fire can start to rage furiously once again, but sometimes it carries the PTSD of remembering why you stopped in the first place.
Burnout is, as far as I’m concerned, your own fault. You really do burn yourself out. As much as some cooks want to blame their employer or their co-workers or anything else in their life, the fact of the matter is that burnout can always be avoided. What causes cooks/chefs to push themselves to the very brink of exhaustion and sometimes death is ego. Ego is what drives cooks to work longer hours and work harder to prove that they are worth a damn. It is the mindset that if you want to work in the restaurant industry and you want to be successful, then you have to put your head down and work hard every day to try to improve more and more every day. It’s the idea that if you call in sick, then you are letting down your entire crew and you don’t want to endure the ridicule of having taken a sick day. I for one haven’t called in sick in 12 years of working in the industry, but even that is my ego wanting to tell everyone else of my accomplishment. Like its some sort of badge of honor that should demand respect, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter and nobody really gives a fuck.
I’m officially a burnt out chef, and it was my own damn fault. It was the days where I would complain about low cover counts and reiterate the fact that I could handle 300+ cover dinner shifts. It was days where I would work the extra two days so that i could proudly say that I had worked 14 days straight, or 30 days straight. It was all the times where I would push myself to the very limit physically and mentally just to prove that I was a better cook than the rest of my crew in order to maintain a theoretical hierarchy and to command respect from cooks that couldn’t put up or shut up. It was all these while continually working 12 hour shifts day-in and day-out to prove that I was the best at what I did. It was so that I could satisfy my own ego and in that pursuit I lost sight of my true self and I burned out.
Currently I am on a medical leave from the restaurant that I was at. It took a family intervention for me to take the first step into taking care of myself. Honestly, if my family didn’t see the state I was in and if they didn’t intervene then I truly think my sister would be writing an obituary for me. If you don’t believe me, then you don’t know that I’ve been chronically depressed and borderline suicidal since I was 16. In any case, if nobody would have stopped me, then my ego would have had me push through the pain, stress, sleep deprivation, malnutrition and overall degradation because that what we as cooks are trained to be. To be insane.
I can’t think of many other professions that have somebody work 60-80 hours a week for minimum wage in a cramped environment around multiple hazards and have an expectation to do better than the day before. A profession of overworked, underpaid, malnourished, sleep deprived, and under appreciated physical labor for the pursuit of a single passion. It’s nothing like what you see on TV. It takes a certain type of crazy to want to put yourself through that kind of torture.
Burnout is completely avoidable. All it takes is removing the egotistical chef in your head. The motivation to prove to other people that you’re better at torturing yourself is really just pointless. Nobody really gives a shit how many steaks you’ve cooked during a busy night. Nobody gives a shit that you worked 3 weeks straight without a day off. The harsh reality is that nobody outside your industry is going to understand why you do what you do and nobody in the industry is going to give a shit about what you’ve done. So why kill yourself over the pursuit of masturbating your own ego? I don’t really know and currently I don’t really care. I used to tell my students, while I was a Manager in Training at the culinary school I graduated from, to always take care of themselves first. That this industry is tough and that they won’t survive if they don’t take care of themselves first and foremost. As I sit here, sipping some tea and eating chicken liver pate with brie on crackers, I realize that I should start listening to some of my own advice.
I’m burnt out to the point of questioning whether or not I should be chef anymore. I know that all I need to do to get back on course is just relight my pilot light no matter how many tries it takes because deep down I know that cooking is my passion.