When I began this blog, one of my hopes was to let the world in on life with a professional chef. As it turns out, I've hardly skimmed the surface. After years of giving slight mentions of what's going on in that part of our lives, I've discovered it’s a task that requires me to sit down and actually focus on what it is that makes this life different than most. Turns out, there's a lot to say.
I think the first step in understanding how to remain married—happily—to a professional cook is understanding the tribe of cooks. As in most demanding careers, there are certain characters that seem drawn to a life on the line. Anyone who knows the name Anthony Bourdain, or has spent much time watching a selection of chef reality shows has an inkling of the type of people I'm talking about. But to my mind, it all stems from a first, basic characteristic: chefs are ambitious. Good chefs are driven. Excellent chefs are passionate. And all of them may border on crazy.
But let’s analyze this ambitious, passionate drive. Because it can manifest itself in infinite ways. A chef may become passionately meticulous, narrowing his focus down to a single, carefully and obsessively arranged dish. Others are ambitious for career progress and acknowledgement, campaigning to move quickly through the brigade system in order to take charge of their own kitchen and menu. There are chefs who are driven towards change, bringing their customers along as they explore and discover new ways to consider what a meal means, or how traditional Italian can be updated and adapted. Above all, the chefs I know are passionate about the food—local food, cutting-edge flavors, hyper-fresh seafood—it doesn’t matter what kind, but the food is the reason, the beginning and the end of every day they slide into their grease-encrusted no-slip clogs.
However this drive emerges in your chef, it is likely to result in a burning desire to keep working when most normal people have had enough. I only know a handful of chefs personally, but the most successful ones—that is, the ones who have managed to comfortably support themselves and a family through their work in a kitchen—can fairly be categorized as workaholics. When Chef Bonaparte was head of the culinary program, he routinely spent extra hours in the school kitchens in preparation for special dinners with various organizations. I remember him gleefully showing off a cooler full of curing dry sausages and pepperonis he was preparing for a visit from Alice Waters or a farm dinner. Extra hours in the kitchens, away from his wife and daughter, because...because, well, if you saw the knowing smiles from the other chef instructors when his name and the words "cured meats" are said together, you'd understand. And don’t think he’s an exception—he’s just the first one to come to mind.
I’m sure that you can begin to see a bit of what a chef’s spouse must be prepared to accept. Not only will your cooking fool of a partner be working long hours, but they will be precisely the hours during which most families come together. Kids home for a weekend? Your chef is gone, prepping for the arrival of all the families who are capping off a day of relaxation with a great dinner. A night to spend quietly at home, no meetings, practices or errands? Your chef will be at the restaurant, feeding the families who looked at each other after a long day at work and said “Why don’t we just go out tonight?”
Mother’s day? Gather the kids and go on to Grandma’s house, because Chef Dearest will be working a double that day. Christmas? If you’re lucky, your chef will be home on Christmas Day. But the company parties, church gatherings, family travel and cookie exchanges that lead up to the big day will all have to be done without her. Because those weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s belong to the restaurant, not to you.
Valentine’s Day? Don’t make me laugh!
Not only will you be missing your chef on nights, weekends and holidays, but you’ll be missing your partner. Remember, any good marriage means sharing kisses and day-to-day routines. So when Miss Chef essentially disappears from my life during the holidays and the biennial restaurant weeks, my life becomes harder too. There’s nobody to help with the laundry and dishes. The house is invariably dark when I get home. On my own busy days, I have to rush home after work to let the dog out, or be the one to plan ahead and find someone to feed and walk her. (Being a chef’s dog is no picnic, either.) Lawn mowing, vacuuming, mail, communication with family and friends all become my total responsibility.
And let’s not forget mealtimes. I’ve learned to bite my tongue whenever someone invariably sighs “I’d love to have my own chef at home.” Yeah so would I. When Miss Chef’s schedule revs up, I have to guess what she might require from the grocery store, re-learn how to cook for one, and try to figure out what she might be able to eat in the car between jobs or in the kitchen between rushes. It has to fit in a reasonably small container, be edible at room temperature, not require a fork and contain a hefty amount of calories with a balance between starch and protein.
Anyone can be a chef’s wife or husband—all you have to do is marry one of them. (Good luck with their getting enough time off for a wedding, much less a honeymoon). But to really thrive as a couple, there are responsibilities one has to accept. First, it’s essentially important to learn what drives your chef. There’s got to be something that makes all the ridiculousness worthwhile in his mind. It could be the pleasure of serving a dining room full of happy customers. Maybe it’s more the recognition of peers, gaining the respect and admiration of titans in the field. For some it’s the glow of creating something new, in the same way an artist continues to grow and experiment with her work. It might be forming a network of ties within the community, bringing together farmers and diners, kids and food, cooks and students. It could just be the glare of the spotlight—an actor who loves to play with fire and knives. Whatever it is, knowing it helps the chef’s spouse understand when it’s time to push her back into the kitchen and when to suggest she step back a little.
Next, it helps to really learn about the job…to visit the kitchen and understand the noise, the heat, the odd coworkers. I’m lucky that I can dip a toe in by working occasionally with her, but getting a glimpse into the kitchen helps at least get a feel for this odd environment where a chef spends his or her time.
I also think it’s especially important to listen to the work stories. This is often the fun part, but can also be difficult to accept at first. The working conditions and hours are ridiculous, and in any “normal” job, OSHA would be in there in a flash. The heat in the kitchen soars well above 100 degrees all summer, and nobody wants to know what the humidity is. Expecting that required break just because you’re working a ten-hour shift on your feet? If the executive chef’s not getting a break, neither are you. Health care? I think we have some bandaids behind the microwave. Benefits? Good job kid, here’s a beer at the end of service. Yeah, you’re dehydrated and have a 40-minute drive home, but don’t be a p***y if you want to keep everyone’s respect.
Then there’s the abuse. Hazing, camaraderie, team-building, call it what you want, but even in the most family-friendly kitchen, behavior will raise eyebrows. Miss Chef and Chef Adam have given each other huge welts with wet towels snapped well above the knees. And that’s when they’re having fun! The language in the kitchen is different, too. Of course there’s the jargon—fire a ticket, eighty-six a menu item—but there’s the other language. The one where the asterisks come out of that word in the last paragraph and no one even notices. When you’ve got all those half-crazy people working in those inhuman conditions, the relationships are equally passionate—love and hate in equal measures. No joke. And you can’t know any of this unless you listen to the stories.
Knowing the inside of the life is part of the reason I actually enjoy being with my chef. Because you know that, in spite of all the missed holidays and lonely hours, I wouldn't trade my girl in for anything. Why? Well, for starters, seeing Miss Chef happy and excited as she describes a new appetizer she's developed lets me know she's fulfilled in her work. And in spite of the many peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich dinners I've eaten alone, there are plenty of nights when I get to enjoy a juicy roasted chicken with unusual vegetable combinations perfectly prepared, all swimming in a beautiful sauce. Not to mention the occasional samples that make their way home, inside invitations to wine tastings and special events, and easy access to any number of specialty foods.
But what I really enjoy is getting to know the people she works with. Whether it's chefs or servers, very few boring people make their living in the food industry. First, you can't survive this industry without an excellent sense of humor. Second, restaurant diners bring all their quirks and dramas with them, and you can see everything when you're one of the few in the room standing up. As a result, chefs have some of the most surreal stories to share, and most of them a gift for story-telling laced with a dry, knife-sharpened wit (and maybe some profanity). Sit some down with a few drinks, and you can cancel your satellite tv.
Now being a supportive, understanding spouse to a professional chef does require some sacrifices and responsibilities--but these responsibilities go both ways. No matter how reasonable and supportive her family may be, the chef has a responsibility to remember that family is a major part of the puzzle. I am lucky; Miss Chef has always made a strong effort to carve out time for me, for us. That makes it easier for me to let her disappear into the kitchen between the third week of November and the first of January. I am happy to make sure her chef pants are washed or she has enough bananas for the week, because I know when she has a half-day free, it will be dedicated to us. If she didn’t constantly remind me that I am at least as important as her job, I would be too resentful to do any of that, much less let her go every day.
It’s a delicate balancing act. It cannot be done by one side or the other. It requires constant communication of all sorts, verbal and otherwise. As a chef’s wife, you have to get it, get the job, the passion, the people, the rhythm of the life. Even though it’s not your job, you have to love it or hate it. I imagine there are plenty of chefs out there whose spouses have little or nothing to do with their jobs. But I can’t imagine they are as happy as my chef and I.
Postscript: So how was our Valentine's night? Rough, very rough. My evening started with a server telling me Chef was stressed and "barking out orders," and ended with a woman popping her head out of the bathroom as I headed out the back door, to inform me there was "poop all over the floor." I also managed to get in trouble for leaving without saying goodbye to Miss Chef.
Which is why, once we were finally snuggled in bed, drifting off to sleep, I quietly wished her "Crappy Valentine's Day."