#6 A Haven for Drunks, Burnouts, Narcissists and other interesting folk

Luna Crew

It’s no secret that the professional kitchen is full of some interesting characters. A lot has already been said on this subject, thank you Tony Bourdain, but I need to say a few things. Drinking problems are very common and even expected. I myself developed a whopper of a beer, wine and finally straight vodka habit. Problem was even the vodka could not erase the boredom of the repetitive, physical demands and the hyperactive mind flips that followed every super busy shift. I remember when I was a young cook–continuing the rush into my sleep. I would literally just continue working, all the sights, sounds and sensations. Not always a nightmare but never restful. Alcohol really helped there. It was the only thing that helped shut down the ticket machine in my dreams.

Chefs and cooks are notoriously over the top folk. Meaning a “one drink” mentality is very rare. There are lots of stories about chefs/cooks showing up wasted, barely able to stand but able to rail(bust a move) through a busy service successfully. Similar to a drunken captain leading a ship full of rouges thru a deadly storm. Somehow we always make it thru. Once I showed up for a saturday dinner shift at Citrus–after being up all night (and day) doing speed, smoking pot and drinking large amounts of beer. I looked like hammered shit–eyes bloodshot, red faced. The chef took one look at me and did not look or speak to me for the rest of the night. It took all I had to get through service–380 dinners. Got some beer on the way home–which didn’t do ANYTHING so I drank an entire bottle of Midori (yuck but the only thing my roommate would not miss from his cheesy bar), threw up and then passed out. Sounds great, right! Chef Alain never mentioned that night to me again. And I never showed up to that kitchen in a compromised state again. An unspoken agreement. The point here is that if you can rail like a badass, you can probably do it injured, wasted or hung over too. Nobody cares too much especially if you are entertaining while you suffer through your shift. I also believe that a lot of chef types are genetically predisposed to addictive problems. Might be bullshit but I have yet to meet a chef that has not struggled with alcohol, food or drug abuse at some point in their career.

Sasha, Xavier, Daniel Bolud

Plus, kitchen crews love to drink together. You can usually find them lurking in packs around dumpsters, in parking lots or alley ways behind their place of employment. There they soak up the night air into the wee hours–rehashing the nights events. A sort of debriefing. A drunken “I’m okay, you’re okay”. All fuck ups are usually forgiven (especially if you are buying) and then the succession of dirty stories involving hostesses and various servers commences. Or we talk about family and “home” usually Mexico. Pictures of beautiful wives and children emerge. Laughter and some serious sadness. All the more reason to drink, heavily. There were a few unforgetable trips to karaoke too. Imagine a drunken bunch of Mexicans belting out an Elvis tune in broken English in a Korean Bar at 2 o’clock in the morning. Unforgettably hilarious!  Btw-there seems to be at least one guy on every crew that sings-ALL THE TIME.  Can be good, can be really BAD–as my friend Miguel likes to say. So familiar with everyone, these dishpit performers usually don’t even realize they are singing until we start laughing at them.

Burnout, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term exposure to demanding work situations. Burnout is the cumulative result of stress. Par for the course in food service. I believe I suffered a ten year…no 12 year burnout. I closed the restaurant I partnered in and went back to line cooking. After 5 years of being an executive chef, just cooking was so comfortable. I moved to sous chef but still lead the line every service. I loved that time. I was offered the chef’s job and a chance to go to the James Beard House in New York. To which I said an easy “no thanks”. Instead, I went to the chef and told him that the GM had just offered me his job. We laughed about it. Never underestimate the loyality a sous has for his/her chef. It is a tight bond.


So, I got pregnant and had my beautiful Lily. Moved into a pastry chef position and enjoyed the comfort of the production demands without servers, expos and managers in my face. It was lovely. I stood in the same spot. Made the same desserts. Looked at the spice rack above my table …..for years. I was creating specials for the line but was not even close to working to my full potential. And I didn’t care. I ran on three or four hours of sleep. Working nights and taking care of Lily’s needs during the day left me exhausted, drinking to mellow my frustrations and eating larger and larger amounts of food. But, work remained a solace. A really comfortable shoe. So, basically if you show up mostly on time, perform your tasks(have a pulse), we can work with that. Some cooks are almost viewed as extensions of their equipment. So burnt, they start to blend into the refrigeration. I have seen more than one fall asleep standing up–with tongs in hand.

Once you nail your position you may stay in it FOR YEARS. You may wake up one day (as I did)–still broke, bad back, super fat and drinking way too much–and ask yourself seriously, “Where did the years go?” or “What have I done?” And “It’s time to get my shit together!”

Narcissism. Not sure I want to say much on this subject (it’s embarrassing) except I took the Narcissistic Inventory quiz and scored way too high!! If you are a chef in charge of five or more cooks I dare you to take this quiz designed by Dr. Drew Pinsky of Celebrity Rehab fame.  Only a matter of time till we see “Chef Rehab”.  That should be really dramatic–lots of moaning.  So Google “narcissistic inventory’ and go to town. Let me know how you do. Chances are you are as deranged as I am. We chefs seem to suffer from excessive “self love” in more ways than one :). Most of us like attention, think we have really good stories and sometimes never know when to shut up.  It’s not entirely our fault though–with the advent of the “exhibition kitchen” we were forced out of the back and into the nightly spotlight.  Lead cooks even feel like their putting on some kind of performance (usually standup) not only for their crew but for the front of the house and the guests inquisitively staring them down.  Lots of chefs call service “the Show” and we love nothing more than a standing ovation.


~ by abmccune on May 15, 2010.

One Response to “#6 A Haven for Drunks, Burnouts, Narcissists and other interesting folk”

  1. I see so much of my life in here! After 6 years as a part owner of a restaurant for 6 years, I can fully relate to the after-closing drinking sessions to unwind from a crazy night, and also the burnout! There is definitely a pattern to the personality types in the business, like you said. Ours wasn’t a high end place, but it was busy (200-250 seats a night) and there are the same types of things went on there. Anyway, it’s been just over 10 years since i left that manic word behind, but it was kind of fun to look back at it, especially through the eyes of someone with similar experiences—thanks!

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