“The Good Life”
You’re tired. You can’t think. Your arms are heavy. Your back hurts. And the tickets are still coming and you’re drenched in sweat and can’t wait for a moment to go out back and take a few puffs off of your cigarette. This is a place that we have been all too often. But hey, no one is going to do it for you. Anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen knows all too well that cooking isn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle. And people from all walks of life, come together in the kitchen and give it all they got. Because if you don’t, it will eat you alive. There’s no work to life ratio. No chill sometimes. There have been many points in my career that I’ve had to spend a great deal of time away from everyone I care about. See most restaurants tell you that they provide good work to life ratio. Meaning, that you’re going to get your hours, and have time to have a social life and family time. But very few times has that actually happened. As a matter of fact, it rarely does. This is a dog eat dog world. Where you have bigger teeth than the person next to you. But at the same time, that’s the person who has your back through thick and thin. However, shit happens, let’s face it. Whenever something happens to our people in the kitchen, we are always left to wonder. No matter the story, no matter how it all went down, we wonder. And often are left with a feeling of betrayal or emptiness. There really isn’t an in-between sadly. People are only trusted in their actions here. Fuck what you said. If you can back it up, it becomes the truth. If you can’t you get 86’d. This lifestyle is like a week-long binge of caffeine, cocaine, stress, and instead of sleep you get to replace that with pain and watching the hours tick by as your life slowly comes to a halt seemingly. That’s when it happens. You take a breath and realize that you’re getting high off this shit. I mean, how could you not? Think about it. When you’re buried deep in tickets on a Friday night at 7:30 and it’s looking bleak, what do you do? You down the line and see the eyes of your team. You can see how much red they have in their eyes. You can see that they are tired. But they are still giving it all they got. You can see a little piece of their soul leaving the light in their eyes. Only to be sacrificed to the kitchen gods. Which is funny because the kitchen is a very neutral yet lawless place. In some instances, the end of your life seems very near. At other times, it’s a place where you ask death “ What do you see?”. Death can’t answer your question. Even death is afraid of the lifestyle we live in. So if death is afraid of us, and heaven doesn’t accept our kind, where do we belong? That answer is simple. At your fucking station. Let’s face it, we don’t do what we do to die. We do what we do to find out just how alive we are. And anyone else who’s on the line with you can tell you that you’ve never felt more alive than when you’ve had a little bit of yourself die on the inside. There’s a Sun Tzu quote that I’ve always liked that can be applied to this exact feeling. “ If quick, I’ll survive. If not quick. I am lost. This is death.” Wait, didn’t I just say that death wants nothing to do with us though? Well, good job at paying attention. Clearly, you’re able to read tickets. So that’s a plus. Death doesn’t want to step toe to toe with anyone doing what we do best. Death knows that it won’t kill our passion. For if death does take us, it would embarrass itself in the afterlife. Our strength is our passion for our craft. A passion that could only be portrayed in a piercing yell that echoes in the great hall in the afterlife. A yell that’s so ferocious, that it even shakes death to its core. A passion that burns so deeply in our chests, that we sometimes defy even death. Can you sit down and count how many cigarettes you’ve smoked? How many beers and shots you’ve had? What about how many sleepless nights you’ve had, knowing tired. But you’re way too tired to fall asleep. Only people who have been to this point can tell you what it’s like. This is what truly tests a person meddle. Their purpose for living. This is what creates good times, and bad times. It’s in my professional opinion that I say you don’t know shit until you’ve worked an 18-hour shift on 3 hours of sleep. And repeated that for a 4 day period. That shit is intense. Are there worse situations? Oh hell yes. Are there easier ones? Yes, there are. But I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the types of shifts where taking your shoes off when you get home, hurts your feet to the point of having to soak them in cold water to stop the throbbing. But guess what happens when you wake up? Hurting or not, your ass is about to that shit again. Why, what else are you going to do? Try your hand at selling cars? Good luck. I don’t want that working for you. You hate paperwork and don’t like sitting in one place very long. I know this because I hate those things as well. We do what we do because we are good at anything else. And because you can’t get the type of interesting life that the kitchen can provide, anywhere else. Think you can get high off of selling a few cars? And no, huffing fumes don’t count. Though it does explain a lot about your life choices.
In the end, our kitchens are our family. Like it or not. We make friends and co-workers for life. How many other places in life can you say that you liked someone do to how fast they are at plate setups? Ok like one other place and all that’s coming to mind is something about painting your own pottery place where you went to paint a plate once because you won a gift card and no one would buy it off you. So you smoked two joints and went to see what it’s all about. Yeah, they don’t like it when you walk in smelling like you just had lunch with snoop dogg. But hey, that plate I painted would have looked awesome. That is if I would have remembered to go back and get it. There’s an old Vietnamese proverb that comes to mind when reflecting on the kitchen lifestyle. “ Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.” See the way I take that is this- no matter how different, we are all important. Though similar, we all have a purpose. And it’s our purpose to prepare the best dishes that we can. All-day, every day. Each plate should leave the window looking like a glimpse into beauty beyond measure. And taste like a blissful state that can’t be described in words. Well damn, that’s an ass load of pressure for every plate, for every seat, for every ticket on the rail, for every shift. That’s what it’s like to cook. Creating perfection consistently, all the time. Sometimes faster than we can think.
But when I mention the act of thinking, I can’t help but admit that thinking is something that we all do at work. Let me prove it. How many people have you worked with that was only doing this line of work to help launch their rap careers? No seriously, how many? I want to know. That would be neat as hell. But my point is, that would take a great deal of thinking. I’d make a terrible rap artist. I’m too ADD. And all I’m good at is cooking. Not that I haven’t taken the time to learn anything else, no. My passion is food. I always miss it when I’m away from the kitchen for too long. Like I've said before, it’s an addiction. An addiction that cannot be fulfilled anywhere else. I know, I've tried. My passion for my craft can’t be erased. But the ability to pay my bills in today's shit economy far outweighs my passion sometimes. Trust me, I wish you could pay for things with passion. If that were the case, I'd be Oprah rich. But that’s not the case. Fact is, the economy is terrible. But we still have to keep moving forward. And that’s where I feel our industry is made up of super heroes. We are the only industry that can bend time, and still have the will and strength after a full service of hundreds of plates to do it again the next day. Are we actually insane?
What is sanity? Is it worth having? Why does it seem like no one in this world is sane anymore? For us with knives in our hands on a daily basis, we question our own sanity daily. Shit, almost hourly sometimes. It’s hard to do what we do. Even when it would seem like an easy day. Our profession still finds a way to test our patience. From people calling off because they need a mental health day to people dying because they thought that heroin and playing in traffic was a good idea. You never know what’s going to happen. But hey, some of us like not knowing what’s coming up next. We like living life on our toes. But what happens when you want to give your feet a rest? It would seem that your duty to the kitchen gods would more of you whenever you have that thought in your head. The kitchen doesn’t care about what you’ve done. It’s about what you’re going to do and what’s coming next. And it’s the next that always seems overwhelming at first. But hey, it won’t kill you. And if it does, then you died with kitchen honors. And that’s like a golden ticket into Valhalla. So you’re good, right?
There is however, something that can’t be measured on an emotional level in the kitchen. This issue is something that some of us have had to deal with before, and we know all too well the pain involved. The emptiness leftover from having your knives stolen. Trust me, you haven’t felt a loss like this, if this hasn’t happened to you. It hurts on a deeper level than just losing a lighter. It’s a matter of betrayal at this point. Like who the fuck does that to someone? Was it the person who just no-called no-showed? Was it the person who put in their two weeks? Or is it someone still on your crew? This feeling goes deep. And sometimes can create very toxic environments in some cases. But at the same time, let’s take a look at the type of person who would do this. In my opinion this type of person isn’t thinking correctly. And it’s most likely an addiction acting through them. But wait a minute, this doesn’t replace the fucking knives or spoons in my roll. Well, no it doesn’t you’re not wrong. But it does give you a tiny bit of closure. Now, I hope this doesn’t happen to anyone else. Because it sucked when it happened to me. You don’t know true rage until you’ve felt your blood boil over something like this. But as a career cook, you know you should keep your composure. I looked at it like someone just trying to stop me from succeeding. Thinking that taking away my tools will stop me. Thing is, it’s not the knives that make a good cook. It’s the know how. The knives only help. Adapting and overcoming are part of our daily jobs. So how is this any different really? Sadly, it’s not anything new. There are those who will try and stop us from being better than they are. For whatever their reasons, trust me when I say that they've already justified it a million times over in their heads. And it couldn’t have happened any other way. It sucks so much. But adapt and overcome. Consider it the kitchen gods testing you. On the plus side, we all love new knife shopping. So silver linings and what not, right? I guess, but that can’t replace the knife my mom gave to me, asshole. I hope it bit you once or twice. Don’t steal shit. It’s not nice, and you’re better than that.
So how am I able to say that this type of career is a good life? Sounds like a shitshow thus far doesn’t it? Well, show me another job out there that demands more respect, i’ll wait. See, you can taste emotions in the flavors a cook uses to create something. The smells, the look, all of that is artwork. And that same artwork is made hundreds of times. Made in more than one way, this dish must have the same outcome and flavor each and every time. You can tell when a dish is rushed. And when it’s made by someone who doesn’t care. That’s a science that very few can say they are privy to. I feel bad for the careers who don’t get to dabble in the realm of being able to taste emotions. Because when flavored correctly, food cures certain emotions. Ok i’ll prove it, anything with chocolate or bacon in it. Boom, science. I jest. But who would rather sit back and eat some bacon versus fighting with someone who just called an asshole because you wouldn’t discount their bill because “ you should know who I am, I'm the mayor’s wife's cleaning lady’s cousin’s sister’s dog walker.” Yeah, bacon is a better choice in that situation.
In the end there are those who will want to disprove everything I’ve said. So let me get this straight, you actually have the extra time to read this and then make the time time disprove me? Ok, then are you actually working in a kitchen? If you’ve ever stepped foot in one, you’d know that these things happen. And that these thoughts are what swirl through your head while you prep for the day. If you don’t think about anything aforementioned, then I feel like you’re missing the point of the good life. The good life here can be simply defined as this: a place you can go to when you need to be mentally,physically,and emotionally tested daily. A place where you can be proud to take your apron off after service and know you did good. So don’t take that away from us by assuming this isn’t a good life. The kitchen is a place where only certains principles and ethics can be taught. Some, it would seem, the world is missing these days.
Rodney Lienhart is a Chef formerly of McKenzie, TN but is now working and residing in the Lansing, MI area. Starting at the young age of 7 years old. He worked his way through the ranks in his mom’s kitchen in the hills of tennessee. With a background in nouvelle and southern cuisine, he uses what he knows to learn more about what he doesn’t. When he isn’t putting a flame on a saute pan, he can be found reading and researching about what makes people tick. A massive overindulgence in psychology has led him here to share what he has witnessed in his experiences. You can follow his story and insight into the world of cooking food @chef_rodney_117 on Instagram.