Are Chefs happy? One way to answer this question is to determine, if chefs enjoy their job?
Whilst this is a tricky question to answer in the micro sense, as everyone has their own struggles to deal with, I can certainly use my experiences as a former chef to help answer the question in the macro sense.
We hear the word passion thrown around a lot when discussing a kitchen career. If we are doing something that we are passionate about then we must be happy, right? I guess that would be the theory, but in my experience the biggest factor in whether or not a chef is happy is at what point they are on the career ladder.
In my personal experience, my happiest time as a chef was whilst working at commis chef and chef de partie level. To put it another way; I was most happy when I was relatively new to kitchen life.
Thats my answer in a nutshell. The first 6 or so years of my career where great and I would say looking back I was very happy.
So what was it about this time that made me enjoy being a chef so much? What happened for me to realise that I was now waking up a little less happy than before?
Did I Enjoy Being A Commis Chef?
When I secured my commis chef position I remember the great excitement I felt going into work.
It would be fair to say that I was fairly ambitious (as many young people are). All I could see ahead of me was a great road of opportunity. A career in which the harder I worked the more I would be rewarded.
This hope for the future, and feeling like life is going our way, is really important to everyone’s happiness.
That being said, planning for, and anticipating a bright future is great; so long as we don’t find ourselves living in the future, putting all current plans on hold for a greener tomorrow.
For me personally this wasn’t the case. I really enjoyed the work that I was doing.
Although as a commis I was at the bottom of the hierarchy ladder, I was not fazed. The great thing about being at the bottom of any career ladder is the lack of overall responsibility.
Of course, as a commis chef you are still expected to perform, but ultimately if things are going wrong it is the chef de partie of the section who is responsible to get things back on track.
At this stage the responsibility was low and the learning curve was steep. The amount of knowledge I was gaining made me feel like I was absorbing information like a sponge. Everyday I finished my shift with a head full of new dishes and techniques.
The sheer amount of knowledge I was gaining made the hard work feel like a fair trade off. You work many long hours, but in return, a lot of time and energy is being spent by others on your career development.
I can certainly say during my time as a commis chef I was very happy. I can’t speak directly for my beginner chef colleagues, but they always seemed to be enjoying themselves (sometimes a little too much!) Therefor I would certainly say the other commis chefs appeared happy.
Did I Enjoy Being A Chef de Partie?
As I have already eluded to the fact that I was happy as a chef de partie, there is no point in me trying to build up some level of suspense as to whether or not it all fell apart once I was given a section to run!
Quite the opposite. A promotion to chef de partie represented a great step up the career ladder that I was more than happy to take.
Although in reality there isn’t much difference between the attitude towards a senior commis chef and a chef de partie, it is nice to get the beginner commis label off your shoulders.
The step up represented a new set of challenges, such as having to instruct other chefs what to do whilst also ultimately bearing the brunt for any mistakes the section made.
Looking back, these challenges are most likely what helped to keep my happiness levels high.
I still felt like I was learning on a daily basis, with the added benefit of feeling like an ingrained member of the team. By this point I had worked with some of my fellow chefs for several years and I had made some really good friendships which all contributed to overall enjoyment and happiness.
As we all know, it is very hard to pinpoint happiness. I have recalled my feelings at the time, as best as I can remember. I guess what it comes down to is that I have fond happy memories or my earlier chef years.
I should make mention to the fact that I was in my early 20s at the time. Perhaps this happiness is not due to my career choices but just the happiness of being young with boundless energy?
Like trying to pinpoint happiness, it’s hard to determine exactly when discontent started to set it. Whilst I was certainly not unhappy going forward from this point, it would be hard to say I was completely happy.
Did I Enjoy Being A Sous Chef?
After taking a sous chef role I threw myself into the challenge, again I was learning new skills (such as running an entire kitchen). I was earning more money and also getting more respect from my fellow chefs.
By this point though something was beginning to change.
The pace of learning slowed down. Suddenly I was spending less time cooking, spending more and more of my time on the phone to suppliers. I also needed to cover staff shortages resulting in last minute shift changes.
I always found the responsibility of running the kitchen whilst the head chef had his two (well deserved) days off a week weighed heavy on my shoulders.
Missing my split shift breaks was becoming more common as I would meticulously plan to have everything ready for service time.
If I had to try and pin point it, it is around this time I would say I became unhappy as a chef. I started to question if this is how I wanted my life to be for the next 30 or 40 years!
The truth is, I knew I was in trouble when I started having these thoughts. Being a chef relies on a dogged determination to get to your own personal goal, and a great love for the job you do.
I guess I stopped enjoying cooking. Instead of a kitchen being a place I loved to be in full of great banter and friends, it became a place I begrudged. Constantly saying no to all social events due to work meant that I started to blame work for areas of life I felt where lacking in meaning.
What I have just described was not an overnight event. A switch wasn’t suddenly flicked from me being happy as a chef too unhappy as a chef. Instead it was a gradual process, and realisation over the final few years of my career.
As before, I cannot speak for all chefs but I can speak about how I viewed others happiness. In my opinion lots of chefs get to this point in their career, the point where it becomes a job they are more than competent doing, and for the first time start to internally question the career they have chosen.
It is at this point some chefs become unhappy.
Those that stop enjoying the career tend to leave the industry or look for alternative types of chef work better suited to their wants. A career as a chef, with the long hours and working conditions make it very difficult to stay unhappy for very long. Once a chef stops enjoying it, they tend to seek change relatively quickly.
Of course, there are huge numbers of chefs who are extremely happy every day in their work! They love what they do and wouldn’t want any other career path.
Some chefs pursue Michelin stars, others open their own restaurants, all of whom would not be able to achieve these goals if they where unhappy or didn’t enjoy the career.
Overall, I would say that chefs are a happy bunch. Younger chefs are happy as they have their careers ahead of them (helped by the happiness of youth) and older chefs are happy as they are doing what they love. Those chefs who are unhappy tend to seek out other opportunities.
I’ve yet to work in, or hear of a kitchen that’s full of grumpy people. The energy levels of the kitchen make for an exciting work place and for the most part a brigade full of happy chefs!