How to Make a Living After You Walk Away From Being a Restaurant Chef

It's hot in a restaurant kitchen. It’s also notorious for long, physically demanding hours, and often lacks equitable pay or benefits. It's difficult to mesh with the demands of family planning and participation. Worst case scenario, it’s an environment rife with toxic egos, proximity to substance abuse, and that's complicated further if you're neither white nor male.

It’s hot and hard in the kitchen. And this is why so many chefs arrive at a point of professional pivot.

I’m a bit of an anomaly. The kitchen is my second career, having spent a decade as a journalist prior to cooking professionally. I took my first kitchen job in my mid-30s at The Minzar, a legendary 24-hour bar in Tel Aviv. Immediately curious about the detail-oriented world of fine dining, I reached out to a local chef about staging at her luxury dining club. Her first question was. “How old are you?” She was skeptical of my entering the kitchen at the age so many others were when looking to leave.

I Love That You Watched 'The Bear' but Here's What You Still Need to Understand About Working in Restaurants
Some 15 years later and I’ve aged into my late 40s, in stark contrast to an industry that employs a much higher proportion of younger workers than the overall economy. According to a March 2022 National Restaurant Association restaurant brief, 37% of restaurant and foodservice employees are under the age of 25 and 60% are under the age of 35. 

Melissa Lynne Torre, 45, founded Vellum Street Soap in 2015 in Philadelphia, PA. She started her career in the food industry as a server and bartender after dropping out of high school. During that time, she would bake cookies and muffins for her friends and colleagues. Once word got out regarding her baked goods, it wasn’t long before she was fielding private orders, selling at farmers markets and then opening up her own bakery. Torre explains that Cookie Confidential, which operated from 2010 to 2015, "opened with very little money and a tiny little oven with a capacity to bake four trays at a time." 

The Food & Wine Pro Guide to Mental Health and Sobriety Resources
By the time Torres shuttered the business, she was still working out of that same oven with a production capacity of up to 2000 cookies per day. That’s on top of cupcake jars, ice cream, and waffle breakfast sandwiches to meet the demands of the storefront, a food truck, and wholesale accounts. With no option to expand to gas (zoning wouldn’t allow for a hood) and cost restrictions to upgrade the building’s electricity to run a larger oven, production schedules fluctuated from 14-17 hours per day. 

While these numbers aren’t unheard of when it comes to small and independent food businesses, that’s a hell of a lot to deal with. So it’s little wonder that, when Torre started to experience an exacerbation of joint pains due to Lyme disease, which she had contracted at a young age, that burnout was inevitable. To complicate the matter further, she figured out it was the wheat that was triggering her sickness. “I had to quit after a couple more years. I just couldn’t take it,” she says.

What Does It Mean to Feel Safe at Work?
You can take the chef out of the kitchen, but you can’t take the kitchen out of the chef.

For Torre, the transition from cookie baker to soapmaker was rather seamless. She had already been making skin care products from bacon fat and other waste ingredients that she generated at the bakery. Her grandma had suggested it as an alternative to the store-bought varieties to use on her eczema, a symptom of an autoimmune disease. But this proved an obvious extension of the path she had already embarked upon as a baker. “I really like seeing joy in people. I love being creative and working with my hands. I’m creating something where there wasn’t something before,” she explains.

This Restaurant Won't Have a Single Trash Can
Of her continued connection to food, Torre says, "I use food grade ingredients in all my products," explaining that she sources locally and seasonally, often directly from farmers, adding that her customers are often shocked to learn that, "80% of the ingredients are from an hour drive from where they are."

Call it fixation or passion or just seriously involved professional interest, it seems that food is a theme that former chefs just can’t shake. You can take the chef out of the kitchen, but you can’t take the kitchen out of the chef.

How It Feels to Close Your Restaurant for Good
To have operational empathy, you have to deeply understand the plight of the people that you're serving.

Josh Sharkey founded Meez, a culinary operating system that does menu engineering, food costing, and recipe organization, following five years as chief operating officer at Aurify Brands. Prior to that, he had a 20-year kitchen career at storied institutions including Tabla and Cafe Gray before opening Bark Hot Dogs in 2009 in Brooklyn, NY. He’s quick to admit that the process of creation that he loved so much in the kitchen plays an integral role in his career as an entrepreneur. “There's the process to cooking that I really love, but also the process of creating something and sharing it with other people,” he says. “This is something that fascinates me. The parallel here isn’t cooking to be honest, but it's creating new things. We’re creating new tech that didn’t exist before.”

But the 42-year-old CEO is also proud that he’s not the only former chef to be working at Meez. “We hire a lot of former chefs, partly because we’re selling to chefs," he explains. "We have these core principles in the company and the number one principal is operational empathy. I believe to have operational empathy, you have to deeply understand the plight of the people that you're serving.”

Nick Durbin spent eight years in the kitchen before leaving it behind 15 years ago. The 48-year-old VP of sales at Feeser’s Food Distributors echoes Sharkey’s sentiments, noting that 85% to 90% of his sales force formerly worked as chefs. “The word I use is empathy," Durbin says. "If you’ve never lived or stood in the clogs of the guy that you’re now trying to sell to you can be sympathetic but you can’t be empathetic.” 

Great Hospitality Starts with Empathy
You might still put in 65 to 70 hours, but you’re not tied to a stove within four walls.

The change in career path does not necessarily equate a complete abandonment of restaurant hours, though. “Your phone is your office and your customers are gonna call you whenever they’re gonna call you. You’re still very ingrained in the industry, just on a different side of it," Durbin says. "You might still put in 65 to 70 hours, but you’re not tied to a stove within four walls. You’re home on a Friday night and your phone might ring, but it’s not every Friday night. The work-life balance is better and the compensation is generally better on this side, as well.”

But Durbin, who got sober in 2005, notes that this change played a big part in his path out of the kitchen, and touched on some classic kitchen issues that are so present when we talk about the struggles of our industry. “Unless you are so singularly focused that the other things that help create a life don’t really matter," he says. "You start looking at this life and you know that there’s got to be a different way.”

The Private Chef Life Seems So Glam on the Surface, but Here's What Really Happens When You Hire One
Then there’s me, Ari Miller, 47 years old, currently a private chef looking to get back into a restaurant kitchen. I enjoy the professional environment of a functional kitchen committed to its food, employees, and community. I believe the passion and empathy that I apply in the kitchen is no different than that which Torres, Sharkey, and Durbin all describe utilizing in their careers beyond it. These are the valuable skills that any functional chef wields wherever they may find themselves. It is what makes us excellent workers, community leaders, and even philosophers. The fact that we’re all really into food just makes us more fun and awesome.
Previous Post Next Post