Sanctuary & Insane Asylum, A Cook’s Pilgrimage in the Kitchen

One day a cook wakes up and says, “I’m going to take this kitchen life seriously.” From then on, this cook begins the journey of self-discipline. Whether that means partying less or reading more, the key is getting in the mindset.

For us food is everything and it defines everything. We are just the vessel transmitting energy through each plate served.

What follows after are long hours of labor that leave muscles sore, mind exhausted, and skin scarred. The kitchen becomes the chapel of labor that lures you away from your family. Friends fade and lovers move on with resentment as you make progress in this pilgrimage of humility and dedication, a labor embalmed in sacrifice. One day you look at the calendar and think, “Shit, this many years have passed already?”

You get close to other cooks and form bonds. You learn from one another. You give one another moral support over broken bottles of Jameson, splitting drags of smoke from the last Newport in urine-stained alleys. You discuss the events of the last shift. You obsess over your performance, you obsess over food. Then, just a few hours later, the next morning, you grind harder. You pick up shifts. You learn from the chef. You start to think like one as you forge leadership skills. Your language is different now as a cohabitant of the basement jungle lined with stained and chipped white tiles as from the one you refer to as “civilian.”

Those who don’t know you would say that you have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, when in fact, all you are is clean and organized. You become more focused. Determined. You’re forming long-term goals. You dream of building a name for yourself as you climb the slippery steps. You help open restaurants and bakeries. You’re putting your dishes on the menu. You’re asked to attend important meetings where your opinions matter.

One day, you’re facing the opportunity to be a chef, to build your own team. To create your own menu. To run your own kitchen in the competitive environment encrusted with the talent of your peers. By this point, binge drinking and foolishly losing the little free time you have are no longer enticing.

One day you look at the calendar and think, “Shit, this many years have passed already?”

You reinvest in yourself as the new challenge you face is competitors with no culinary experience. You’re competing against trust-fund hipster babies and investment bankers who changed their careers. You’re competing against people who are pouring more money into promoting themselves than improving the quality of their product.

This is the moment when you face the mother of all battles. Ego. It surfaces and, rightfully so, spits fire at the impostors. You’re angry, overworked, underpaid, either single or in a relationship where you barely see your partner — all parts of a greater sacrifice made to become a better craftsman. You stand there fuming as they take titles and amass awards that downgrade the honor of what these institutions such as Michelin and James Beard represent. So you steal a flame from the fire and let it light your way.

You always have options. Choices. You can quit and do something else, or you can stay. If you stay, you can either accept that self-centered profit-chasers are often taking the lead in the industry and are chipping away at the food culture you’ve given your life to. Or, you can lower your gaze and take a deep breath as you refocus your energy and take off your gloves.

You think about ending your journey in the one place that is both a sanctuary and an insane asylum.

You remind yourself why you landed in the kitchen in the first place. You remember hardships. You ask yourself again that same question you asked yourself five years ago, “Where do I see myself five years from now?”

As you stand on the anchored ship with the flag at half mast, you remember the cooks and chefs who have died on the line, the ones who have suffered permanent physical damage — the ones who took their own life as if the sacrifice they offered wasn’t holy enough. You think about ending your journey in the one place that is both a sanctuary and an insane asylum.

You also remember good times.

As you try to find yourself in the star’s reflection of the calm waters that hold your vessel, you know that there are only two options from here — keep sailing, or jump ship. You don’t want to do either.

When you find yourself here, go to the shadiest and sketchiest places in town and order the cheapest dish on the menu. You won’t get an answer or a clue to what your next move in life should be, but you’ll probably make new friends.

For us food is everything and it defines everything. We are just the vessel transmitting energy through each plate served. Eventually everything comes to an end to give birth to something new. So the same way you planned your moves across your career, you start to plan your exit. Except, there are no exit signs, no gift shop on the way out, as there is no retirement for a kitchen warrior. Just food, tattooed like a treasure map at the core of your being.

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