To Keep Your Life Happy and Balanced, Use These Chefs' Recipes for Staying Calm

Start by applying mise en place to your everyday life.

<p>Food & Wine / Getty</p>

Food & Wine / Getty

“You’ve got 16 other hours a day to live your life. You need to check your bulls*** at the door for the eight hours you’re here.”

I can’t even count how many times a boss said that to me. I don’t want to count how many times I repeated it, minimizing the person in front of me to a role as simply a worker, not a human. People die, birthdays happen, and long-term relationships end. Still, we, as hospitality professionals, are taught those things don’t matter because there’s a crucial job to do. People need to eat and are paying for our hospitality.

I have a friend, a fire department captain, who also worked in food service when he was younger. His job is to run into burning buildings and save lives. At the end of his shift, he goes home and lives a full life with his family and runs a couple of businesses. In stark contrast, he is still baffled by the chaos and urgency of restaurant life, where it’s tough to delineate work and personal lives with any clarity.

Related: The Food & Wine Pro Guide to Mental Health and Sobriety Resources

Why does differentiation between the two personas even matter? When I owned restaurants, my wife and I were partners, and our personal and professional lives were wholly intertwined. Any conversation could flow between work, home life, and back with zero effort. It wasn’t the healthiest arrangement, but it worked for us. Or at least we thought it did.

However, as I spoke with chefs about this topic, the recurring theme appeared: It’s about showing up. Showing up for the people in your life and showing up for your team in ways that matter is the embodiment of work/life balance. And I realized it hadn’t worked out so well for me.

Related: For the Maui Chef Community, the Fires Were Just the Beginning

Mise en place your personhood

“I noticed I would bring all that [work] stuff home to my wife and just unload it,” said 2015 F&W Best New Chef Cory Bahr, now chef and owner of Parish in West Monroe, Louisiana. “It really made her feel unheard and unappreciated. Like I didn't care about her day because all I wanted to do was come home and tell her about how Larry stuck his hand in the fryer. I was literally 'Work Cory' 24/7, 365.”

2023 F&W Best New Chef Aisha Ibrahim, Executive Chef of Canlis in Seattle, Washington, has a similar take, reflecting, “I was like, ‘Am I present enough for me with my people outside of work?’ It's a hard question to ask yourself when so many of us as professionals in the industry really form our identities around who we are in our workplace.”

Related: Chefs Share 10 Strategies for Finding That Ever-Elusive Work-Life Balance

“I let my vision of who I was hinge upon every guest’s opinion of what I did,” Bahr says. “I let the food I was cooking be the embodiment of who I was as a person.”

But William Dissen, chef and owner of The Marketplace in Asheville, North Carolina, got a wake-up call when he was in grad school from a boss who said, "Chef, you know, you really do a great job in the kitchen, but your life is screwed outside of work.”

Dissen was offended, responding that the man didn't know him outside of work but the boss was ready with a reply. "I can just tell. You look stressed out. I know you've burned the candle, both ends between work and school. You need to start applying mise en place to your everyday life.’

Chefs are experts in prioritization. We make lists for everything and keep lists of those lists to keep tasks on track and executed at the right time. Dissen explains that he started making lists for his personal life the same way he would do it in the kitchen. “One of the things that really helped me to get myself together was by trying to organize my life the same way I was organizing my mise en place. Through all the work and chaos that we all went through, I forgot a lot about being sustainable to myself.” With the help of those lists, he started organizing his days to prioritize his well-being.

What does well-being look like? It starts with intention

Every chef I spoke with leads with intentional exercise as a basis for grounding themselves. I, too, found the mental benefits of purposeful physical activity after decades of neglecting it. There wasn’t time in my day, or there was a pandemic, or some such convenient excuse.

Dissen’s second item on his daily prep list is exercise. “If I don't, I just find myself on my computer working or running around restaurants, doing all the things,” he says.

Related: 11 Chefs Share Their Self Care Strategies

Ibraham, a former athlete, chose an apartment with a gym to make it that much easier to build a workout into her routine. Bahr doesn’t mince words about his newly-developed habit, saying, “I exercise now even though it sucks. It’s terrible.”

Connections with one’s self or significant others are the next big steps for these chefs. “Is it OK to find joy outside work with my wife and not talk about work? Of course it is,” Ibraham says. Being married to another chef can complicate the separation of work and home, but the two dedicate weekly “Dubbub” (double-bubble) time with Champagne in a hot tub. Their rule during this time is that the only conversation topic is the future.

“We just try to think about where we want to see our life and how we're going to get there in a holistic, wholesome, fun, exciting way,” Ibrahim says.

Bahr revived the pieces of his past that had gone by the wayside, like hunting, fishing, and generally being outdoors. Dissen, similarly, tends towards nature and grounding. ”Going for a walk in the woods and it's quiet and you see the trees, smell the fresh air," he says. "Those are all things that help you settle your mind and be a little more at peace and feel more mindful and whole.”

Free your mind and the rest will follow — especially when you're the boss

So what do these actions that feed the person accomplish when it’s time to be the boss Thoughtfulness and connection are apt descriptors. Bahr made his own prep list comprising his top five priorities. If those line items are met, sweating the smaller details is inconsequential. “That's all I focus on now, because I used to play this insidious, infinite game of whack-a-mole. Every problem I had to have a solution for every time,” he says.

This new approach allows him to engage his staff, understand their situations and concerns, and constructively address them. “We have a defined set of hours that we work, and if the job doesn't get done, do you know what? Screw it," Bahr says. "If we come up with a dish that's too much of a pain in the ass, no matter how delicious it is, it doesn't go on the menu. We build barriers between us and those unnecessary, unrealistic stresses, and I have almost zero turnover now.”

Related: If You Want a Healthy Kitchen, Lead from the Top Down

Dissen has also slowed down and put thought into his work approach. “You know, to be the consummate salesman, I just wrote a book called Thoughtful Cooking.” He now feels a better connection with the food, the people he works with, and his customers.

“There's probably a friend or someone in your family somewhere with whom you were able to connect through food. It's powerful, you know; you don't get that when you're sitting down with your accountant. You're not like, 'Man, you really helped me become a little more mindful and happy today.'”

"Anthony Bourdain drew analogies of the kitchen as a pirate ship, and Dissen would like a little more Yacht Rock in his world."

Greg Baker

Calm the seas

Anthony Bourdain drew analogies of the kitchen as a pirate ship, and Dissen would like a little more Yacht Rock in his world. “I think as the captain of the ship, my job is to try to slow the ship down and make it more of an electric cruise ship than a pirate ship. We want calm waters and to put the Beach Boys on.”

When it’s time to disengage from work, there’s additional grounding on each chef’s part. Bahr adds 15 to 20 minutes to his drive home to shake off the day's rigors, enabling him to be present when he gets home rather than dwelling on the minor issues that arise daily. Dissen prescribes an end-of-the-night walk, and Ibrahim spends time with her dogs saying, “They're constantly a reminder for me when I get home that it's time to put everything else down and be emotionally available to something that needs you to be there.”

Related: What to Do with the Empty Hour

Conspicuously absent in these rituals is the post-shift trip to the bar many of us availed ourselves of in years past. Dissen describes the shift as “slugging beers at two o'clock in the morning to going to the gym at 8 a.m.” Each chef has witnessed or experienced the pitfalls of self-medication and its detrimental effects on the connected mindfulness of their present state.

I started writing this piece focusing on the rituals people in hospitality use to distinguish between work and personal time as a matter of self-care. These were small things, like changing your shoes at the end of a shift, signaling that work is over and personal time is in effect. When I started speaking with my peers, I found that a more full-time commitment to disengagement leads to better engagement in their work life and ultimately creates a better work environment — and a better story for all of us.

For more Food & Wine news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on Food & Wine.