chef veronica with student

Self-Care: The One Tool That Every Busy Chef Needs

By Tracy Leonard-Turi, Professional Culinary Arts ’16

The animated displays of chaos simmering away in celebrity kitchens seem to exist almost exclusively for the entertainment of today’s audiences.

Today’s fans, encompassing a broad spectrum of people, and palates, of varying sophistication have been educated by Netflix, PBS, YouTube, and Food Network shows that trot out continuous lineups of hip chefs (some of whom aren’t even real chefs) bedecked in impressive, full-sleeve tattoos. They move through their stations like a choreographed dance, executing plate after plate with precision. It all looks like a great frolic on a Saturday night.

Yes, we admire chefs because of their artisanship and the intimate bond they create with others through their food. They are also brilliant multitaskers, who simultaneously maintain complete focus on the immediate task at hand and elegantly MacGyver solutions to numerous problems over the course of any given evening. They live every day in the trenches, burning the candle at both ends as a badge of honor, while devoting themselves purely to the pleasure of others. And they execute their roles with pitch perfect Instagram-readiness, under the scrutiny of numerous stakeholders: customers, critics, and social media influencers, who often know little about the food on their plates, but nevertheless wield tremendous power over the kitchen staff. And at the beginning of every new day, they have to prove themselves all over again.

What chefs do every day is truly heroic, but the operational tempo that is required of them is simply not sustainable by mere mortals.

Craftsmanship aside, chefs teach us how to struggle with love, loss, passion, and devotion and still come out the other end in one piece, sometimes against all odds. But even if you thrive (as many chefs do) on choreographed pandemonium, its pressures can become physically and mentally tiring over time.

And nobody knows better than ICC Chef Instructors April Stamm, who is also a single mom, and Veronica Lindemann, who learned in the trenches at some of the top restaurants in the country and as the first female to work in Chef (and ICC Dean Emeritus) Alain Sailhac’s New York City landmark kitchen, Le Cirque. According to Chef April, every year in the hospitality business is a lean year. “Hospitality work means long, hard, hot hours, on little sleep and, in the beginning, entry-level salaries.” They know from experience how to thrive in this industry, both professionally and personally.

Self-care means maximizing efficiencies at work and taking care of yourself at home.

First, bottom line, treat your daily life as an exercise in operations management:

  • Prepare and plan. Chef Veronica recommends that chefs be clean and organized, to make lists, and to analyze the pros and cons of every experience. She encourages them to know their industry and to get to know food; to learn and discover their proclivities and interests; and to ultimately find the best personal fit, based on their energy level.
  • Tune In. Chef Veronica encourages everyone to understand their environment, “Be aware. Be alert. Be awake. Pay attention to what’s around you and focused on what you are doing.”
  • Cultivate a work ethic. Both chefs agree that it is important to leave problems at home, roll up your sleeves and become totally absorbed with the task at hand. Chef Veronica admonishes everyone to “Work clean, keep your ears and eyes open. Listen to direction and follow it to the best of your ability. Show up early, leave after everything is done. Never say, ‘that’s not my responsibility.’”
  • Develop mental resilience. Get out of your own way and don’t take things personally. Chef Veronica recognizes that one of the most difficult issues she had to overcome was her own struggles. “If I stopped judgment of myself and stayed open to learning, it went well.” In hindsight, she observed that, “Having a mentor I trusted would have helped.”
  • Hone your social skills. Maintain a sense of humor, be a good teammate and communicate clearly. It is vital to remain open to new ways of thinking and doing. Chef Veronica also adds, “Be pleasant. Humble. Leave your ego and problems at the door.” Don’t take comments of others personally. Chef April agrees, adding that “Being open to constructive criticism and being able to openly give constructive criticism is so important.”

Second, promote habits that bolster physical, mental and spiritual resilience.

  • Feed your mind. Both chefs agree that it is vital to trust in your own skills while also learning new ones. Chef April’s advice is to keep studying and hone the techniques you already have.
  • Feed your body. Once upon a time, Chef Veronica, who started supporting herself at the age of 18, subsisted on Oodles of Noodles, Family Meal, or nothing at all. “I regret my late nights out after work and often going into the following morning. It made work that much more difficult.” These days, for peak brain and body performance, she starts her day with a rocket-fueled smoothie, the occasional hard-boiled egg and a boost of caffeine.
  • Feed your spirit. Chef Veronica adds that it’s important to stay positive and believe in your ideas. She leans heavily on values that nurture her, like loyalty and honesty, doing good, living a life of integrity, and maintaining a strong moral compass. She also relies on meditation to ground and calm her.

Chef Veronica was compelled to become a chef because of the joy she felt when making food for others. Like Chef April says, “It MUST be a labor of love and if it is, it is completely worth it.” But, Chef April notes that openness is one of the most important values to foster in a kitchen. “I think, in kitchens (and in life, honestly) it is vital to be open to new ways of thinking, new ways of doing.” And being open creates positivity. Chef Veronica has cultivated numerous talents over the years, like painting, yoga, meditation, and the Gyrotonic body training method. She emphasizes that because she remains open to new things, they chose her, not the other way around. “I feel like a channel for everything I do. It’s the gift of life.”

Tracy Leonard-Turi has a Master’s in Education and a Grand Diploma in Professional Culinary Arts from the International Culinary Center in Manhattan. She is also a Creative Director at WEforum, an organization led by women whose mission is to strengthen the health and wellness of communities in New Jersey.