Friday, August 3, 2012
Chef John Foster: Aging cooks and their sore backs … will they have a place in the kitchen?
My back hurts and my shoulder also. My knife callous is a little raw from infrequent use followed by a burst of activity. And I notice that my hands smell like garlic and onions, faintly. I’ve just taken my Sullivan University students down to the Farmers Market again and my body is suffering slightly from the effects.
I’m not an old man by any means. If 65 is the new 55 then I am well within the young pup range. But in the culinary world, very much like the sports world, age is of serious concern to employee and employer alike.
I started in the food business as a dishwasher 36 years ago, certainly a position that requires stamina, strength and speed. The manual dexterity that often starts to fade as we get older is not as relevant to the dishwasher as it is to the cook. Neither is the requirement that I hold 30 orders in my head at once while my chef is yelling 15 more to me from the expediting station. So the potential is there to work into retirement age from the disher part of the kitchen.
On the plus side, it is a position that requires good organizational skills and a dogged work ethic that perseveres to the end of the shift, attributes I have noticed lacking in my younger cooks. But there is a negative and it involves the head rather than the body, the ego instead of the aching back. It’s good to be king, of the kitchen especially. Not so good to be the deposed king, or even the one whose skills are failing him on the long slide down from his perch. If that slide ends in the dish tank, God forbid at a local restaurant, it can be worse than just an embarrassment, it can sometimes be a repudiation of what you might have built in the first place.
Certainly there are plenty of alternatives. Management outside the kitchen – most good chefs have excellent skills, and while they may not be in business, I have found they are transferable. Sales is another avenue for an older chef or cook. Intimate knowledge of what to buy and how to buy takes the mystery out of the supply and demand of the kitchen.
I have found that teaching, a logical continuation of training new cooks, can not only be rewarding but also provide some opportunities to cook alongside a new generation without the stress or daily demand of service. Or you can, as an older chef, just keep plugging away until you literally drop, and that has happened as well.
This is a topic of conversation that has begun to take on new meaning for me. As recent as my start at Sullivan University, now six years ago, I thought I would cook forever. Mine was to be a brief foray into education and then another restaurant of my own. I am continually asked about another Harvest when and where that may be, and I must admit that it always presents some interesting scenarios. But there will be a time, hopefully in the distant future when that door will close for good and then I will be glad that I have some options to fall back on. As for now, the fact remains that as we retire at an older age, my industry will face the growing issue of aging cooks and where they fit in the kitchen.
On a related note, there is an infinitesimal blip on the subject of kitchens and age from a completely different perspective: that of the young cook that is not fit enough physically and mentally to handle the rigors of a professional kitchens. I do not bring this up merely to draw attention away from my aching back, but to pass along an observation or two about the health of the future chef generation. Make sure that you stay in shape. We say it’s a young person’s profession; we should amend that to say a young, fit person’s profession. And do your homework, if you can concentrate long enough on the task at hand and not on the thousand entanglements that the 21st century places in our way. If you can accomplish that feat on a daily basis, the age issue on both ends of the scale becomes that much easier to handle.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.