Our work is key

On Thursday, the UK government “those involved in the production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery of food” as Key Workers.

I cannot confirm whether that list includes chefs, but I know that a number of businesses are still getting food delivered to customers and healthcare workers. In any case, this should fundamentally shift how we esteem our service.

We have always believed that it has been largely under-appreciated. We price our food on the value that our customers think they are getting. We live and die by the whimsical judgements of critics and ratings guide inspectors. It takes one bad review to undermine our self-belief, even when our loyal fans rave about us.

Whether you have had to close your doors last week or whether you are anxious about which kitchen will be your next home, all around you is the reflection that feeding people is essential to the sustenance of life itself.

Our work is the light

For everyone in the Hospitality industry who is facing uncertainty over their livelihood, I want to share the higher truth: that our work is the light. Serving people requires an opening of the heart, which is the polar opposite of the fear, suspicion, selfishness and separation that are arising as consequences of this pandemic. That’s not a judgement: many are forced to fear the very air that sustains their lives.

Even if our potential to serve is taken away from us temporarily, can you ever imagine such a positive force not being triumphant in the end?

Respecting creative energy

Image shot by Margaret Bourke-White in 1946

To conclude this series on creativity and spaciousness, I will leave you with this image of Mahatma Gandhi. During his imprisonment by the British in the early 1920s, he would spend part of his day spinning yarn on a wheel similar to the one in the photograph.

Just imagine the weight Mahatma Gandhi carried on his shoulders: that of leading India’s fight for freedom against colonial rule. But with his hands tied, he chose to channel his creative energy into a simple task that allowed him to preserve his spirit (and that of his people) through those most challenging of times.

Learning how to manage your energy is the very essence of work-life balance. But it’s totally worthwhile – even if it’s the hardest thing to do when you’re in a kitchen.

Respecting creativity

“The courage to be happy also includes the courage to be disliked” – from the book I am currently enjoying called The Courage to be Disliked (by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga)

From its earliest days, our profession has been about impressing and delighting our customers. Even though we satisfy a very functional requirement – everyone needs to eat. In our very efforts to outdo ourselves, our customer’s expectations and each other, we have set something of a trap for ourselves.

Now, with our food being under more scrutiny than ever before, creative burnout is becoming a reality for many in this industry. This is a topic that requires a series in itself, but one thing is clear: as chefs we need to learn how to respect our own creativity.

Acknowledging that we are here

To all the women who work in kitchens: I hope you fully appreciate what you bring to the industry through your presence. Whether you strive hard to strike a balance between your work and raising a family, or whether a lot of your energy is spent in fighting for your place in the kitchen, the truth is that the journey of a female chef is still far from easy.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fact that we are here. That we make it happen.

White space

Image: Daria Shevtsova

In the creative arts, white space is just as important as the elements that make up a painting or a design. It brings context and clarity to its creator’s work. To the viewer or the person enjoying the artwork, white space brings with it relief and the opportunity to process what their experience.

We apply this in our work too – as much as we love feeding people, we would never crowd a plate to its rim with food. But somehow, that principle never made it into our actual work culture.

Context and clarity, relief and the opportunity to process are crucial to all our lives, but especially when you are starting out as a chef and learning new skills.

So why do we rush to fill the white space in the kitchen?

Sustaining creativity – 4

Image source: DesignBoom.com

In his TED Talk titled The Power of Time Off, designer Stefan Sagmeister shared how he closed his studio for a creative sabbatical once every seven years. During this period, his team would not take on any commercial clients, but engage in a whole year of experiments.

Not stepping away from your work can affect its quality: he chose to structure his business this way when he noticed their creative ideas getting repetitive. Refreshed from pursuing their own creative projects, the quality of their work improved and as a result, they were able to command higher fees, giving them a return on the time and money they invested in themselves.

The power of time off is accessible to all of us and our teams: a creative sabbatical can be scaled down. Even something as simple as a day of volunteering helps. Anything that takes us out of our usual routines and ways of working.

Sustaining creativity – 3

Image source: Art21

Sometimes the stepping away from our work comes from something we did not choose voluntarily. Illness, injury or dealing with life changes might appear to be obstacles on our professional journeys, causing interruptions and delays, but those gaps in continuity are never futile.

Not dissimilar to how a chef works, artist Julie Mehretu produces paintings that are both large in scale and extremely elaborate in detail. In Mason Curry’s book Daily Rituals: Women at Work, I came across her wisdom on enforced breaks or interruptions in our work:

“When I had my first child, and I would be in the studio but I wouldn’t be working, and I would just be staring – I felt really guilty about it,” Mehretu said. “But then I realised it’s such an important part of the process, and so much comes from that process of just connecting with the work in a way where you intuitively know it…It’s not a rational knowledge of the work.”

Stepping back

When it comes to the processes we engage in every day, we know better than to cut corners. If something requires rest, then we let it rest. We might make a study of how we can accelerate or make the process more efficient: my point is that we engage with it intimately.

Given that we are the instruments of our work, we should be able to draw on that same kind of intimate knowledge of ourselves. “How do I work best?” “How can I do my work better?” “What do I need to be able to be effective?” “What really makes a difference to how I show up to every shift?”

Instinctively, we know that resting is the answer to some of those questions above. But when guilt or fears of falling behind pervade our consciousness, we cut ourselves of from our own inner wisdom, which is in fact, pilots our creativity.

If we accept ours to be a creative profession, then we have to get comfortable with the fact that stepping away from our work is essential to the creative process.