Staying healthy, whether from a physical or mental standpoint, is a difficult and challenging task for restaurant employees.

Oftentimes, overeating, insomnia, substance abuse, and simply destructive lifestyle choices are an all-too-common theme in kitchens. Addressing this problem early on is crucial, especially with today’s Millennial generation that grew up with electric—and typically immobile—stimuli.

My advice is simple: Pick the proper spiral. You can take two very different directions in this business, both with extremely varied results.

Let’s start with the darker side. I’ve been in kitchens where I’ve watched young employees walk in with a 12-pack of energy drinks. Coming from an athlete—I’m an avid swimmer, rock climber, and am currently training for a 100-mile run—that’s not the kind of boost you need to outlast the day. There are enough highs and lows in a kitchen without the crash associated with artificial nourishment. Drink plenty of water and make the right choices, and results will follow.

The other issue I see has to do with alcohol. There is typically a great deal of pressure to grab a drink, or two, with co-workers after a tough night. This is especially true with younger employees trying to fit in. Here’s how I see it: You’ve spent the past 16 hours arguing with these co-workers. Pass on the opportunity, go do something constructive, and before long, you will be back, socializing with the same crew.

Like everything in life, begin with small steps. It isn’t necessary to spend half of the day in a kitchen and the other half as an ultra-marathoner. Sign up for Pilates or yoga classes; go to the gym and run on the treadmill or lift some weights. It’s all part of an effort to balance out a hectic life. And it can be even smaller choices, like parking far away from the entrance so you need to walk to class or work, or taking the stairs instead of an elevator. Over time, these kinds of decisions will pay off, and they will set the foundation for even better ones to come.

Diet is also a conscious choice. I was part of a study a couple of years back where someone followed us around the kitchen, paying attention to everything we tasted. As it turned out, the study found that chefs consume 3,500 to 4,000 calories each day just from the crucial job function of tasting. That’s a necessary part of the profession, so there’s no way to cut it out. But when it comes time to pick daily meals, think about that fact. There’s a real danger of piling on pounds in this industry.

Habits are formed early on, and they tend to have a way of following us through life. That includes sleeping, which goes back to after-work choices. I’ve seen chefs become reliant on different drugs to help them overcome insomnia and other stresses. Once the downward spiral begins, it’s hard to turn it around. Making the right choices outside the kitchen can make sure those troubles never begin in the first place.

Sean Kahlenberg, is a lecturing instructor of culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America and a 2004 graduate. The Australian native has cooked professionally on four continents.
Chef Profiles, Feature, Health & Nutrition, Labor & Employees