Three chefs discuss the importance of taking time away from work to focus on health and wellness.
It’s the start of a new year and, as such, the time to establish new habits, revamped resolutions, and—for the foodservice industry in particular—fresh dedication to health and wellness.
Kitchen work is stressful, and the stakes are especially high in fine dining, with chefs anxious to please the customer at all costs. Once you factor in odd hours, always-available quantities of food and alcohol, and high levels of substance dependence, self-care becomes less of a splurge and more of a requirement.
We asked three industry experts how they focus on their own health inside of—and in spite of—the challenging foodservice industry.
Justin Newgaard, Corporate Executive Chef | Morrison Healthcare
Before I was a corporate chef, I was in the restaurant world. I loved restaurants, but one of the greatest happenings of my career was looking at things from a different aspect and realizing that I could work in food and healthcare.
Some of our greatest possible prescriptions come from food. My job is to step back and get back to basics, look at real food and how it can function for your body. I’m a plant-based eater myself, and from a chef’s point of view it’s great; your body feels right, and you’re performing at a higher level.
When I was in restaurants, I loved being in the kitchen. I was one of those weird people who wanted to live in the kitchen. But I advise people all the time that you’ve got to turn it off. You’ve got to go home, and you’ve got to find other hobbies. It’s difficult for someone who lives to put food on plates and make sure other people are enjoying it to step back, but you have to have a hobby. It could be shooting pool, working on a car, or spending time with family, but you have to take your mind off it.
A lot of young chefs come out of school bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and they get out in the real world and get burned out quickly. You have to learn to evaluate your career from different viewpoints; maybe you get a degree in a different area to fall back on, or maybe you take a step back and look for other ways to learn and work in food.
Lisabet Summa, Culinary Director, Big Time Restaurant Group | West Palm Beach, Florida
It has been difficult to focus on my own health because working as a chef is very time-consuming and can be an exhausting job that doesn’t leave enough hours in the day for exercise. I prioritize wellness every day for myself but also for the benefit of everybody that I work with; if I don’t start my day with a workout, I’m just not in as good of a mood or as focused, so I go to the gym before going to work.
We encourage our young chefs to live a healthy lifestyle. At the root of our cooking is health and wellness. I confront people who go out back for a break to make sure they aren’t going out back to smoke. If they are smoking, I talk to them about quitting and congratulate them if they do. I like to share my personal experiences and recommendations with people, such as the best footwear, how to deal with headaches, muscle aches, and fatigue. I’m always correcting posture; I often give chefs advice on how to stand in front of a cutting board, how to roll their shoulders back and not lock their knees. I also show them exercises that I’ve learned in physical therapy for issues that come with being a chef.
Alex Harrell, Chef, The Elysian Bar | New Orleans
The single biggest thing that changed my health and wellness for the better was my choice to get sober. It changed my entire mindset and attitude for the positive. I also started out with some other simple things, like making sure that I eat something for breakfast, which made me feel better and gave me more energy. I also started watching what and when I ate. Now I make time to work out at least three times a week.
I think that, as leaders, we need to start making the wellness of our teams a priority. Encourage team members to take time away from the job and also learn to recognize when people are struggling and need help. I try to only schedule people for four days of work per week. The shifts may be an hour or so longer, but the trade-off is that team members get three days off a week for work-life balance.
I’m a single father of two daughters, and I love being an active dad. At the same time, I really love being the chef of The Elysian Bar, and I’m still very passionate about the career I’ve chosen. I’ve learned how to be better at managing my time and how to be more efficient and effective with the time that I have at work. And I’ve learned that I don’t have to do it all by myself. I know how to ask for help if I need it and to delegate responsibilities to the really talented people on my team. By doing these things, I’m able to accomplish what I need to at the restaurant and then enjoy my free time once I leave.