What a chef taught me about life

I made a new friend. His name is Bernard (not his real name). We met at a writing meetup in San Francisco. He rides his bike to the coffeeshop where the group meets weekly to write in. The practice of the writing meetup is such - we’d write from 0915 to 1045, have a 15-min break during which we’d stand up, stretch, take a bathroom break, order another cup of coffee or pot of tea, have a banana or snack, chat with fellow writers; from 1100 to 1230 we’d promptly get back to writing for the next session, after which everyone breaks off to their respective days. A few might stay behind to write some more, quietly on their own. Though the camaraderie during the writing session is strong, the connectivity stops at the meetup itself and rarely taken outside of it. Sometimes I wonder if this is an American thing - everyone goes off to do their own thing. But Bernard was different. His first day at the writing meetup, by 12.30pm, he asked if anyone wanted to get lunch together. Everyone said oh sorry, we can’t, we gotta go. I couldn’t too, as I had to go swim as I usually do mid-day. 

One of my writing meetups in San Francisco, typically in coffeeshops which if you think about it, are watering holes for creatives, artists and writers in the past to gather and do work, critique and exchange ideas

One of my writing meetups in San Francisco, typically in coffeeshops which if you think about it, are watering holes for creatives, artists and writers in the past to gather and do work, critique and exchange ideas

I saw Bernard at several writing sessions after, and most recently at a new venue for the writing meetup (the usual one we went to closed down unfortunately, due to business slowdown). I didn’t like the new venue in a pastry shop, found it terribly uninspiring to write in, and left early for another spot which I liked. I invited Bernard to join me so we could get lunch and work in that cafe that I liked. He did. 

Bernard was born and raised in San Francisco to Vietnamese parents. As a child he was uninterested in school. At 10 he discovered video games and would play them excessively and compulsively. He’d often play them long into the night, in the dark, when his parents have gone to bed. His addiction got out of hand, so much so his parents had to wring the device out of his hands and destroy it before his eyes, further aggravating his youthful anger and rebellion. In his teens, he took to smoking cigarettes, weed and drinking alcohol. He was always taken to extremism and living life on the edge. Perhaps it was his way of finding himself in a world he didn’t feel belonged to or one that he could contribute to. 

He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He had wanted to be an artist in junior school. He would sketch drawings into mini comic books, circulate them to his classmates who loved his work, but teachers would yank his drawings out of their little hands and discard them into the trash bin. Bernard’s artistic flair was never encouraged. The artist that could have been. 

After graduating high school and unsure what to do with his life, Bernard moved seven hours south, drawn by the fame and glam of Los Angeles. He stumbled upon filmmaking and got involved in various film projects, shot several music videos, made minimum wage, smoke more weed, partied and drank hard, made fleeting friendships and drove a crappy car in horrendous LA traffic. 

Having given Hollywood the best of his youth and not encountering the big break he was hoping for, Bernard once again packed his few possessions and drove north to San Francisco, the home he left for the better part of seven years while searching for himself in glitzy Los Angeles. 

Chef Robin.JPG

What do I do in San Francisco? Bernard wondered to himself. Nothing seemed to interest him. Certainly not Silicon Valley tech. Browsing through jobs sites, he chanced upon several open positions in the restaurant business.

I don’t mind working in the kitchen, I quite like food anyway, Bernard thought. So he did. Several years in the catering business and finally a position as Garde Manger* in a reputable Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco. 

*From wikipedia: “A garde manger (French for "keeper of the food") is a cool, well-ventilated area where cold dishes (such as salads, appetizers, and desserts) are prepared and other foods are stored under refrigeration. The person in charge of this area is known as the chef garde manger or pantry chef.”

While working at The T (this Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco is unnamed for identity-protection purpose), Bernard was thrilled to be exposed to some of the most renowned chefs in the city and the highest standards of culinary skills; yet at the same time, he was often depleted at the end of each 16-hour-shift. The work was demanding in every aspect - physically, mentally and emotionally. From having to slice ginger as thinly as threads to perfecting a poached egg and not over burning a canape, from ensuring that his station in the kitchen is kept spotless clean and tidy despite the chaos of endless streams of orders coming in from guests in the dining room to waiting his turn to use an oven or hob for a food item that he should have gotten ready eight minutes ago, his head was often on the line and could be easily mangled by the head Chef. 

Come the fourth month, Bernard contemplated throwing in the towel. Work had become work. The sense of novelty had worn. Dread had surfaced. Each day bore no silver lining. He’d go through each day like a well-programmed machine - sharpen his knives in the morning, ride his bike to work, carry ingredients from the cold room to the prep room, cut, slice, dice ingredients, put ingredients back in clear containers, wrap them, carry containers back to the cold room, huddle with the head chef and kitchen team to go through the menu of the day, and then off he goes to his station to work like a madman - cooking and presenting each dish in Michelin-deserving style within minutes - because the mandate is - never let a customer wait

After work, on his ride home, as he lay in bed, he’d think of new menus and new ways to improve his work process, sometimes it would be his turn to cook and feed the kitchen staff (this happened once a month) and he’d crack his brain for something novel he hadn’t cooked before. He was always thinking. Each night was exhausting. He sank into a dark place.

His better judgment had him staying at The T for the next eight months (which responsible employee would leave his job before a year is up?). To cope with his daily despair and performance anxiety, he took drugs. On his days off, he would run personal errands, do the laundry and drink himself silly. He tried to date but found it difficult to sustain a relationship when he had barely any time and the mental space to himself, much less another person.  

A year later Bernard finally left The T. And with his departure came departure from substance abuse because he didn’t need them to get him going no more. He became happier, he wrote, invited me to make pizza with him from scratch and he will be traveling around Peru for three months. Just because. 

Yes, we made this awesome pizza from scratch - dough, ingredients and all. Well, Bernard was the leading chef, I was merely doing as I was told. The pizza tasted nothing less than amazing, better than any I’ve had in Italy lol

Yes, we made this awesome pizza from scratch - dough, ingredients and all. Well, Bernard was the leading chef, I was merely doing as I was told. The pizza tasted nothing less than amazing, better than any I’ve had in Italy lol

I reflected on my chat with Bernard and realized that whether or not our lives are filled to the brim, we could be depressed. I have been traveling for years and thought if I had a full time job I’d be happy and complete. Bernard showed me that despite a very busy, highly stimulating and fulfilling job, one could be thoroughly burnt out and beaten. 

Sometimes we think, oh if I only have this, I would be happy. Think about it, if we have what we want, yes that might bring us joy initially but give it time and the novelty fades and the joy dissipates - in place comes monotony and eventually dread. How do we circumnavigate our constant want of that new thing, new goal, new desire? It shouldn’t and can’t be just about what we want - we have to undergird our pursuits with a lifestyle of constant gratitude. 

Notice I didn’t say the “practice” of constant gratitude. I specifically chose the word “lifestyle” to bring across an important point - it’s not sufficient to be grateful once or twice a year, a month, a week even. Gratitude has be practiced daily. It has to be a lifestyle. 

Find joy in everyday life. Be grateful, every single day. 

I have recently come out of a dark chapter in my life, and even as I am writing this, I am making a conscious effort to practice mindfulness and gratitude every single day. For the next seven days, at least. And then to extend it to 21 days, and ultimately, to 66 days, because they say a habit is developed in seven days, cultivated in 21 and ingrained in 66 days.