When students complete their culinary education, it’s the start of another learning journey in the kitchen with experienced coworkers and supervisors. The excitement of working in a kitchen is what draws many to the industry. But some are often surprised by the fast-paced, high-pressure environment that they find themselves in.
Between the bustle of multiple orders, searing meats, bubbling pots and sharp knives, working in a professional kitchen can present moments of stress.
The first thing to know is that not all stress is negative. When most people think of stress, they think of distress, which is negative and hurtful. Eustress, on the other hand, is a positive experience that helps us grow and gain critical skills, even when it doesn’t feel good. You may feel your heart pounding and adrenaline flooding your veins, but in reality it’s good for you.
How you deal with stress often determines whether or not your experience is harmful or beneficial. Properly managing stress in the kitchen is key to supporting both your mental and physical well-being.
Let’s discuss some ways to use stress for good: to help us be great cooks and grow in the profession, while simultaneously managing our health and well-being.
Know Your Stressors
So how stressful is being a chef?
Different stressors impact people in different ways. While you might be put on edge by the noise and heat, other chefs may find the speed of service to be hardest to cope with. That’s why the first step to managing stress is to identify what is causing your reaction.
If a messy, chaotic station makes you feel like the situation is out of control, you will want to focus on keeping everything in its place. If a shouting sous chef causes your heart to race, deep breathing techniques can help to calm your physical response.
There will always be stressors that you are unable to control, like the number of tickets in the window or how many steps there are in a recipe. So your job as a chef is to understand the effect the environment is having on you and to develop methods of healthy stress management.
Keep It Clean and Organized
It’s one of the most common tips in kitchen management. But once you’re working in a busy restaurant, the importance of a tidy mise en place will become crystal clear.
“The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.” Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
When your station is a mess, your workflow can easily spiral out of control. Imagine this scenario: While plating a dish in the middle of lunch rush, you accidentally spill sauce on the table, requiring you to pause and get a fresh plate. At the same time, you notice that bits of parsley have found their way into the fruit compote and need to be removed. You try to rush, but then you slip and nick your finger, sending you hunting for a bandage. Now you’re behind, so you spin too quickly and run into another chef, sending their plated dish flying.
Moments like this can feel like you’ve lost control of the kitchen. A clean station is the chef’s first line of defense against chaos and stress. Keep your mise en place organized and neat. Make it a habit to wipe up every spill immediately. Keep your station free of dirty dishes and sanitize food-contact surfaces regularly.
Maintain the same attention to detail with your tools. Keep knives sharp and thermometers calibrated. Always have spare gloves and a clean kitchen towel.
Keeping your station clean, organized, and stocked will help you to feel in control of your shift.
Look for Efficiencies
Chefs are always in a rush. If you can make a process more efficient, you can save time and get the job done without unnecessary effort.
So how can you be more efficient in your kitchen?
First, enact a “full hands” policy. Full hands means you never go anywhere in the kitchen without bringing something with you. If you need to restock one ingredient at your station, what dirty plates can you bring to the dishpit on your way? If you have a stack of pots that need washing, grab a spare kitchen towel or a few clean pans on your way back to the line.
Next, look to reduce travel between kitchen stations. Let’s say there’s an ingredient that you regularly use as a garnish, but it’s kept several feet away in another station. Instead of taking those extra steps, stock a bit of the ingredient at your station to prevent going back-and-forth.
Small increases in efficiency over time will result in a less harried shift.
When we’re mentally stressed, our breathing often becomes shallow and rushed. The rushed breathing then signals to our body that we’re in a state of physical stress – which subsequently magnifies our mental stress. This vicious cycle can make it difficult to regain calm.
“Being at Escoffier taught me to be flexible and to keep pushing through even if everything is going down. [It] taught me how to become the leader and get each task done.” Joseph Han, Boulder Pastry Arts graduate
To combat the cycle, practice deep, slow breathing techniques. Repeated deep breathing will bring your heartbeat into rhythm with your breath and release calming endorphins.
To get into the habit, try meditation at home with an app like Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer. Regular breathing practice when you’re not stressed may help you to regulate your breathing when you are.
Mental stress can cause physical stress like tense muscles, intestinal problems, and a tight chest, which further exacerbates the stress on your mind. Regular exercise can help to reduce the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates endorphins that help make you feel happier.
The idea of getting exercise when you’re already on your feet 40 to 50 hours per week may sound daunting. But regular exercise is one of the best ways to keep your stress hormones in check.
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, plus moderate-to-intense strength training at least twice per week. To reduce further stress on your joints, consider a low impact exercise like swimming, biking, or rowing.
Ask For Help
Everyone in a kitchen knows that the newest person on the line or in prep won’t be an immediate expert at all the techniques and established lingo. Even the most seasoned chef needs time to adapt to a new restaurant’s recipes and methods.
If you don’t understand a task, ask for clarification. Clear communication is a major part of a well-run kitchen. Better to feel silly than waste product and time doing something wrong!
But read the room. Don’t ask the Executive Chef for help when he or she is in service during the lunch rush.
Good For You, Good For Your Career
Can being a chef be stressful? Yes. But by proactively managing stress in the kitchen, you’ll keep yourself physically and mentally at your best.
Stress management can also help you in your career. While the “angry chef” may be a common trope, most people don’t want to work with someone who flies off the handle under pressure. Keeping calm will prove to your supervisors that you’re able to cope with stress, and that you may be able to handle additional responsibility in the future.
Did you find this article helpful? Here are a few more you may enjoy:
- 3 Tips for Becoming an Environmentally-Conscious Chef
- How New Chefs Can Stand Out in the Kitchen
- 4 Things to Know Before Enrolling in Culinary School
This article was originally published on December 12, 2015, but has since been updated.