The toxicity of the restaurant industry is legendary. We have seen many tough-as-nails characters succumb to the pressures of long hours, stiff competition, and the daily dramas that running a restaurant entails. The highly dynamic nature of the business can really do a number on the people in it, and you might wonder if it’s possible to somehow find balance.
Avoiding the drama
As in any industry, there are plenty of underlying politics and intrigues. Chefs have their own cliques and corresponding nemeses. There are constant whispers about partnerships gone bad, chefs blatantly copying dishes from other chefs, and international recognition that some find questionable.
Bar Pintxos owner and chef Miguel Vecin prefers to shut out all the noise and keep his head low and focused. “Basically I just mind my own business and do what I have to do,” he says. “I enjoy and love what I do. My main concern is to please my customers.”
While the passion is evidently there, work does get taxing, something Vecin had to learn in the first year of Bar Pintxos’ operations. “Long nights, long days,” he recalls. “Getting home late and not seeing your family was hard. Plus, the eating and drinking while entertaining guests did not make it easier.”
Add to that the handling of customer complaints, problems with the staff, and the occasional operational breakdowns (like running out of gas, air conditioning malfunction, etc.) and it turns what was supposed to be Vecin’s “dream job” into a living nightmare.
Regardless, Vecin’s love for what he does made him want to work all the time but eventually he had to learn how to delegate, especially after opening two more branches. “I took turns with my partner (Tinchu Gonzalez) for the late-night schedules,” he says. “We also hired people to help us out in terms of management and day-to-day operations.”
Happy life, happy knife
Time for family, it seems, is the resounding desire of chefs and restaurateurs. It not only gives their work meaning but also centers them.
When asked who among his peers seems to have this balancing act figured out, Vecin points to Robby Goco of Cyma, Green Pastures, and Souv! “My family is my priority. When my family is happy, I become more creative and everything else stems from that.”
He enjoys traveling with his partner Aliza Apostol and their children, adding, “When I was younger I thought seeing the world was cool, but seeing it again through the eyes of my children is priceless. It is for this reason that I hope to eat, cook, and travel with them for as long as I can.”
When things are harmonious at home, Robby Goco says that his work in the kitchen becomes effortless. “The challenge is to remove whatever troubles or blocks my creativity, so I can be my best self at work.”
When things are harmonious at home, Goco says that his work in the kitchen becomes effortless. “The challenge is to remove whatever troubles or blocks my creativity, so I can be my best self at work,” he says. “The restaurant kitchen is a prime example of controlled chaos. Sixty percent is getting the ingredients and supply needed into the restaurant, having these received and stored well then executed perfectly through the recipes we create. A clear mind and precise organization are needed to ensure that the amount of work done is the right balance to the amount of time needed for my staff and I to replenish our best selves.”
Everyone, just chill
And for their “best selves” to come out, chefs rely on their loved ones for a reboot. Josh Boutwood of The Test Kitchen, Savage, and Helm feels blessed to have his family’s support, which gives him the motivation he needs to face his daily battles at work or in the kitchen.
“I met [life partner] Nilla when I was already in the trade. She saw what a miserable life I had to offer for her at an early stage,” Boutwood jokes with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without the understanding and help from her.” To show his family how important they are to him, he has made it a point to take Sundays off work.
With the effort they put into creating balance between life and work, these chefs want this to extend to the people they work with. So how do they encourage their staff to have that balance?
Boutwood imposes his “family first” policy in all of his restaurants. “No matter what you have to do or how busy you are, and a problem arises within the family,” Boutwood says, “that is the priority. We as owners should have the resources ready to cope with such circumstances.”
No matter what you have to do or how busy you are, and a problem arises within the family,” Josh Boutwood says, “that is the priority. We as owners should have the resources ready to cope with such circumstances.”
Vecin, too, encourages his staff to take their leaves when needed and to work from home if they can “so they can spend time with their family.” In Goco’s restaurants, family time is almost imposed. “Across our restaurants, the prevailing policy is to discourage split shifts,” he says.
“This means that the maximum number of hours spent at work for them is nine hours. Added to that an estimated two to three hours of commuting to and from work, that is easily 12 hours taken away from rest and family. Instead, they are encouraged to go home straight from work to recharge and spend time with the people they love. This not only refreshes them, it also puts proper perspective on why they work and who they are working for.”
This mentality is so far removed from the image of chefs working themselves to the bone for fame and recognition. Priorities these days seem to have truly evolved. For some of these chefs, they admit that it’s a work-in-progress and that they are like any struggling family man (or woman) hoping to get it right.
“I think we are all lying to ourselves when we say we have it all balanced out,” Boutwood confesses. “I don’t think anyone has really cracked that enigma. We are just hoping to cope with and catch every juggling ball.”