y name is Hans and I’m the Executive Chef at Momofuku in Toronto. I’ve been in the industry for some 25-odd years now, working in restaurants across Canada—from Brudenell, P.E.I. to Whistler, B.C.—and everywhere in between.
Like many chefs, I’ve spent my days working long hours for very little pay. On more than one occasion I’ve left gigs that fed my passion, only to cross the street for ones that paid more, with little passion. I have become uncomfortably comfortable with working 16-hour days because it’s always been “part of the job”. I came up in a generation of ignorance; a time when mental health was never discussed, when verbally, and sometimes physically abusive kitchens and chefs were considered normal. The industry I started out in is certainly much different than the one that exists today.
Working under the leadership of David Chang for the past nine years has been a refreshing change and a learning experience to say the least. He once said to our team, “You need to slow down in order to speed up”. In the kitchen, when you’re “in the weeds”, overwhelmed on a busy Saturday night—to the point you would give anything to rip the printer out of the wall or tell the front-of-house managers to stop seating guests—there’s always this tipping point where you feel like you can’t cook one more order. Rarely does such advice resonate with me, let alone shift my mindset. But these simple words made me realize that if I were to physically slow down and focus in the moment, or if I was to just slow down at all, I would actually have the ability to keep moving forward.
It goes without saying that if you unplug or reset here and there, you’ll quickly see the benefits. David’s advice has its own little home on a shelf in my head, and I now work to embody this mantra as part of my daily personal and professional life, and especially as a leader in the kitchen. It’s something I wish I had heard, or rather listened to, much earlier in my career. Instead of living in the past, I focus on the present and how I can deliver this message to my own team so that they’ll actually hear it.
Personally, I find myself getting better at breaking away as I get older. I’m not sure if this is something that comes with age, or if it’s just the era we’re living in today, but I’ve never wanted to stay at this pace so badly. I remember a few years ago, I took a trip to Holguin, Cuba and decided to leave my phone at home. I can vividly recall leaving it (on purpose) perched on my coffee table as I turned away and left for the airport with just the slightest bit of hesitation. I was reluctant to lose access to the world, but because my intentions were to ultimately relax, I knew it was a necessary part of the process. That week was the most relaxed I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I was so much more interested in watching the things around me; nature, the sun setting, people laughing, eating, and drinking. And when I wasn’t watching what was happening around me, I was hyper focused on connecting with myself. The concept of connection we have with the world and the people around us is only as important as the one we have with ourselves, and more often than not, [that] connection to ourselves is nonexistent.
I learned a lot about myself on my trip to Cuba, and to this day I make it a point to take week long detoxes from social media—although I wish I could do it from my entire phone sometimes. As a result of decreasing the overwhelming amount of distracting information, I feel more dialed in at work. And with this kind of focus, I’ve managed to find a way to work smarter so that I don’t have to work as many hours as I once did.
As the conversation around mental health gets louder, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to break away from the negative distractions around us—the clouded chatter—in order to focus again. We need to pour ourselves into healthier distractions that help to drown out anxieties and worry. Rather than doing, we need to just be.
With this in mind, I often ask myself, How do we communicate this important message of slowing at work or adopting better work-life balance to veteran chefs, cooks, and to the brand new culinary students and stages without coming off as martyrs? Playing the martyr eventually chases good folk out and turns the people that are left into a martyr in training, ready to take your seat on any six-burner throne. How can we slow down and get all the work we need to do? How do we keep a business alive if we also need to go off-grid now and again? Restaurants have had to cut so much out of their budgets over the past year: labour, repairs, R&D. We have had to pivot from table-side service to take-out boxes and packaging that does not lean well to the same style of food we’re used to serving. Delivery fees alone put restaurants in an incredibly difficult position to garner revenue. And aside from this, there is a huge gap in the industry as so many are hesitant to step back into it. This means even more hardship for owners as the scramble to fill scheduling holes and positions.
Restaurant folks all know they need better balance, but with the pressure to constantly perform and be on point it feels like you can never really shut off. The only way we can change this mindset is if we start to adopt the mantra ourselves. The pandemic has made slowing down much easier, but what happens when we all go back to some sense of normality, a “regular” service where we can welcome all of our guests—without a capacity—back into our restaurants again? Are we going to bust out of the gates with pent up creativity? Are we going to feel the pressure to be so creative after such a long layoff that we crumble under that pressure and go back to debaucherously negative behaviours and double down on the long hours/martyr thing? Or are we going to take this past year to realize we can actually slow down? Whether we plan for it or not, a change is before us. Some of the slow down will be imposed upon us, and some of it we will have to take on for ourselves.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m excited to plate food on an actual plate instead of a brown take-out container. I will bust out of the gate with creativity, but I will be much more focused. My thoughts, ideas, and my actions will be intentional. I will take the time, no matter how long, to ensure every cook in our kitchen has a yearning for knowledge, and a close relationship with the food we cook and the people we serve it to. I will continue at this pace, and find ways to inspire others around me to do the same. The industry will be very different, but it’s about damn time.