Kitchen Confidential: Lonely at the top

Running a restaurant can be lonely, even in the eye of the storm. The Secret Chef contemplates how to find solitude – and creativity – among the chaos

Being alone is something I relish. I treasure tranquil moments, nurture them like precious eggs in the hope they will eventually crack open to reveal a fledgling thought, idea, or breakthrough. I do my best cooking, the most mindful and productive when the kitchen is empty, free from distraction, the only noise the hum of the refrigerators and the gentle white noise of the extraction, a meditative something-and-nothing that reaches into and out of consciousness as if I’m cooking at 30,000 feet.

Even my free time is spent in pursuit of solitary moments: I’ve never been one for team sports. Instead, long-distance running has been my activity of choice for the last two decades and even there I eschew organized events, preferring instead the simplicity of empty tracks, roads, fields and forests. My mind is at its most restful far from home with little evidence of other people on my side of the horizon. Perversely, when I have just myself for company, I rarely feel lonely in these moments. Contented, mindful, peaceful, comfortable but hardly ever lonely.

During service we are actors. We learn our script, know our opening and closing lines and we understand the parameters of improv that fill the four or so hours in between the first and final plates. During that time there is room to maneuver, space to respond, take things in potentially different directions, but there are touch points that provide a level of consistency.

Sometimes it’s easy, other times difficult, as various – often unpredictable – challenges are thrown in our direction. But we are always on a stage, spotlights and hot lights illuminating the space in which we cook and move and dance and entertain and host, in full view of an expectant and hungry audience. It came as a surprise to me recently that it’s during these moments when feelings of loneliness can, and do, creep in.

Intense restaurant relationships

Through an inevitable attrition I’m about to lose my last link to the team that I opened my restaurant with around half a decade ago. With staff turnover generally high within hospitality, I suppose five years isn’t a bad length of service, but I can’t help but feel at least a bit disappointed. Along this path I’ve lost friends. Even in easier times, the close-quarters trenches of restaurant life meant that relationships were forged with speed and intensity.

Over the last three years, even tougher conditions created an even fiercer crucible. Without the day-to-day interactions, those moments through the week that tied us all together, perhaps it was inevitable that, outside of work, we’d discover that we had little in common. It has left me a little adrift. Wondering on more than one occasion: what is it all for? Trying to square the circle of being the host, the center of my own party, while also feeling as if I’m the only person in the room.

I have little doubt that these feelings will pass, that new people and new challenges will come along, and new friendships will be forged in the heat of service, but right now I’m comfortable in saying – thanks to the anonymity afforded me in this column – that it’s tough out there and sometimes, standing at the center of one’s own stage, can be the loneliest place in the world.

The Secret Chef

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