Being a cook is one of the most humbling jobs I have ever done.

A pretty personal entry.

Anyone who says, “OMG, you’re a chef? (replace interchangeably with pastry chef).  That’s so cool.” must not know how hard it really is.

It is not that kinda of cool.  It is sometimes fun and most of the time stressful.  It’s pretty much hard physical work.  The work that makes your feet hurt if you aren’t conditioned for standing more than 12 hours.  The work that makes your back hurt because you’ve been standing for more than 12 hours.  The work that makes the back of your neck sore because you’ve been looking down for more than 12 hours.  The work that makes your muscles in your back so tight it takes you over an hour of stretching at night to feel remotely relaxed to sleep. (Or the work that requires you to beg your wife to step on your back again.) The work that makes you dehydrated at the end of the night because you don’t drink enough because you don’t have time to go the bathroom.  The work that makes you come home smelling like grease or fryer oil or overheated Pam spray.  The work where you have to wash your apron in the sink because it’s so dirty it cannot be mixed with other laundry.  The work that makes you crave a cigarette, a joint, a drink, or whatever else helps you relax.  This shit’s not easy.  Now I know why my dad tells me he doesn’t understand why I want to work so hard when he worked so hard so I wouldn’t have to work so hard.

There are some things I prefer not to do.  Dad, you may be right about some (and probably many) things, but I am not doing this so you, dad, can tell Justin he needs to open a catering business.  I am not doing this so you, (dad) can tell me that heart-shaped cookies for Valentine’s day is going to make me rich.  To the rest, yet another public announcement, I am a bread baker, so my job description doesn’t include making cupcakes or cakes for your wedding/birthday/1st child/to-be-mother even though you’re friends with my best friends or sister or mother.  I’m just not comfortable mixing batters and frosting cakes.  I will not bake my bread lighter because you like it that way.  I prefer my bread with color, because the Maillard reaction is a beautiful thing.  Sometimes bread should not be served warm.  Think of bread like wine.  If it’s too warm, you can’t taste the subtleties of the flavors from long fermentation.  I am doing this for me, for us, for you who will appreciate me as an artist, as a person with a point of view, an attitude, as an individual trying to make a statement of my own.  I do love and appreciate the support.  I am here to make a humble living on what I love to do most.

I am working in a city that never sleeps, filled with 8.175 million people, yet I feel worlds away from everyone.  The sacrifice Justin and I made to live apart so that I could keep learning and pursue our dreams is really that hard.  I suppose this statement is necessary if you haven’t gotten the tone of my voice in the very direct comments above.  I wanted to write this piece so that you could feel me – understand where I’m coming from – relate if you can.  I don’t want more comments on how to live my life.  Our life is hard enough.  It really is.  It really is like a box of chocolates- you hope you know what you’re gonna get but you usually never know what you’re gonna get.  I have already rejected my Chinese heritage by not putting my education to good use.   What will I do with that Economics degree and what was the point of getting multiple honors? I am even farther from financial security than I was 3 years ago.  I have no idea what my next meal is.  (This is not always true, but it actually did materialize the first 3 weeks I was in NY.)  I miss my husband like mad.  I miss whatever home means.   This shit is really not that fucking glorious (it is glorious, but not glorious in that kind of way).  So next time you think cooking for a living is cool and fun, imagine giving up your job with financial security, benefits, paid time off, paid maternity leave, and having weekends off.

Anthony Bourdain may have been angry when he was writing Kitchen Confidential, but in Medium Raw, he says, “I  instinctively liked and respected anyone who cooked or served food in a restaurant and took any kind of satisfaction in the job.  Still feel that way.  It is the finest and noblest of toil, performed by only the very best of people.”

(I believe best is being used here loosely.)

I wasn’t sure if this was appropriate to share.  (Justin said it may be seen as an angry piece).  But I never know how to describe my work to people not in the “industry.”  Still to this day I have a hard time adjusting to this “way” of life – the hours, the standing, the pay, the ability not to “go shopping”, the constant downsizing of our living space every time we move, the increasing number of suggestions people tell me what I should have in my bakery, or the type of food they want Justin to serve.  I can’t describe to you in words what I want my bakery or Justin’s restaurant to look like or serve.  We don’t even have a location, a home, or a large enough bankroll for us to be comfortable.  I have vented.  I have cried.  But at the end of the day, I am proud.  Proud to stand up to the challenge that continually humbles me.

I hope that regardless of who you are, what you do, how you eat, that you will appreciate the people that helped make your last meal.  This shit is hard work.

About Karen Man

a student, teacher, sister, daughter, friend, baker, thrower of dinner parties, jumper at the opportunity to fail, made of unicorn breath and Danish summers, and lover of sunflowers.
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8 Responses to Being a cook is one of the most humbling jobs I have ever done.

  1. Diane says:

    I think our parents confuse chasing a challenge to push ourselves with hard work that was “meant to be avoided”. A lot of things in life don’t make sense, from our decisions to our thought processes–sometimes even to ourselves–and yet it seems so clear to others. It’s clear because it’s easier to judge and jump to conclusions from a voyeuristic perspective. It’s easier to believe in black and white definitions of what’s “good” and what’s “bad”, and what should make you happy. I think this post is honest and not really that angry. You’ve always been one who hasn’t been afraid to speak her mind and do her own thing, and I am proud of you for standing up for yourself. It’s not a defense, it’s a declaration.

  2. This was awesome….

    • Karen says:

      This was really hard for me to write. I didn’t want to offend anyone because I know they always mean well. I wanted to try to clarify a few things. I sometimes wonder if I was naive in giving up a nice paycheck even if the job was just as mentally stressful, but on a different dimension. Money does by happiness, even if it’s sometimes temporary. I hate this integrity thing, even if it defines me. It makes life much more complicated. I never regret the decision to leave finance. I would have never encountered fine dining (in the way I can appreciate it), nor you and Lisa, nor the best oxtail soup of my life.

  3. Janie says:

    Karen, I’m so glad I know someone who I can relate to in so many ways because I feel like we’re on the same boat. it’s freaking hard, long hours, my feet hurt and I know there will be less fun time in the future but god I love desserts…It’s so much more physical than anything I’ve known but for a bread baker I can’t even imagine how hard it is :/ your dad sounds exactly the same as my parents and future in laws, they keep insisting I open a bakery/catering but don’t really get that I love plated desserts. I don’t think they even understand what I do while I’m staging or why I’m working in kitchens for free..maybe I just need to share with them more. “Now I know why my dad tells me he doesn’t understand why I want to work so hard when he worked so hard so I wouldn’t have to work so hard.” same thing my Dad said to me.
    Also, kids + pastry chef don’t mix 😦 guys have been telling me that ‘yeah, i know some girls who work in the industry while they’re pregnant’ but I never get the female POV to help me frustrating on so many levels to know that it’ll be hard to balance both family and what I love to do 😦

  4. Kasi says:

    I have immense respect for what you just wrote…

  5. William says:

    Cooking isn’t and has never been a job. It’s a way of life, a choice. There isn’t a lot of people that could relate to us cooks and chefs. From the top of my head I could see doctors, firefighters and soldiers amongst others that could possible relate to us, but never fully understand us. But what it gives you is something that can not be written off as superficial or insignificant, intangible yes, but not insignificant. I often compare it to Shakespeare’s Saint Crispians speech from Henry V.

    “This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
    He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
    Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
    And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
    He that shall live this day, and see old age,
    Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
    And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
    Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
    And say These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
    Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
    But he’ll remember, with advantages,
    What feats he did that day.

    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother;”

    The experiences we have as cooks make us the people that we are, the humans that we are and if you’ve never done what we do you can’t judge us.

  6. Whats up! I simply wish to give a huge thumbs up for the nice information you might have here on this post.
    I shall be coming again to your blog for extra soon.

  7. Yeah,you should follow what your heart tells to do.

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