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Death by Cooking

  • Blog Post by: Lenny Russo
  • September 17, 2013 - 3:59 PM

In the Sunday, August 25, 2013, issue of the New York Times, a piece entitled 41 Years in the Kitchen Takes Its Toll by Karen Stabiner focused primarily on Chef Mark Peel of Los Angeles' Campanile.  Chef Peel is 58 years old, just three years older than I am.  The article was concerned with the crazy hours and physical strains associated with a career in the culinary arts and, more specifically, restaurant kitchens.  In reviewing the litany of Chef Peels ailments, including wrist, shoulder and back pain as well as bone spurs and a hernia, it went on to cite the Bureau of Labor Statistics claim that chefs are more likely than other workers to suffer injuries with sprains, strains and tears being the most common followed by cuts, lacerations, punctures, burns and fractures.  Aside from those physical ailments, there are the obvious strains on domestic tranquility when one of the members of a family is absent from home for a good portion of each day.

The article brought to mind a quote that has over the years been erroneously attributed to the great nihilist poet Charles Bukowski, but is in fact, according to the musician, composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks, the product of the strange mind of Kinky Friedman, the famous and sometimes infamous balladeer I am fond of referring to as the Bob Dylan of Texas.

The quote goes something like this, "You've got to find out what you love, and let it kill you."

I developed a love for food and cooking as a young boy.  When you grow up in an Italian immigrant family, it's practically endemic. I remember the first dish I learned how to cook.  It was mussels in red sauce, and I was able to prepare dinner for the entire family by age 10 so it shouldn't come as any surprise that I was drawn to the excitement and vitality of commercial kitchens.  Like Chef Peel, I began my career as a dishwasher, he at 17 years old and I at 18.  I eventually worked my way through college by working as a chef as I indulged myself in my studies of philosophy and literature and later clinical psychology.  At one point, I was juggling two careers both as chef and as a child psychotherapist.  At some point in the 1980's, I finally admitted to myself that despite the stress, heat and relative danger in the kitchen, it was the place I was most happy, and I dedicated myself to my craft unencumbered by any other interests or pursuits. 

To say that I work in young person's game, not unlike a professional athlete, is a vast understatement.  After 37 years working in kitchens, I have a plethora of work related ailments.  Every so often, when running up and down the stairs at Heartland, one or both of my knees will temporarily lock up.  I have learned how to walk when that happens so I can ignore it and keep on going until the knees loosen up and go back to normal.  I have a perpetual hamstring strain that just won't go away.  There's something wrong with my right shoulder that I haven't had diagnosed, but it is fond of warning me with a shooting pain if I put too much strain on it.  I have a pretty nasty case of psoriasis on both of my hands which is the result of washing them dozens of of times a day over the last four decades.  My neck is perpetually stiff from bending over the cutting table while butchering meat and fish, and my hands bear the scars of cuts and gouges from the knives and cleavers employed in that task.  My lower back is pretty cranky from years spent working on my feet on hard floors, and I have battled plantar fasciitis in both of those feet on and off for the last ten years.  I can't really count the number of burn scars I have, but at least they fade for the most part with time.  Then there is the battle of the waist line.  When you consume twice as many calories on a daily basis as a normal human being, working out every morning is imperative if you want to keep your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol anywhere near acceptable levels.  Of course, working out can be painful when your joints and muscles bear the strain of years of kitchen abuse.

So why do we as chefs do it?  In the words of Kinky Friedman, the only thing I can say is "You've got to find something you love, and let it kill you."

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