Why 8 Top Chefs Quit the Kitchen
Not just anyone can wear a toque. To make it as a chef, you need to be irrationally in love with cooking. Not, "I'm kinda into this scene, we'll see where it goes." Not, "This is great for now, but I'm not ready to commit." Definitely not, "I think this is what I want, but I've just been burned so many times in the past." It's all or nothing.
So what makes someone who's already spent years and years learning the ways of the kitchen and building a resume, who knows full well what they've gotten themselves into, get up one day and quit? We went to eight former chefs -- including the culinary world’s most famous quitter, elBulli’s Ferran Adrià -- to find out.
Stage 1: The Honeymoon
Jenny McCoy (former pastry chef at Gordon, Emeril's Delmonico, Marc Forgione, A Voce, and Craft; left to teach and pursue side projects): I had no idea what the fine-dining world was like. While working at Gordon, I met some cooks who were a little bit older than me, who were certainly more serious and career-driven, and they told me, “You should be reading this!” and “You should be eating out!” That mentoring really shaped the rest of my career. It wasn’t just randomly making my way from place to place. It was very calculated, like, “Okay, now I’m at Gordon, which is really special. Moving on, I’m going to work at this restaurant for this person for this reason.” But that’s what it was like. And it was fun! I was young, I worked crazy hours. Everyone was totally unprofessional. And I feel like at many of the places I worked at, especially when I was younger, all of the line cooks were like my siblings and the chef was my dysfunctional surrogate parent.
Keith Famie (earned widespread praise for his Michigan restaurants; now a documentary filmmaker and former Survivor contestant): It was my life, I lived and breathed cooking. It was my passion. And I was always excited by the exploration of food. Cooking was like a passport for me to see the world.
Jason Sheehan (James Beard Award-winning food critic, author of the memoir Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen): I worked at a lot of places. I worked at a French place in Buffalo for maybe a year or so. That was right out of the movies, perfect kitchen. It was a bunch of young guys getting, like, their first chef gig. A great crew. I loved the work, I loved the stress, I loved the pressure. But I also loved the lifestyle a lot. It was really perfect for me at the time.
Stage 2: Red Flags
Jenny McCoy: The job is hard, and the environment is so intense. You work so close -- not only collaboratively but physically. You’re hot. You cut yourself. You burn yourself. I would be surprised if one day a week out of my entire career I wasn’t like, “What the hell am I doing this for? Why do I work here? Why am I around these people?” It’s just really hard, even for someone who’s so passionate about the job, to not have this love-hate relationship. There’s something masochistic about it.
Trevor Bailey (former executive chef for Winnipeg's Hilton Suites and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet; current education coordinator at Red River College): When I was a young student at a restaurant, the chef thought I was moving too slow, so he took a hot pan and took that to my backside and told me to move my ass because I was going too slow. I was 19 at the time and I was thinking, “What the hell am I doing this for?”
That’s one example. Another example was racial, to be honest with you. Coming up through the ranks in the mid and late ’80s, people wouldn’t blink an eye about saying something racially insensitive in the kitchen. And I was sometimes the only person who wasn’t Caucasian. One thing a chef said to me -- I’ll never forget this, and he was my mentor -- he said, “Trevor, I want you to remember one thing: black is beautiful, but not in the kitchen. No offense.” Needless to say, I was offended. Those were two glaring moments for me where I realized, “Okay, maybe I don’t want to be in this industry for the rest of my life.”
Barton Seaver (Culinary Institute of America grad who opened seven restaurants around DC; now studies sustainability through the National Geographic Society and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health): It wasn’t that I doubted the kitchens were where I wanted to be, but there was a very specific moment that I point to where I realized that the kitchen was not the only platform that I would occupy in my career. Robert Egger, the founder of DC Central Kitchen, came to me -- he’s a friend and a mentor and a neighbor -- and asked me to be on the board of his organization. It uses food to train those who need a next chance in life, like ex-felons. They needed a young voice, someone who knew DC well, to come in and add the next-generation feel to the operation. This was the very first time in my career that anyone had told me a chef could be more than the sum of his ingredients.
Stage 3: The Last Straw
Trevor Bailey: I had a meeting with my general manager at the Hilton Suites. I had been putting in 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, and he said it simply wasn’t enough. That he needed a little more time from me. That was the writing on the wall for me, right there. I went back to my family and mentioned that to my wife, and I said, “I’ve got to find a way out. I can’t do this the rest of my life. It’ll kill me.”
Ferran Adrià (world-renowned chef who shocked the culinary world when he announced he was closing his restaurant elBulli, eventually turning it into a creativity center): The idea to close wasn’t spontaneous. We felt that we were reaching a point in which we needed new models, and if we wanted to continue creating at the highest level, we needed to plan for change. Towards the end of November in 2009, we agreed with [joint owner] Juli Soler that we would close elBulli Restaurant for a time period, and that it would be reopened under a different format. Following the public announcement in January of 2010, we quickly realized that what we really wanted to do was to start a center for gastronomy research under a foundation system.
Barton Seaver: In a way, my interests had already surpassed what a restaurant alone could provide. And I knew full well the demand and time and interest that a restaurant requires. I thought I would be doing it a disservice if I tried to continue on the same path.
Marisa Mangani (globe-trotter; executive chef at the 1986 and 1988 world's fairs in Vancouver and Australia, respectively; currently designing kitchens and bars): Chefdom became like a I’m doing this, but I don’t really want to kinda thing. Then motherhood came along and just for several reasons, I decided I needed to get out.
Stage 4: The Breakup
Jenny McCoy: My last restaurant job was at Craft and I left to start my own line of baking mixers. I left on good terms, but they were really sad. And whenever you leave a restaurant, the first question they ask is, “Where are you going?” Because if you’re leaving to go somewhere better, or to a competitor, it doesn’t matter if you did everything right -- you’ve sort of tainted your exit. So I remember sitting down and handing over my letter of resignation and before [my chef, James Tracey] even opened it, that was his question. “Where are you going?” And I was like, “I’m launching my own product line.” And he said, “Oh, okay, great. Congratulations! That’s awesome.” But if I had been like, “Oh, I’m going to Per Se,” or something, they probably would’ve been like, “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”
Ferran Adrià: Once a decision was reached between Juli and I, the first step was to communicate it to the closest team -- in other words, the kitchen and dining area managers. Obviously, we asked them to be discreet with the decision until it was official. They were surprised, and skeptical. But with time, everything got clearer, and the majority of the team assumed their new roles under the new project.
Trevor Bailey: It was difficult to tell everyone. Everyone knew me as being a chef and that’s it. So it was pretty scary for me to think, “Okay. At the age I am now, in my late 30s, what am I going to do?” If I look at my resume, from the age of 15 ‘til now, that’s all you see. It’s cooking, it’s food, in different restaurants and hotels. People were shocked, I guess, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t worried about anyone else. I had to take care of myself.
Marisa Mangani: I had come down to Sarasota looking for chef opportunities and being a chef at a country club had better hours. I had a 1-year-old baby, so I decided I would apply to this club, and I got a job as a clubhouse chef making BLTs for Midwesterners. It was just really frustrating. They had a corporate chef and I honestly went to him when he came around to check on everything and said, “You know what? Nothing against this job but I’m 34 and I’m racking my brain to figure out what I can segue into with my experience. I don’t wanna work in a kitchen anymore. Do you have any ideas for me?” And he said, "There’s a kitchen design firm in the next town over. In fact, they designed this kitchen here.” And I thought, “Wow, that’d be cool.” So I applied for this job and I guess they saw something in me because I got the job.
Werner Absenger (manned the kitchen at lauded Grand Rapids restaurant Cygnus 27 before quitting to found the Absenger Cancer Education Foundation): I never questioned being a chef, because I really liked being in the kitchen. But then my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Going through this experience had a deep impact on me. Because my dad was pretty young when he was diagnosed -- he died when he was 60. I pretty much started to question everything I was doing at the time.
Stage 5: The Aftermath
Marisa Mangani: I was extremely nervous leaving my comfort zone. Leaving behind something I’d been doing since I was 14. It felt like I had been transplanted into a new body. Like I was no longer that person and I had to figure out who this new person was going to be. From wardrobe to lifestyle, actual job to trying to please my new boss, to trying to please clients. There was a lot of grumbling stomach at night. I was pretty much dreading every day, after I quit the kitchen.
Keith Famie: It was difficult. It was difficult because of my persona. People knew me from Survivor, but also being a TV chef. Every time they’d see me, it’d be, “Hey, where’s your restaurant? What are you cooking today?” “Well, I produce documentary film.” “What?” They’d look at me like, “Why? How do you think you can be a filmmaker? What made you decide you can do this? You’re a chef.” Some of those fans were really disappointed. It didn’t make sense to them, but to me, it made all the sense in the world. Even my kids, my ex-wife -- at the time, I had to make child support payments, and they were all like, “Why are you doing this?” And the kids would say, “Dad, you should just go back to cooking, that’s what you know.” Because I was struggling really hard to make money. Making documentary films, even to this day, you struggle to raise money. So back then it was very difficult. It was like starting over from square one. It was something I really knew nothing about.
Barton Seaver: It was very awkward for many years. Because it was like, “You’re a chef, but you don’t have a restaurant, so why are you a chef? What do you actually do? Oh, you’re an explorer for the National Geographic Society. What the hell does that mean? It sounds great, but what does it mean?” For a long time I was a cook without a country.
Werner Absenger: I went from a career that was relatively easy for me, where I was considered an expert, to something where I was just starting out [studying nutrition and alternative medicine]. There was definitely a different dynamic. I did some research, and I knew the basics, but the real learning was just starting out. Sometimes I questioned my sanity. Why would you want to go from expert to beginner? But I think that’s what makes life exciting. We can always learn something new.
Stage 6: Nostalgia
Marisa Mangani: I missed cooking, but I started doing some fun things that I never really did before. Like weekends off was really a novel concept. I was used to having Mondays off. I got to spend weekends with my daughter, who was then 4. I was so glad I pulled that off before she started school. Going to the grocery store was fun! Instead of just going once a week to buy beer, it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to menu plan. Wow!” It was a whole new life.
Ferran Adrià: Without a doubt, I miss living for six months a year in Cala Montjoi. It's the best place that I can think of to work.
Keith Famie: There’s definitely times where I still think, “Let’s go open a restaurant.” Then I remember on Saturday night, while I’m sitting in a restaurant, that I wouldn’t be sitting there if I did. I’d be working. But what I miss the most is the camaraderie. That working relationship is so much like a second family. Unless you’ve been in the business, most people don’t understand that. It’s very intense, it’s very long hours, and there’s always something going wrong. Things that happen in the [film production] field that happen and people go, “Oh my God, I can’t handle this,” I’m like, “This is nothing. Imagine a Saturday night, 400 reservations, and someone breaks a glass over your sauce station. That’s an issue.” I miss that really intense busyness of fast-moving evenings when everything’s gotta work in sync. And then you just have a beautiful night. The customers are having a good time, the staff feels great. You sit down at the end of the night with the staff and have a glass of wine. Let’s go do it again tomorrow. Any chef can relate to that intensity of feeling.
Jason Sheehan: I miss the smell of a working kitchen when you walk in first thing in the morning. The feeling you get when the first guests start rolling in. When you know in advance you have a bad night coming, and you spend the entire day stocking up, and there’s a pressure building all night, all night. And then those tickets come in, and for those six hours, eight hours, however long it is, there’s nothing else in the world. That simplicity, that almost mindlessness of knowing that you’re good at doing this one thing. And for a few hours, that’s the only thing in your life that matters? I can’t think of anything in the world that’s like that.
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