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« two thousand ten. | Main | James Beard House Valentine's Tea Sunday February 13, 2011 »

24 January 2011


As usual you nailed it. I spent 6 years running a Rowena Wu Kitchen to bury pain, betrayal, etc... And was possibly my best...most focused...most challenged...most rewarded time of my professional life. I am now scarred but healed and moved on to a better place. But look back on that time with fond disdain.

Derek!! Fantastic to see you here, sir. O yes, I know this intense restaurant owner you speak of. I worked in a Reed Hearon kitchen that she owned... oy vey. I LOVE this line of yours, But look back on that time with fond disdain. Thank you so much for being 'here.' I always ::liked:: you. wink. ~ Shuna

I remember the day my stepfather died and I was working. My chef came to me and said, "You have to go to the hospital. Now." It was the middle of lunch service and my mother had called him, not me. He didn't tell me anything but "go now" but by the time I got there, it was too late.
I was back at work for my next scheduled shift, 2 days later.
It was tough, but yes, sometimes the work is the best distraction.

How true!

I agree, kitchens do heal. Creating food that means something to people is an immensely fulfilling and restorative process that has no equal.

Still, I feel that the culture in kitchens is largely unhealthy and overly macho.

Yelling, screaming, eating once during a 14 hour shift, the idea that you have to come to work unless you are about to die, it all seems so ridiculous. I mean, who was it that decided that cooking food should be carried out like a military campaign?

Having cooked in michelin star restaurants in Europe for the last year I just can't help but feel that the culture in the kitchen needs to change.

There needs to be more mutual respect, not more subordination. There needs to be better monetary compensation so that cooking is a more viable trade to live by. And most importantly there needs to be less of this ridiculous macho culture. You are not fighting a war, you are not making monumental global-policy are cooking, get over yourself. THere will be much less of these "I gotta go" moments when chefs embrace a healthier work philosophy.

Just my thoughts...

Haan, I have worked in very strict and incredibly laid back kitchens and I think strict kitchens run better. There is a reason why kitchen structure is military based. It's the same reason why there aren't 4 people conducting an orchestra or 16 teachers teaching one class of students. Order is absolutely necessary.

In my own kitchen, cooks are never screamed or yelled at, everyone gets my full attention and respect equally. And still there is moaning & whinging... So I'm not convinced the nice way is the best way. Also a lot of the ways chefs treat their cooks is to test them. 'The industry is hard, can you go the distance?' is what they're saying, without saying it.

I agree that kitchens don't have to be prisons, but, in my own experience, the more strict the kitchen, the better the cooks. ~ Shuna

I will start sending people here when they ask why I dropped out of cooking school and don't currently cook. Powerful post. Thanks so much

Great post! Far to many people in this world simply give up too easily and don't really know what "work" is these days.

Thanks for the inspiration!

Remember, Food is Love!


Wow Shuna!! You really have to love cooking to live that sort of life.

I started cooking at the age of 14 in a snack shack on a dogs and hamburgers were our main fare.. I am 30 now and am simply amazed at how much my story and experiences of working in kitchens paralell the things you have written!! you make me feel as if we worked in all the same places and just have not met eachother yet! 90% of the time, I was the only girl that worked the line. So Ive spent years trying to pull my own weigh; prove to everyone that I deserved my job; show my Chefs that I was just as good, just as fast, just as accurate, just as organized, just as prepared, and just as dependable as my male counterparts..And I've also spent years trying to convince myself that I was in the right profession, that I WAS good enough to be there..I 2nd guessed every decision, every plate, every sauce, every substitution, and every ticket time in front of me for a long time. I now know this was largely due to the weak, or lazy, or just plain incompetent leadership displayed by the majpority of the chefs i have worked for..So in 2010, 14 years after I had my first "hit" of working the line, I was able to get a job at a University here in Nashville. I no longer 2nd guess anything. I'm confident in my decisions, my abilities, and myself. And so is my Chef and Sous. They are amazing. I still am the only girl on the line, I realize that may not ever change. But I love it and no longer spend much time proving anything to anyone, most importantly, myself. Thank you for being one of those Chefs that teaches and molds and trains and supports. There are too many that do not.

I've left comments before, and I must say, especially after this one, it feels wrong. You write beautifully and deeply and true, such that my comments are weak little sputters. So, forgive me for doing it again; this was too moving for me not to thank you.

I retired early for a reason, I do not agree with a military approach and I do not think that it works. Chefs are people and making food is not brain surgery. There needs to be respect among a team. You know early on if someone has a work ethic or not and in my experience Chefs usually do. Demeaning someone does not build self esteem and pointing fingers does not either. A kitchen is a place to produce and learn from a place of strength. Everyone is overworked in a kitchen but maturity tells you to take care of yourself so that you are your best at what you do. Sometimes you are really sick and you have a choice to call out or to infect the whole kitchen, I have seen it happen with the flu, it was a nightmare because the sous came in, too sick to work and refused to leave and within a week everyone in the kitchen was sick. Had he stayed home it would have been different. I am not saying that as a blanket statement but you have to have the maturity to see the whole picture. If all you do is complain about the position you should probably be doing something different. My 2 cents

Thank you for responding to my comment. I really appreciate it. I get what you are saying and I understand where you are coming from. It is always interesting to get another point of view.

I think from my experience I just function better when people around me are calm and collected. Not yelling and disrespectful.

On a side note, I am always amazed at how long everybody's comments are on your blog. I think that shows how much people care about what you are writing about. I think that is pretty neat.

Absolutely amazing portrayal of the profession, true in every aspect. I only lasted 6 years and it still brings a strange and oddly conflicted sense of beautiful joy and a horrendous grumble of stress in the pit of my stomach just thinking about it. It's everything you and your commenters say it is and so much more. But for now, I choose to remember only the sheer and utter tantalizing beauty of the ingredients and how they ultimately grace the plate and inhabit our soul and that still takes my breath away.

One of my favorite posts - Your words stuck in my head for days. Thank You!

This post nearly brought me to tears. This is a beautiful portrait of what the kitchen asks of us, but also what the kitchen gives us in return. A kitchen's life is a powerful thing. Thank you for reminding us of that.

My dear you are wise beyond your years. You know things. You have learned things. Now you are sharing things....

Some of us already know...good food is good food is healing. This applies to the 4 star chef as well as the momma with 4 kids.

You have to keep talking about this...there is definitely more to say.

I am not a cook, just one of those customers who eat more or less happily what the cooks have created. Thank you for your post; it will help me to be more grateful for the food i eat, for the service i get, for the miracle that is happening in every ambitioned kitchen. And to understand those better who need to say: i gotta go.

I really needed to read this. I must have read and linked to it over a dozen times now. I am a professional cook and have been struggling with these questions for years.

Your words have meant so much to me since I found you a year ago, and have gotten me through some extraordinarily dark and difficult times. Thank you for everything.

Thank you for this post. I've been a long time lurker of your blog. Reading this put tears in my eyes because you put in eloquent words exactly how I feel about the kitchen. I only lasted 3 years. My heart was in love with the work but my head and body did not agree. I wasn't able to sacrifice. And in this sort of industry it's either be great or go home. Funny because my heart still wants to do it and I often look back on those three years with "fond disdain". Reading the comments from your really awesome readers also put tears in my eye because some of what they said was the reason why I left. I think it's wrong that cooks really can't leave when they have to. And it really isn't that serious. It's just food. But people sacrificed A LOT to make that food so I understand that too. And I understand that it is serious. And if you can endure all that than it's definitely worth it to be part of that exclusive cooks club. I'm honored that I was even able to be a pledge-ling for that club during the 3 years I worked.

Just a brief comment from a Dad whose 20 year old daughter just graduated from FCI and is going to create wonderful experiences for people out of flour, sugar, cream, butter and her passion. Long story short, 3 weeks before she was to graduate from school she was the victim of a hit and run while riding her bike to school in Manhattan. Three months in Bellevue Hospital, two of which she couldn't eat or drink, mom traveling from Ohio to be by her side every day. One month after discharge she was back to school to finish what she had started. Her life had changed immeasurably and in ways none of us could imagine. Her maturiy, professionalism and dedication has been a wonder to see. She is now doing an internship at a restaurant you'd recognize and valuing every minute. She sent me this post with the following note:

"Dad, this blog post can tell you kind of what is going on inside my head right now, and it can tell you better than I ever could".

She might shoot me for writing you but I just wanted you to know how much she was touched by what you wrote. Her name is Hannah and she is a hell of a kid and a hell of a pastry chef.

Thanks for telling me what she couldn't express.

Awesome, true and wonderfully written.

I enjoyed reading your post, and I cracked up when you talked about how you and your co-workers have this little joke now and will say, "I gotta go" from time to time.

It reminded me of a time when this new guy we had just hired said he had to go to the bathroom to change his shirt. Huh? Change your shirt? I don't know; he didn't tell me that. I didn't hear that but apparently he told one of the other cooks that.

Anyway, he never came back. So now occasionally one of us will say, "I gotta go change my shirt" and it's funny as hell. :)

As far as never calling in sick...well...there is that unwritten rule. Officially the rule is you're supposed to call in if you're ill (feverish, have diarrhea, or are vomiting). So many don't stay home though. They come in and infect the rest of us, and that's just not cool. But that's the way it is.

Leave it at the door...yeah...that's how it's supposed to be. But there are some people who bring it right through the door every shift they work, making the night miserable for everyone else around them.

I wish they'd leave their attitudes at home, but they don't. You hear their mouths runnin' all night long.

The crazy pace and being in the weeds all night...I can take that. But the attitudes...that's what gets to me. I try not to let it. I try to ignore it. But it's always there.

One thing's for and baking is good for the soul. It sure is brutal on your feet though! :)

I have bookmarked, read, and re-read this piece. Every time you speak of grace in any of your posts, it moves me to the core. If only my writing came close to reaching the level of eloquence you have perfected with your own.

I have probably read this entry a dozen times since you posted it, Chef. This entry speaks volumes to me.

Sometimes I feel like the weight of everything going on in my life is too much to carry, but I realized recently that this is the only industry that allows me to cull it. It's the only industry that allows me to witness progress, continually, daily, in times when progress or change or positivity seems unattainable. The feeling that I can bring joy to another's life when I'm having trouble finding the joy in my own. It is my joy.

Something happened recently that left me in a pretty bad state. Last night I worked around 350 covers solo, and under the pressure, I was having a hard time separating my work from what I should have left at home. I felt tears well up in my eyes as every ticket rolled in - but my hands never stopped working. And every plate I passed was something I was proud of, because it's where my soul ended up.

Thank you a billion times for this post. I really cannot thank you enough. Every time I get even the slightest feeling that the weight might be too much, I remember what you said -- Kitchens heal. And they do every time.

Thank you, Chef.

As I go through this rough time in life re-reading this entry was just what I needed. The family that I've gained from working in this kitchen - they need me and I need them. More so the latter at this moment. I am healing with their help and with time.

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