A few weeks ago, I walked away from opening a new restaurant. Everything about it was perfect. The location was dreamy: beautiful, quiet but close to everything. The investors were young, creative and enthusiastic. The creative team was incredible: designers, builders and craftspeople who have inspired me for a long time. The problem was me.
As young cooks, we want to make our impact fast. The media spur this on — best new chef, best new restaurant, rising star. We feel a pressure to compete, to be the youngest and the first. We push ourselves through 90-hour weeks, we leave family and friends behind for unpaid stages in far-flung corners of the world. We push our bodies and our minds as far as they can go. We sacrifice. We are so focused and single-minded that anyone who doesn't share that passion seems like an alien. We grocery shop, drive and talk the way we cook: fast and efficient, a mantra propelling us forward. If we're lucky, this leads to a chef position, to a platform from which to make a name.
But life often has other plans for us. There will be situations, relationships and circumstances that talent cannot fix. I pushed myself and my career to heights I only dreamed of. I didn't allow for distraction or for anything to get in my way. But there was so much collateral damage.
My business partner, Ashleigh Parsons, and I opened Alma in 2012. It was a tiny storefront in downtown Los Angeles, sandwiched between a marijuana dispensary and a hostess club. We had no investors; everything was done on a shoestring. Because of this, there was no margin for error. I was the first one there and the last one out every day. I wasn't around for my family and was barely present as a close friend slowly succumbed to cancer. My stress and anxiety, my lack of balance, created an ulcer that sent me to the emergency room at 26 years old with massive internal bleeding. I felt numb, the hallmark of depression.
My cook mentality told me to push. I ignored everything and everyone around me that didn't have forward momentum. I took myself into darkness, and it affected my work, my restaurant and every aspect of my life. I was relentless with my cooks: aggressive, unforgiving and at times just plain insane. The example I set was to drive until you break, and then to keep going. I hated myself, I hated my work, and my food was filled with meaningless ego and negativity. Despite this, the good press and accolades continued to pile up. I got everything I thought I wanted, like some kind of surreal joke.
At the supposed peak of my career, with a James Beard nomination and a string of other awards in hand, I broke. Except this time I couldn't keep going. My restaurant was failing; in spite of the immense press we received, we remained mostly empty, often cooking for just a handful of people each night. I had been battling a lawsuit brought by a former customer, and I had eaten myself alive with self-doubt. I possessed no coping skills. I had abandoned my friends and family. I'd completely tuned out the advice of teachers and mentors. What played out over the next few months was a cliché: The restaurant closed, I filed for bankruptcy, and I took stock of my life and saw nothing.
Despite all of this, the family and friends I had pushed aside were there to catch me. To hold me just above the bottom. Friends loaned me money they knew I couldn't pay back. My parents co-signed a credit card for me. Calls were made to help me get back on my feet and find a job. I didn't deserve their love, their support, but they gave it anyway. Without the identity of my restaurant and my position, I was forced to start anew, and I created a sense of self that was separate from work. I learned compassion and patience and tried to let go of ego and ambition. I cooked at home again for the first time in years, just purely for the pleasure of it. I started meditating. I opened myself up to advice and guidance from friends and professionals. Instead of burying my hurt, I exposed it.
Many others aren't so lucky. Completely alone, they turn to drugs, alcohol or other forms of self-sabotage. If I was going to lead young men and women, I had to change. I had to set the example that while work is important, there will be so many moments that cooking cannot prepare them for. I needed to show, and more importantly demand, that they take care of themselves as people. Make time for friends, for books, for museums and travel. To prepare, so that when those moments find them, they're ready. What good is being the best cook in the world if you can't weather the storm?
Just after closing Alma in 2015, we were offered an opportunity to resurrect it as a temporary pop-up at the Standard in Hollywood. It was an easy decision, and the gig has since grown into running the entire food and beverage program for the hotel. I am extremely fortunate, supported by a company that allows me to be creative and shields me from the spotlight and pressure of owning a small restaurant. They take care of my cooks with benefits, good pay and vacation. The work I put into myself has allowed me to grow creatively in the kitchen as well. I have more pride in the food we now cook at Alma then ever before.
But I worried that, from the outside, I looked like a sellout. I'm a hotel chef, something I used to scoff at as a young cook. I felt something creep up inside of me: this need to prove myself again, to rebuild my name and reputation. And so I sought out a new restaurant. As I got closer to realizing that goal, I felt this anxiety gnawing at me, demanding my attention.
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When the time came to sign a lease, this feeling got stronger. I swallowed my ego and the fears that I might never have this opportunity again, and at the 11th hour I walked away. I wrote to my team, the investors and everyone who had put so much effort into funding and designing this restaurant. I told them the truth: I wasn't ready, as much as I wanted to be. The wholeness of my life was more important than the arc of my career. I expected responses of anger and frustration at time wasted, of energy spent on nothing. Instead, what I received was overwhelming support, love and kindness.
Weakness is something we are taught to be allergic to as cooks. The ideal cook is stoic, unmoved in the face of pain and pressure. I hoped that by sharing this with my cooks, they would see an alternative.
Socially and politically, we are in a moment filled with anger and violence. What we need are real leaders. Restaurants are one of the few meritocracies left in this country, places where talent and hard work are still regularly rewarded, where someone can come from nothing and drag themselves to the top. But we must teach our cooks the value of community — teach them how to cope with stress and depression and support them when they need to prioritize their lives at the cost of our menus and our legacies.
There are chefs who have been doing this, mostly silently, for a long time. My hope is that as our industry grows and evolves, the media and dining public will realize that these leaders are as worthy of our praise and adoration as those who trail-blaze with their cuisine — and that we are able to create an army of men and women who are talented and driven but also compassionate and balanced.