Bananas and Nuts: Chefs, Politicians, and the Benefits of Insanity

Sometimes, I wish I was crazy. Not “get these bugs off of me” crazy; rather, the kind of crazy where the screws are just loose enough that you can break free from the shackles of normalcy and pursue greatness unfettered. Normal sensations like self-awareness and the need for sleep are all well and good, but they keep us grounded. Crazy lets us fly.

Alas, I’m not crazy, but I have had the privilege of witnessing it first-hand by way of an unusual mix of two professional experiences with nearly nothing, at least on paper, in common: national politics and fine dining. Yes, craziness is manifest in the long hours, hectic pace, and stress level of both careers, but it is nowhere more apparent than in the behavior of the men and women at the top. And after having been exposed to my fair share of these people, I can say definitively that both chefs and politicians are completely bonkers.

The differences between professional cooking and professional governing are numerous and, for the most part, fairly obvious. First, while the hours in both jobs can be long and unpredictable, the basic schedules are almost completely inverses of one another. In government, it’s Monday through Friday, nine to six (or seven, or eight), and a little on the weekends, mostly via your taxpayer-subsidized BlackBerry. In the kitchen, you work nights, weekends, and holidays. Over the course of six months, I worked two eight-day stretches and two ten-day stretches, neither of which is remotely abnormal in the industry. A fellow cook told me he once worked 32 straight days, then shrugged and went back to slicing chives.

Second, the people you work and interact with in each job could not have less in common. The political class consists mostly of white, educated, middle-class people whose desk televisions are tuned to CNN all day and who regularly peruse on-line news sites. The professional kitchen I worked in was the picture of diversity, with whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, and immigrants from all over the world represented in nearly equal measure. Some were educated; others were not. Most were working-class people who thought about coming into work the next day and earning a paycheck rather than about whether it’s really fair for Iowa caucuses to always be the first contest on the primary calendar, regardless of how loudly I bitched about it to the fry cook.

Lastly (and this may shock some of you), government work is different than kitchen work. The first is performed primarily seated, in cubicles in front of computer screens and in conference rooms, and consists of producing and exchanging pieces of paper. The second is performed almost exclusively in the standing position, and consists of taking organic material that has been harvested, killed, or foraged and fabricating it into something that, between the hours of 5:30 pm and 10:30 pm, strangers can arbitrarily order. The first can be performed with relative effectiveness while drinking chai at Starbucks; the second involves copious amounts of salt, butter, and yelling.

But the similarities between the two professional environments are even more interesting. Both are uniquely stressful and require feverish multitasking. Both involve managing and coexisting with a wide range of personalities–people are people, after all, and idiosyncrasy and insecurity are always present, whether you’re around the copying machine or over the stove.

Most importantly, both are performed under the leadership of crazy people.

Let’s start with the politicians. The men and women who hold elected office in this country are often maligned for being lazy do-nothings, but the ones I’ve witnessed first-hand are nothing less than torrents of energy, miniature funnel clouds that whip in and out of meetings and events, leaving a trail strewn with slapped backs, half-empty promises, and annotated policy memos.

Their professional arc and daily responsibilities are largely to blame. In order to even get the job, they’re required to campaign relentlessly for months on end, and to win an actual election involving thousands (sometimes even millions) of actual voters. Once they’re in office, they have to be unconditionally available to a never-ending parade of constituents, special interest organizations, and lobbyists; and to interact effectively with colleagues just as crazy and harried as they are. The pace is as relentless as it is exhausting. Those who willingly endure it–even thrive in it–can’t help but be a little “off.”

On the other hand, it’s no secret that chefs are crazy; in fact, many are renowned for their insanity, and others are all too willing to play the part. They too are whirling dervishes, constantly spinning from one challenge to the next all in the name of running a profitable restaurant. On a daily basis, chefs order and keep track of hundreds of ingredients; shepherd those ingredients through the process of being cut, peeled, prepped, mixed, cooked, sold, and eaten; and corral staffs of often unreliable and unruly people whose absence or tardiness could send the entire tenuous enterprise into outright chaos.

And they do all of these things from a cramped, hot, messy kitchen chock full of other miserable bastards. Levelheaded people, these are not. I once watched a chef eat 15 shishito peppers in an effort to ascertain their spiciness, only to proclaim that his “face [was] burning off.”

Strangely enough, due to the peculiarities of the Washington social scene, the paths of chefs and politicians cross often despite the very different worlds they occupy. The involvement of celebrity chefs in various political initiatives aside, the fact of the matter is that politicians like to eat out (there’s no better setting for political brinksmanship than at a dimly lit table over an alcoholic beverage), and Washington restaurateurs are used to seeing famous political names appear on their reservation lists with some frequency. In my short time in a DC restaurant, I had the opportunity to cook for a sitting Vice President (Joe Biden) and a former one (Al Gore), as well as Cabinet Secretaries, senators, and any number of high-level staffers and operatives.

For me, this is where the true intersection between the two worlds exists. Listing the unheralded shared traits of chefs and politicians makes for good entertainment, but it’s a far more fleeting enterprise than a good meal, cooked, served, and eaten by people from very different backgrounds and with very different interests and skills, around a table where people can find respite from, or an outlet for, the unusual impulses that make them do what they do.

Ultimately, I’m glad I’m not crazy, even if I sometimes wish I had at least a little bit of the insanity that drives chefs and politicians to thrive in their respective, absurdly demanding professions. I ended up leaving the kitchen in large part because I couldn’t get past not being at home with my wife in the evenings–a sensation far too “normal” for the life of the professional chef. It’s enough for me to have had a seat at the table, a place behind the stove, and the chance to regale anyone who will listen with stories of the wonderfully crazy people I met along the way.

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3 comments
  1. Andrew said:

    The foray from politics to the kitchen seems few and far between, but I guess it’s not that surprising that a politician named William Abitbol from–where else–France went from serving his constituents to serving customers at his aptly named Alfred. Whatever it takes to serve the people, I guess.

  2. It’s great to hear your thoughts on cooking! (And, by the way, I love the title of this post). I can definitely relate to your experience… I just quit my job at Columbia Firehouse and am not sure if I will be returning to restaurants. Loved being in the kitchen everyday but, just as you said, it’s a tough, chaotic industry not really designed for “normalcy” and I, too, find that I am a bit “too normal” to sustain this type of career.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on food and cooking. And I also hope to hear more about your experience at Blue Duck Tavern!

    • sam said:

      Thanks Monica! Stay tuned, and you’ll get some good Blue Duck stories. I paid a quick visit to your blog–love the photos. Good luck with the move, and hopefully we can stay in touch over the internets.

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