Thursday, April 09, 2015

Chefs' Big Challenge: Finding a Way to Balance their Lives and their Work

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Chefs' Big Challenge:
Finding a Way to Balance their Lives and their Work
It's no surprise to people in the restaurant business that long hours come with the territory. Most working chefs put in upwards of 60 to 80 hours each week. When they are not on the line cooking, they are expediting, ordering food and supplies, planning menus, fine tuning recipes, training staff, supervising the food safety procedures and the list goes on. All of this adds up to many hours and usually six days a week minimum.

It's also no surprise that chefs can be prone to job burnout, which is why many chefs leave their positions to take time off before they re-emerge at a different establishment.

But for many chefs, especially those that own their own restaurant, leaving is simply not an option. For these chefs, finding a formula for balancing their working lives with the rest of their lives is the key to their longevity and, in some cases, their survival.

Two-time James Beard award winning chef Sarah Stegner, co-owner of the hugely successful Prairie Sarah Stegner 300Grass Cafe in Northbrook, Illinois, and also a wife and mother, is one person who has made balancing her work life with her personal life an important priority. During the past three years, she has begun a joyous yet rigorous regimen to stay fit and healthy-physically, mentally and spiritually. She consulted with a nutritionist who helped her identify the most appropriate food choices for health and took up Cumbia and Bachata dance lessons at May I Have This Dance Please as a way to get fit, have fun and release stress. Stegner has lost more than 80 pounds and looks and feels great.

"Finding a balance in life makes us more creative and better able to do our jobs," said Stegner. "It makes us more effective when handling challenging situations.  It gives us a more defined perspective and a release from the tension."

One night last year, Stegner went out dancing with her cooks. She saw that all of them were great dancers. "They were nice and tried to include me but I really couldn't keep up, so I thought 'I want to learn this, too.'" She started taking Latin Dance lessons at a studio called May I have this Dance Please on Elston Avenue in Chicago. She began learning bachata, cumbia and salsa. 

"My teacher, Itza Riedas, helped me open a door in my life that has given me fun, exercise, and a connection with a different world," said Stegner. "It has allowed me to relax and be myself. As a chef I live by the idea that I am only as good as the last meal I served-and that can be a lot of pressure. I love the kitchen atmosphere, the creativity with the food; managing a team of people that are dynamic and focused, right there with me when I need them. It's a great job and I want to be able to give it as much energy and focus as I can. To do that I need to be happy and in good mental and physical shape."
Stegner has a husband and ten year old daughter at home who are, and always will be, her priorities.

"That means setting an example of how to live and work," she said. "My daughter sees that I am happy and focused at work. There are moments of tension, drama, and always some crisis because that's the nature of the restaurant business but I thrive being part of it and love what I do."

Other colleagues of Stegner also have found a way to achieve work/life balance. Carrie Nahabedian, another Beard award winner and owner of Naha and Brindille restaurants in Chicago, is a world traveler who goes on fabulous culinary and sightseeing tours around the globe.

Nora Pouillon, owner of the celebrated Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC, does something every day to maintain her health, keep her life balanced and relieve the stress of running a high-profile restaurant. "I maintain a Synergie (energy, polarity and yoga) program every day," she said.

"On Mondays I do yoga and energy work with dance. I love it. On Tuesdays I do step and weights. Wednesdays I work with a personal trainer to maintain an all-around feeling of strength and energy. On Thursdays, I do the step and weights and on Fridays I again do yoga." Saturdays for Pouillon start busy and end with relaxation. When the weather is good she goes on a hike with her daughter, granddaughter or a friend, and also treks around the farmers market. Then she visits friends on the Chesapeake or enjoys a swim or hot tub. Sundays are the day to relax and be social-museums and then hosting dinner at her house with friends. "I love when friends come over; we cook and dine together."

Karen Small, a staunch supporter of sustainable agriculture, is the owner and executive chef of the acclaimed Flying Fig in Cleveland, Ohio. She loves giving back to the community by working on benefits for local non-profits as well as teaching cooking classes that encourage healthy eating for children and the financially challenged. 

"Yoga is my biggest sanity keeper; I try to practice every day if I can," said Small. "I've been doing it for ten years and I'm more committed to it than ever. Small had to face the challenge that most chefs do: being in a restaurant kitchen every day requires discipline in order to avoid gaining weight. "I lost 30 pounds doing yoga," she said. "I had to change my diet and keep restaurant eating as a special occasion."

Small also loves to garden and enjoys movies and reading. "I spend a lot of time with my two Labradors. I try to take care of myself when I have time to get away. I also find cooking out of the restaurant environment, at home, is really soothing. I also travel quite a bit; I was in Rome and Sicily in November. In February I went to Sayulita, Mexico, outside of Puerto Villarta. It's a hippie arts community and it's a great place to go and regroup. I try to get away at least twice a year."

For Stephanie Pearl Kimmel, owner of the Marché Restaurant Group in Eugene, Oregon, connecting with the seasons is the key. Whether she's walking to work (which she does every day), going to the market (which she does every week) or getting her hands in the dirt in her garden, dedicating some time each day to remind herself of the cycle of the seasons does the trick. "Taking some solitary time to connect with the season is the best way for me to really be in the present," she says. "That connection is so fundamental to the reason that I'm in this business, it's a wonderful daily reminder."
"We also make sure that the workplace itself is in balance-so that work is a pleasure, even when it's busy and full. We are constantly checking ourselves to be sure that we're having fun, that our crew is taking care of themselves, and that things are running smoothly because the restaurant itself is healthy, says Pearl Kimmel.

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Prairie Grass Cafe Hosts Benefit for Chicago Latin Fusion April 24

Prairie Grass Cafe is hosting a benefit for Chicago Latin Fusion, Friday, April 24 beginning at 10 p.m. 15942253_l latin dancers Bring your dancing shoes! The evening features Cumbia and Bachata dance lessons by Itza Riedas and Jorge Licona and performances by Chicago Latin Fusion. Prairie Grass Cafe chef / partner Sarah Stegner, who has been studying these Latin dance forms for over a year, promises to join in.

Prairie Grass Cafe will be providing delicious Latin canapés, beer and wine. The recommended donation is $50. There also will be a cash bar.

Reservations are required. Please contact Prairie Grass Cafe at 847-205-4433 or visit the restaurant at 601 Skokie Blvd. in Northbrook.

About Prairie Grass Cafe
Prairie Grass Cafe (601 Skokie Blvd.; Northbrook, IL) supports Chicago's Green City Market and local sustainable farms, selecting the freshest ingredients to reflect the season. Prairie Grass Cafe currently serves lunch Monday - Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Prairie Grass Cafe also serves breakfast Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays 9:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. Light fare is available in the bar Monday through Friday 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information or to make a reservation, please call (847) 205-4433 or visit


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