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Thursday, April 09, 2015
Chefs' Big Challenge: Finding a Way to Balance their Lives and their Work
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
Prairie Grass Cafe will be providing delicious Latin canapés, beer
and wine. The recommended donation is $50. There also will be a cash
Reservations are required. Please contact Prairie Grass Cafe
at 847-205-4433 or visit the restaurant at 601 Skokie Blvd. in
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