Closing My Restaurant Forced Me to Learn How to Take Care of Myself
Self-care: Does anyone in the restaurant world even know what that means? Before the end of 2019, I hadn’t given it much thought; if anything, I thought it was a marketing ploy to sell bath bombs to self-indulgent civilians. Then a family crisis coincided with a global pandemic and forced me to close my restaurant. I sat at home, alone, for almost a year. And I realized I didn’t know what self-care was because I had never really taken care of myself.
Stuck in an apartment where I had never before even cooked anything, I was immediately confronted with my inability to live like a “normal” person. Over the empty, unstructured months that followed, I realized that without the constant pressure of running the restaurant, I was lost. When I was working, every moment of my day was accounted for. I woke up in the morning already behind the eight ball and rushed out the door to make it to the restaurant supply place early so I could be back at the restaurant to unload the van, prep and set up for service at 10am. I cooked through lunch, then ran to the office to handle bookkeeping, paperwork, and pay bills. I drove across town to the bank during our afternoon lull, and then rushed back to the restaurant, praying my husband didn't get slammed while I was stuck in traffic. When the dinner rush was over, I cooked our dinner, packing it in to-go containers, and throwing it on top of the pizza oven to stay warm while we finished out the night. I knew it wasn’t great to live that way but didn’t understand that these habits were bad when they were intrinsically tied to my success, my pride in my work ethic, and survival in a tough industry.
At home for the first time in years, I stuck to those patterns. I waited until the end of the day to gulp down my food; I felt I hadn’t earned the privilege of eating until I had completed an arbitrary list of tasks. Working on recipes at my kitchen table, I put off going to the bathroom for hours, viewing it as an inconvenience to be delayed as long as possible. After all, when I was on the line, I always had multiple orders going on the sauté, grill, salad, and fry stations at once; there was no time for bathroom breaks. Ignoring my own needs was so ingrained in me I did it without being aware of what I was doing to myself.
Even without the restaurant, I was exhausted, because I still approached every day like a busy rush that needed my immediate and complete attention. But now, there was no closing time, no break down, no clean-up to signal the end of my day and that it was time for me to crash for the night. The adrenaline of a rush with no end carried over from one day into the next.
I realized I didn’t know how to dial back the urgency of restaurant life. I didn’t know how to rest and take care of myself. “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean,” right? Downtime felt like slacking, and relaxation felt like failure. I felt extreme guilty for not being able to keep my restaurant open. It didn’t help that my husband was stuck on another continent and I was desperately trying to bring him home. I was restless, depressed, and desperate.
But after sitting alone for a while, there were no more distractions to hide behind. Slowly, I began to question who I was underneath all that urgency and stress. And when a racial and societal reckoning began to roil across the country, I questioned how I had been trained. Working in restaurants, I learned that my only value lay in what I produced. And as a woman of color—a Black woman—my value was almost always equated with the ways in which I served the needs of others. But at home, alone, with nothing but time, I was forced to slow down. For the first time, I could drink a cup of coffee while it was still hot, sit down to eat lunch, go to sleep before 2am. I learned that it was okay to take care of my own needs. It was better than okay, it was great.
My time alone sparked an awareness of my need for and my right to self-care. I’m still learning what that means for me, and for other restaurant workers. I hope the reckoning our industry is undergoing leads to real change, and the ideology that restaurants’ and customers’ well-being comes before everything else is dismantled. I want to see an industry in which our work ethic, independence, and strengths benefit ourselves and not just others. I hope we can learn to practice self-care even while working without fear of retribution.
Taffy Elrod is a chef, recipe developer, and cooking instructor and the former chef/owner of Paradiso Pizza Parlour in New York.