Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Scott Haas: Shrink in the Kitchen

LUCY BURDETTE: I was beyond excited when I stumbled over a fellow psychologist who is a serious foodie. Scott Haas has a book coming out from Penguin about the psychology of chefs--how fascinating! But since we have to wait until 2013 to read it, I persuaded Scott to let us post an excerpt from an article he had published in Gastronomica. He was working as a line cook at Hamersly's, an upscale bistro in Boston at the time of this writing.

SCOTT HAAS: It was my job to cook the food and shut up. For a second I wondered if I ought to apologize to the chef for appearing to have questioned his order, but instead I went back to assembling and firing the orders. I was working on sixteen dinners, all of which needed to get to the customers within the next thirty minutes.
I am not used to working fast. Though I pride myself on being efficient, everything I have ever done outside of a restaurant kitchen requires deliberate and relatively slow observation, memory, and the ability to use language to express my ideas—not mindless repetition and physical strength. What was so great about being robotic, about being so tense and focused that all my concerns were erased? Outside of playing sports or having sex (and even there focus is nowhere near as necessary or possible), cooking in a restaurant was the first time in my life that I was forced to achieve a complete state of immediacy. There was no looking back, no looking forward, no chance of distraction—all I had was a mandate to cook and cook and cook and cook. My entire world was reduced to six feet in four directions: the stove, the mise en place, the wait station, and the center of the kitchen where the chef stood expediting orders.
In the restaurant kitchen, the natural confusion, introspection, reminiscences, imagination, and creativity I rely upon daily to see mentally ill patients in my job as a psychologist vanished. And yet, a strange, unfamiliar peace came over me; I transcended anxiety through cooking.

My time at Hamersley’s was brief—a few months—but for the cooks and the chef the restaurant was a way of life. Night after night, six days a week, from four in the afternoon until midnight, they were robbed of the typical consciousness possessed by those they fed. After service (a term used to describe the dining period, which to me has religious connotations), most of the cooks headed to clubs for dancing, drinking, and drugging. They were too keyed up, too wired to sleep, talk, or even make love.

Make no mistake: a lot of cooks and chefs are oddballs, misfits, and outcasts. Being a member of a restaurant family gives them access to a safe place where their emotional and social difficulties are tolerated. The restaurant is a kind of demimonde, a place where at last they feel at home. Outside of the restaurant world, their problems interfere with their success. But thanks to the inherent tolerance of this unique world, working in a restaurant is as close to intimacy as many of them ever get in life.

A restaurant kitchen accepts odd behavior without too much fuss. Few bosses outside of restaurant kitchens can afford to be so tolerant. I once complained to the bistro’s owner, chef Gordon Hamersley, about Dave, a line cook who was driving me crazy. Dave spoke so quickly he was impossible to understand. He was impulsive and quick to anger, mercurial in his moods, loose in his associative processes, inattentive, very limited in his insight, and incapable of sustaining relationships with women he loved. Gordon replied, “I know he’s a nut, but he’s our nut.” Another time, when I asked Andrew Carmellini, chef at Café Boulud, about the strange, paranoid, and vaguely threatening remarks of a line cook from his kitchen, he said, “He doesn’t get out much.”

“A restaurant provides a home for social deviants,” said Hamersley. “It provides structure for those who ordinarily don’t have it—and it’s a very liberal, creative place where people can flourish. We don’t care about the sorts of emotional problems that would matter in other work settings.”

Restaurants have always been a refuge for actors, painters, writers, musicians, and those excluded or victimized by society for being homosexual. The kitchen—and the possibility of sleeping through most of the next day after a night’s service and debauchery—have made the restaurant environment a favorable hideout for the shunned who would otherwise have a hard time functioning in other work and social settings.
The emotional security provided by restaurants enables many chefs to express love that would otherwise remain repressed. This love is expressed in the food that they cook. That chefs often cannot function in a nine-to-five setting and do not have ordinary home lives indicates that their ways of expressing and receiving love differ fundamentally from others’. Just what is their relationship to love? Chefs often give in order to receive. They seek validation from those they feed. This need for validation explains, in part, their exceptional and enormous generosity.

“Don’t you know why Todd English’s food is so rich?” asks chef Jody Adams of Rialto restaurant in Cambridge. “It’s because he wants to be loved so badly. We all do.”

The need for validation also accounts for the emptiness in many chefs’ lives. Wanting to be constantly surrounded by food, obsessed with feeding others, not always knowing when to stop putting ingredients in a dish or when a customer has had enough to eat—all these behaviors are symptomatic of a love that goes unfulfilled. Like performers, chefs have a powerful and overwhelming need to be loved. This need results in a tug of war with the customer as a vicarious other self, a representation of their own inner hunger. It is the customer who determines whether or not they are validated, and that is why chefs are as notorious for their anger as for their love. Being dependent on someone else in order to satisfy one’s personal hunger is both frustrating and terrifying.

And yet, chefs rarely sit down to eat a meal. They resist the satisfaction that comes from eating in order to feed others instead. More to the point, the satisfaction they derive from feeding others is as profound as if they themselves were the ones eating. They express and receive love from feeding people—an act that is giving even as it creates a barrier between the chef and food. Fundamentally, the chef’s experience of food is heightened and mitigated by other people eating his or her food.

Who in their right mind would choose to relate to food in these complex, regressed, indirect, filtered, and primitive ways?

When I stood in the open kitchen of Hamersley’s Bistro and watched customers eat the food I had prepared, the mental image I had of myself and my fellow cooks was that we were children cooking for the grown-ups as a favor, as a token of our esteem, to show off our cleverness. What good children we were! The adults were eating food we had cooked for them!

Chefs need the approval of many people, often complete strangers, who tell them that they have done a good job. The cult of celebrity associated with the postmodern chef is kept alive by armies of publicists, but it is rooted in the chef’s psychological yearning to be loved by thousands.

LUCY: Fascinating Scott! we will never eat in a restaurant in the same way!

Scott Haas is the author of “Hearing Voices” (Dutton) and “Are We There Yet?” (Plume) and a co-author of “The Da Silvano Cookbook” (Bloomsbury). He won a James Beard award in 2004 for his radio work. His work appears in a variety of publications, including Wine Enthusiast, The Boston Globe, and Gastronomica. He has a doctorate in clinical psychology and maintains an active consultative practice emphasizing diagnostic work. His new book on the psychology of being a chef and running a restaurant–which focuses on Chef Tony Maws and Craigie on Main–is being published by Berkeley/Penguin in 2013.


  1. I'll be looking for your book, Scott - congratulations! The psychology of chefs is a lot to chew on. I'm sure a major ingredient is ego. Plus adrenaline junkie.

    As a huge fan of Hammersley's -- I gotta ask, what IS the secret to their extraordinary roasted chicken?

  2. My sister is a chef..and she NEVER eats. NEVER. She loves to create the food, she loves to arrange it and serve it-but she never eats. SHe'll take a bite of food soone else prepared.

    One thing I love about cooking--not that I'm close to being a chef, yikes--is the glory when it all comes out, ready at the same time.

    Scott, thanks...I've heard it can be scary in the kitchen! With knives and stoves and egos...true?

  3. Hi, Hallie: The chicken is marinaded overnight in an array of simple spices and ten cooked through well before service. At time of service, we pan grilled it and finished it under a salamander. Oh, and butter. Tons of butter. Not a fancy bird, by the way. When I was there, it was Bll & Evans...

  4. The chicken is marinaded in an array of simple spices and then cooked long before service. We pan seared it when ordered. When I was there, it wasn't a fancy bird: Bell & Evans. Butter. Tons of butter.

  5. Hi, Hank: At Craigie on Main, cooks and servers and chef are chill; everything focuses on the food. It's work...and the professionalism is inspiring.

  6. Wow, this is really fascinating . . . thanks for sharing!

  7. I don't think I know a more passionate, focused group of people than chefs. For a long time--years and years--I thought they were sacrificing normalcy--strollers, dogs, friends--for 90 hours+ in restaurants. Then I realized, working at Craigie, that they have a refuge. We're the ones in the soup!

  8. I grew up with the "food is love" notion and believe it still. I am not terribly creative, but I do good comfort foods.

    One of my favorite food moments in reading is from "Heartburn" and the thin pat of butter on each bite of mashed potatoes.

    I look forward to reading your book, Scott.

    Wow--and my security word is "atedish." !!!

  9. We took our daughter to Craigie St Bistro (it was on Main by then) for her graduation from the Design School -- it was a memorable meal. The food there seems so thoughtful. Really nothing on that menu that's a repeat of what you see at the average upscale restaurant. Every ingredient TASTES.

  10. Hi Scott,

    Beautiful metaphor for kitchen as world and safe haven for differences, things I would not normally pair.

    I think what you say is true, but sometimes I feel that chefs are stingy and express disdain with their offerings.

    [Haha . . . my word verification code today is "freemiso."]

  11. Hi Scott,

    Well that explains a lot. I've worked in two restaurants and two bars as a waitress during college, and that explains EVERYTHING!!

    I was often shocked to find out how many employees actually steal from the restaurant and/or bar. But maybe computerization has taken care of that.

    Still, I have some terrific memories and people I think of fondly.

    Great idea for a book!

  12. Scott, what a fascinating way of looking at cooking and chefs. I've always been interested in professional cooking, but have also always known I didn't have the stamina for it. It's a hard life.

    I have thought about writing a novel in which one of the primary characters if a female chef, so will be looking very much forward to your book in 2013!

  13. Scott, many thanks -- your essay explains things I had perceived but not understood about chefs and restaurants. And while my protag runs a retail shop, there are LOTS of chefs in The Food Lovers' Village, so your essay and book will be great resources!

  14. Jan, I worked as a waitress through college too. The chefs were two men of color from Trenton who would come in at night with a fifth of vodka, which would be empty by the end of the night.

    I'll never forget the night the two of them (Joe and Moses) got mad at the owners and walked out. I stepped in and cooked hamburgers and other simple things for the dinner crowd. But it was hot, hard work--and they paid me only minimum wage for covering their a**!

  15. Your book sounds very intriguing, Scott! Can't wait to read it. I also enjoyed the excerpt from the article.

    I love all things pertaining to food. In my current WIP, my protag is a young female chef who loses fiance', home & job, then lucks into a job as chef aboard a luxury yacht, cruising the Caribbean & the Mediterranean. I'm having great fun writing and researching!

  16. Fascinating, Scott. Now I'll worry more than ever about someone spitting in my soup if he's going through a mercurial phase!

    (and my captcha word is Hansen which happens to be my daughter's last name)