Interview by Patrycja Siwiec for Food Service
Being a chef is a dream of every cook who wants to develop. Is there a next career level after achieving this goal? Hilary Akers, a Dutch chef, found the recipe for professional burnout.
Let’s start at the beginning. What motivated you to bind your life with cuisine?
I was 23 and had a few years of studies behind me. I actually wanted to do two things: become a taxi driver or a bartender. I started working as a waitress, but that definitely wasn’t my favourite thing to do. I was observing what was going in the kitchen with growing curiosity. I wanted to be a part of that world. Finally there came a day, when I decided to put all my eggs in one basket. I enrolled to a professional course for chefs. And that’s how the biggest adventure of my life began.
What happened next?
After 15 years of hard work in various restaurant kitchens I had to make a choice. Either continue cooking or become a manager. Within one day I said goodbye to being a chef. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, because I had no plan what to do next.
If working in the kitchen was your dream, why did you give it up?
It may sound controversial, but a thinking chef often feels lonely in a buzzing kitchen.
Being a chef is not only hard physical work, but also a demanding intellectual challenge. It is also teamwork, where it’s good when others share your style of work. When I started I didn’t meet many women chefs. Seeing me, other chefs were surprised and asked: – What are you doing here, you must have mistaken the kitchen for the dining hall. There’s no point in hiding the fact that it’s a man’s world and in practice being a woman is sometimes an obstacle. I had to settle in the macho world, accept the rules of the game or change occupation. The fact is, that you have to work harder if you’re a woman and you want to be respected.
How did your life change when you stopped being a chef?
I never really stopped. I still cook sometimes, just not under such pressure as before. Such rapid turns in a career are never easy. After wearing the chef’s apron for the last time, I took a long break. A moment later I was given a task to translate a book about the history of food. I was chosen to do that because I know a lot about cuisine and I know English and Dutch. Working on the book was so interesting, that I decided, that I want to work on such subjects myself. I began studies in the field of history of food. Of course I couldn’t just study, so in the meantime I was teaching cooking and wine tasting classes and wrote recipes. My cooperation with various magazines was picking up pace. I grew fond of writing and working on a text.
Was it hard for you to switch to another work mode?
When you work as a chef, you have an everyday adrenaline kick, which you quickly get addicted to. When I changed my profession, each half an hour behind the desk was torture for me. I can’t sit still. Even now, once a week I work in a herb garden that supplies the best restaurants in Netherlands. I love to get physically tired.
How did other chefs react to your decision? No matter how you look at it, you suddenly stood at the other side of the barricade.
I have to admit that I met positive reactions. Chefs read my works and, what’s more important – they respect me. They know I’m credible. I have to emphasize, however, that I am not a restaurant critic. I am very critical and I would probably have to write many unpleasant articles, that’s why I stay away from this form of writing.
I know your articles and I know that you like to put a cat among the pigeons sometimes. Is there something particular that recently got on your nerve?
I recently got my hands on a book about cooking for men. The theses it contained were so shocking, that I wrote an article about the differences of perception of their job by chefs of both genders.
What was it about?
The women I worked with in the kitchen didn’t play with food. They tried to expose the ingredients on the plate, let the products to speak for themselves. Men in the kitchen see themselves as artists; they want to impress the guests. In the interviews we can read that they are inspired by how their mothers and grandmothers cook, but barely anyone cooks that way. If you ask a chef where’s he eating after work, they’ll tell you they like to eat something simple, casual, rustic. Perhaps the chefs actually prepare dishes they don’t really like themselves?
Can your story be an inspiration for other chefs who are considering putting their career on hiatus?
I don’t think it’s possible for every chef. When I decided to continue my education, I already had an education that allowed me to study at an university. The most important thing is not to be afraid of changes. I too was terrified at first, but my love for taking risk was bigger. Getting out from your comfort zone may turn out to be more satisfying than lasting in apparent contentment.
HILARY AKERS – professional chef with 13 years of experience. She worked in various places: from small bistros to restaurants with Michelin stars. She graduated in economy and history at the University of Amsterdam, with a specialization in the history of food. She currently cooperates with the gardener responsible for supplying vegetables and herbs to the best restaurants in Amsterdam. Herbs are both her passion and a subject of her studies. A book author, translator and journalist of the “Het Financieele Dagblad” (“The Financial Times”), where she’s responsible for the Food & Wine section. She never gave up cooking. She still cooks at private parties and caterings. She gives lectures on food and history of food.
The interview was published in the Food Service Magazine (www.foodservice24.pl)