The Ex-ecutive Chef
All good things must come to an end. It may come as a surprise to many who have known me over the years as Chef Mike, but this August I worked what will probably end up being my last shift in a professional kitchen. The truth is, I stopped being happy in that career a long time ago. Something needed to change.
Coming up in the kitchens of Boston, I worked for chef owner’s like Josh Ziskin, Tim Partridge and Rembs Layman, whose passion for their restaurants was clear in everything they did. They inspired me to bring joy to people through food and at the time, I was willing to sacrifice anything for the glory of a busy Saturday night. I had that passion in me for a time, but as the years rolled on, my life seemed to pass me by while my back arched, my knees ached and the bags under my eyes hung like over-inflated dough. By the time I moved back home to NY I would take trips to Restaurant Depot and watch visions of my future self shuffle through the aisles in their stained whites, pushing around 500 lb. carts, their only ‘break’ in the day. The nickname ‘bitter Boulos’ began to be tossed around, and not because I liked grapefruit.
Over the years, I specialized in supporting owners and operators in the difficult and stressful openings of their businesses, but when the dust had settled, I was always ready to move on. Their vision wasn’t my vision, and when the problem-solving, decision making and creativity of the opening rush had passed, I would work on making myself obsolete and move on to the next project. I dreamed of having my own place one day, but as a working chef, struggled to find the time, energy, people and money I would need to pursue the venture. I know this isn’t the case for every chef, but this was my reality, and with a wife and infant daughter at home, my priorities started to shift from pursuing my own culinary glory to making sure that my family had a husband and father they could count on.
Everyone talks about the physical toll that the restaurant industry takes on those of us who work grueling 16 hour days and opening months without a day off, but the mental toll this industry exacts on even the best of us is hard to explain to an outsider. I would be manic in my mood swings. I would go from complete elated happiness- dancing and singing while I cooked or strolled through kitchen- to fits of rage, depression and the heart palpitating stress of having more to do than time to do it. My last opening broke me mentally more than any other before it, and when I sat with the owners and we agreed to part ways, I knew that it was time to pursue something else. The question was: what would that be?
I used to joke with one of my old chef friends that we were all just future Sysco reps in waiting. Eventually, the business would get to us and we would spend our lives selling to those who didn’t ‘fail’ or ‘give-up’. There was a prideful arrogance among chefs, and mine would never allow me to see another profession as a worthy pursuit. The idea of spending 40 hours behind a desk with a multi-color striped noose around my neck was anathema to me, and although I loved and respected so many of my reps, it was never a career I was interested in pursuing.
I can only describe what came next as a clever twist ending, an answer to my woes that was so perfect, and right in front of my eyes, but unexpected and exciting at the same time. I was blind to the solution, but like one of those Magic Eye pictures, it only came into view when I stopped trying so hard to make something happen. Once it did, the path was clear and my future held promise for the first time in years.
I grew up playing on the office floor of my aunt’s real estate brokerage, and in my teens, helped the office transition to the ‘computer age’. I’ll be honest, I never once considered real estate as a career, but once I made the decision to transition this summer, I never looked back. The best part about this new career is the ability to pursue it in any direction I want, with the flexibility to pursue other dreams and help others with theirs. I now have a life where I can tuck my daughter in every night, see my wife on weekends and family during the holidays.
I started Hudson River Hospitality Services for several reasons, but mostly as a way to stay connected to my old life, and to offer my culinary experience and knowledge to help others pursue their culinary dreams. I don’t know how I’ve done it, but somehow managed to thread the needle. I’ve held on to my passionate love for food and hospitality that drove me into the kitchen, while having the freedom to pursue other interests, including my own happiness.