Too Close to the Fire: A chef’s story of restaurant burnout and rekindling his love of cooking

Illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen

This is the third installment of Off the Map, a column by chef J.D. Fratzke. It appears monthly on and occasionally in print.

For literally decades, one of the most zen-like and enjoyable tasks of my 14-hour work day was the 45 minutes before dinner service wherein all the chopping, dicing, braising, searing, emulsifying, and reducing I’d been at since 11am was neatly assembled, one stainless steel vessel at a time, in my station. Slid into coolers, placed on back-burner steam wells, and dropped into place on my cold rail like checkers in a game of Connect Four, those mapped-out ingredients that I could now find with my eyes closed were all in place. They were my ammunition for battle with the order tickets that for the next five hours would be spitting out of saute station’s printer like so much lava on Mauna Loa.

But one afternoon, four or five years ago, I was paralyzed by the realization that, for the first time in my adult life, I absolutely did not want to be in a restaurant kitchen and the last thing in the world I wanted to be doing was setting up my station for dinner service.

As I struggled to cross off the list I’d scrawled in my Moleskine, a sort of screaming began to build in the back of my head—a vicious white noise stripping away my ability to concentrate. I heard voices calling me unkind names, chiding my inability to get the job done, questioning my right to guide anyone to good flavor, but I pushed through the tunnel vision because I was The Chef and I had to lead. I hid the terror and abject lack of motivation and planted my clogs on the quarry tile when all I wanted to do was run away from the one place in the world where I had ever felt I belonged.

I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I made it through that night. And the next one. And the weekend and the week that followed and the several bottles of wine that seemed to be more and more present every time I had a moment to myself.

A few months later I attended a gala celebration for St. Paul’s own Lynne Rossetto Kasper, and one of her guests was chef and author Francis Mallmann (best known for “Seven Fires”). I started to choke up during the short film about his life and career that was shown as his introduction. It was astonishing to see such happiness on the face of a world-class chef as he built fires and roasted piles of meat and fish and vegetables on beaches that looked remarkably like those in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I saw a guy who’d had the culinary world by the balls and walked away from it because its trappings didn’t make sense to him anymore. Cooking outside in the places that he loved—that reconnected him to the wilderness and clean water and filled his lungs with fresh air—had become his way of celebrating the time we spend on earth with one another. I wanted that. I wanted to feel the way he seemed to feel and in the same kinds of places—but it was obvious to me that I would never be able to find that in the way I was living my life at the time.

I began to ask myself and the people that I hoped still loved me some questions, and the answers I came up with all centered around the fact that I had no reason not to change. If I didn’t, the noise and the darkness that seemed to be filling me up would be the only things I could feel anymore. I had to come to grips with the realization that I’d been running from something since I was a boy, something that would seem to claw me and tackle me from the inside out when it caught me. For years, I’d tried to keep it at bay with adrenaline and adventure, with skateboarding and loud rock ’n’ roll and the roller-coaster rides of a busy dinner service. I fought it by pursuing flavor and working harder and longer than the cooks around me. Avoidance, denial, and self-medication had become blunted tools in my internal kit bag. This darkness had finally seemed to grow large enough to surround me and fill me, to stare me down and offer me only easy, unhealthy choices that I knew were either bad solutions or a very permanent one.

I wanted fresh air, quietude, and greenery in my life. I wanted to build fires, to lean in close to them and re-learn how to cook in the way that cooking began. Maybe if I step back in time, I thought, I can find a way to step back into myself.

I wanted to try what Mallman had done. I wanted fresh air, quietude, and greenery in my life. I wanted to build fires, to lean in close to them and re-learn how to cook in the way that cooking began. Maybe if I step back in time, I thought, I can find a way to step back into myself.

I had backyard parties for friends and family where I roasted the whole meal in a firepit I’d built—legs of lamb rubbed in chiles and oregano, pulled off the bone and folded into tortillas toasted on cinderblocks; asados of grassfed beef and chicken sausages simmered in hominy; whole shoulders of pork dusted in curry and placed over coals until the fat seams bubbled and burst in a wholly inappropriate display of gastronomic erotica. Fire was helping me see the light again.

I also resumed taking solo trips to the Boundary Waters. The perspective provided by wilderness and its vast ancient silences tends to remind us very quickly that many of the troubles we carry inside of us are based on the things we think are necessary. The only work is the shelter and the fire and the meal and the courtesy of keeping a camp we’ll be proud to leave to the next traveler. That is all the work Mother Nature asks that we do. I’ve found that the benefits of that simplicity help us to return to who we really are and what deeper, calmer parts of ourselves we need to bring back to the noise of urban obligations. Until my dying day, I will be an advocate for the preservation of wild places and I will encourage with evangelical fervor all of my service industry siblings to turn to them in times of need. Boundary Waters treks are wholly therapeutic, but so are day trips to state forests and district parks. Stepping off the work, bar, bed carousel onto a trail and spending a few hours watching a moving body of water go by can help strip away some of the fog that can keep a life of routine feeling hopeless. To quote author Jim Harrison: “A creek is more powerful than despair.”

Related Post: In The Weeds: Creating a culture of self-care in the restaurant industry

Perhaps it’s not so much that we stop doing something and walk away as much as it is that we change why we’re doing something. It seems to me that’s what Francis Mallman did. He didn’t stop cooking, he just did it differently.

There’s a prevailing theory in the anthropological community, championed well by Richard Wrangham in his book “Catching Fire,” that cooking fires contributed to the brain growth that created our humanity. Time spent around the warmth, nourishment, and safety provided by fires after nightfall allowed our proto-humanoid ancestors to contemplate their day which exercised their brains and introduced a deeper meditative state. Fire also allowed the opportunity, with the birth of language, to share and compare their experiences and learn from one another what worked and what didn’t and why.

I think that is one of the things I love most about Minnesota’s food and beverage community—support, communication, and collaboration have been its bedrock for years now. When a new idea comes along, we tend to share it, knowing that it will lead to the kind of change and growth that benefits everyone. Let’s never stop that. Let’s keep gathering with one another to share meals and libations and stories and help one another where and when we’re able. Let’s keep the fire burning. Let’s be that much-needed light up ahead.