After years of focusing almost exclusively on work, Amarillo CC’s Executive Chef, Colby Newman, has found that his recipe for a happy life—and a more fulfilling career—is made up of time away from the club, outside the kitchen and with his family.
I’ve never been the greatest with balancing work and home life. That’s not something they teach you how to do in culinary school or the restaurant industry. It wasn’t until this past year that I fully realized I couldn’t keep going in the same direction I had been for so many years. I think this is something that most chefs struggle with, but it’s not something ever really discussed as chefs never want to look weak or incapable.
My whole career I have put almost all my time into my work all the while completely neglecting myself. Then one day I looked in the mirror and didn’t physically or mentally recognize myself anymore. I had gained a lot of weight from eating horribly. I looked exhausted from too many sleepless nights thinking about work. And I wasn’t proud of the absent and stressed-out husband I had become. I was too busy taking care of the needs of everyone else at work I didn’t bother taking care of myself.
Honestly, I kind of had the mentality that if I was going to do nothing but work all the time, what was the point in even looking after myself? Between the hours, environment, and stress, chefs have to be some of the most perfectionistic, self-destructive, workaholics I’ve ever known.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love what I do. But the stress that comes with it was consuming me. I felt the need to be at the club 12+ hours a day, 6 days a week because I was worried about what might happen if I wasn’t there overseeing everything. I trust my team. But like anyone else, they have their slip-ups. And when those occur and you’re not there you wonder if you could have prevented it. Then you fear the impact. Will I be dealing with an unhappy dining member the following day because it was slow enough for me leave an hour earlier than I normally do?
We’re not saving lives. And it’s really not the end of the world if someone is unhappy with their meal. But my name and reputation are attached to everything that comes out of my kitchen. And that—along with the satisfaction of our members—is important to me. So, one of the keys to improving my work/life balance is trusting in my team. I want them to want to do a good job. So I need to provide them with an environment where they’re not necessarily excited to come to work every day and never see the sun but to motivate them to want to do their best and be an asset in the kitchen. I need to be somewhat flexible and allow them to see their families, to attend their children’s school or sports events, or to get out of town for a couple of days. Because I need their support for those times that I can’t be in the kitchen or for when the day comes that I have my own family to take care of and spend time with.
We’re at a point in our lives where we’re ready to start a family of our own, and my wife has been extremely patient with me while I work on finding this balance. But I don’t want to be the dad who is always at work. I don’t want to be the husband whose wife has to eat all her meals at the club with our child just to see me. I don’t want to make her feel like a single mother with little support at home. We’ve discussed what it would be like if I just had a 9-5 job. Even though a consistent 40-hours every week sounds appealing, my wife agrees that I shouldn’t stop cooking, which is exactly why I’m ready to find this balance. I’m not ready to get out of the kitchen and I’m not sure I ever will be. I would miss it too much.
Monday’s are my only day off, yet I still have ordering to do, menus to come up with, and paperwork to sort through. Work is almost all I know, so whenever I would finally get my work done and have a few moments to myself, I had absolutely no idea what to do with my free time. So I’d spend my alone-time being unproductive, doing nothing beneficial or personally fulfilling. I look back at these moments and they almost seemed like a waste of a day. There were so many things at work that were out of my control, wouldn’t my time be better spent there? I had to stop myself. I decided I wasn’t going to allow work to control my whole life. I decided it was time to start taking care of me.
So I stopped the unhealthy late-night eating after work and started to become more aware of the foods I was eating throughout the day. I find it funny that I spend my days creating beautiful dishes for our members, but I’d find myself getting fast food several times a week because the last thing I wanted to do after 12 hours of work was to make myself something to eat. So far, I’ve lost 30 pounds and I can’t believe I allowed myself to get the way I was.
I now spend my Mondays cooking healthy food for the week. Food that I enjoy and makes me feel good the next day. I love cooking in my own kitchen. It actually helps me de-stress because cooking is not the most stressful part of my job. It’s everything else that comes with it. I also eliminated alcohol entirely from my life. I’ve never heard of anything positive happening for people as a result of alcohol. The only good thing—albeit the best thing—that ever happened to me as a result of alcohol was meeting my wife in a Kansas City bar after work 7 years ago.
Before, I would go to the gym whenever I could find the time. And even though I felt great afterward, I never felt like I was able to push myself enough to get where I wanted to go. Then I discovered CrossFit. It’s exactly what I need to eliminate some stress and spend some time working on myself. Because of work, I can only make it to the 5:45am classes which makes for even longer days, but I fall asleep at night from exhaustion rather than while thinking about work. CrossFit has served a dual purpse as I’ve struggled to find my own hobby and to get involved with something that has nothing to do with cooking or being around people in the industry. This has been a helpful outlet for me in lots of ways.
Of course, there will be those times when I’ll do nothing but work—like the holidays—but there is no need to feel like it’s the holidays or pool season all year long. I struggle to find a time when I can use my 2 weeks of vacation, and my wife and I have to plan our summer trip to Missouri where I get to see my family, 7 months in advance. There’s no such thing as spontaneous getaways or visiting family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. These are guarantees. But I know there has to be a way to balance it all out and feel like there’s a little normalcy to my life. I’ll get there. But the first step was taking better care of myself.
I recently read Chef Jesse Schenker’s book, All or Nothing, about his battle with addiction and finding balance in his life. There was a moment with his therapist that stuck with me:
“When you’re making a dish, what happens if you leave out an ingredient?” he asked me.
“The whole thing falls apart,” I answered automatically.
“Exactly,” Larry said, as if I had just hit on something brilliant. “Your life is a recipe,” he continued. “It’s made of therapy, meetings, service, work, and family, and you need every ingredient to make it work.”
My life recipe is made up of different ingredients from Schenker’s. It’s made up of time with my family, work, staying knowledgeable about my craft, eating healthy, and staying physically active. And as I get older, I realize just how important all these parts are in order to maintain some balance and enjoy my life and my work.