HEALTH IN THE KITCHEN
It’s no secret that we work hard. We work long shifts, days lasting longer than weeks; always pressed, and rarely if ever thanked. Tired, malnourished and under-slept, the cook’s body is in a constant state of bombardment. The stresses of a kitchen—cuts & burns, demanding guests, and dehydration—make a swampy wellspring from which sickness and injury are likely, if not inevitable.
It’s the dog years in the kitchen.
So what can a tired cook do? Here are a few specific things for staying somewhat healthy, while still working doubles…(note: for fatigue remedies, see my article “Hanging with a Hangover”).
I know, I know. If we only had time. But sleep is so important for recovery that it’s worth at least mentioning. So sleep when you can. And try to fall asleep somewhat naturally: rely on sheer fatigue, eat a decent meal, or use the occasional sleep aid. Just don’t always make being shitfaced post-shift your bedtime ritual.
If you simply can’t fall asleep (sober), try listening to a boring podcast or non-stimulating music to distract the active mind. TV is another option, in that it provides background noise, a mental distraction. But the bright blue light it exudes will keep you up. And my crystal-wearing, new-agey friends swear by chamomile tea and melatonin just before bed. Really, one just needs to make that mental decision: time to stop thinking; time to go to sleep. Easier said than done, I know. But like anything worthwhile, it takes discipline.
But we all know sleep is a luxury, so on to other remedies…
While some of us have a family meal at work, or the ability to make food at work, cooks are consistently and ironically malnourished. We either don’t eat (no time, no money, no energy) or we eat shit (at least nutritionally speaking). Our home kitchens have condiments, knives and some random munchies. There’s a six-pack in the fridge, but nothing of substance.
That said, the way to eating smarter is to keep the tank full of energy-providing foods. You want decent macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) to jumpstart your metabolism, promote healing, and keep that gut full (a satiated stomach is one less thing to worry about during service).
If snacking or a mid-shift meal isn’t possible, at least eat some breakfast before work.
Whatever time you roll out of bed, the cliche is true: alongside your caffeine of choice, the first meal of the day is damn important. Especially for us cooks. We need fuel for shift(s). If you can’t cook, grab some fruit, microwave some oatmeal, have an avocado, hell, make a smoothie. Even if it’s only a banana or some protein powder in water, this food fills the gut, provides energy, and gets the metabolism goin’, so you’re burning more calories at work (who needs the gym, am I right?).
Ideally, you want to eat a bunch of veg and protein for breakfast (and fat’s ok). If there’s no time for bacon & eggs, throw a bunch of shit in a blender:
NO B.S. BREAKFAST SMOOTHIE RECIPE:
1 handful green veg (kale, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, whatever)
1 chunk ginger (if dry: big pinch)
1 banana (frozen if possible)
1 granny smith (with peel)
1 scoop whey protein powder
3/4c plain yogurt
1 spoonful honey
1 squeeze of lemon (or splash apple cider vin)
optional: turmeric, chia seeds, hot sauce (or fresh chiles), cayenne, black pepper, fresh parsley, raw egg, bell pepper
HYDRATION & BLOOD SUGAR
The kitchen’s hot and sweat-soaked. Flame and fryers and tempers make for a pressure cooker primed for desiccation. But, for some reason, we cooks always forget to hydrate. And coffee, soda, beer and energy drinks don’t count. I’m talking about water. Sure, we’re chock-full of caffeine, but we’re lacking that good ‘ol H2O.
An old coach of mine would always say, “If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.” And he’s right. By the time the body craves liquid, it’s already exhausted its impressively-creative ability to use what’s available. Just having a water bottle at one’s station makes a huge difference. An easy formula to approximate your needs when active: body weight divided by two = ounces of water needed daily. Sounds like a lot, but we need a lot.
When we cooks actually do hydrate, it’s likely swimming in a sugar slurry: sports & energy drinks, sodas, coffee-drinks. Sugar’s in everything nowadays. But unlike previously-taboo culinary ingredients that have become better understood (fat, salt and MSG), the more science studies sugar, the worse it seems.
Most know excess sugar is stored as fat in the body, causing weight gain and diabetes. It destroys tooth enamel. But sugar also affects specific organs in disconcerting ways. It’s bombardment on the reward centers of the brain leads to a diminished ability to feel sated and happy when eating other foods. It can affect memory, causes bloating, and it coarsens the skin.
Hell, it’s called a “sugar high” for a reason. Like most things immediately gratifying, once the dust settles, and that brief spurt of energy and euphoria diminish, only the negative health effects remain.
So stay hydrated with as little sugar as possible.
You get what you pay for. It’s true with knives, true with product, and true with footwear. When you make a living on your feet, it’s obvious that shoes matter. It’s not only about comfort and not falling on your ass. It’s about supporting your feet, your knees, and your back. It’s about relieving pain, mitigating fatigue and increasing stamina over the course of service.
Shoes, like knives, are an investment. Select them carefully for your needs: comfort vs support; laces or slip-on; croc or full heel; utility in the kitchen vs utility in daily life. Like any kitchen utensil, I prefer shoes which perform more than one job well.
I swear by Dansko brand. They’re pricier but last years of double-shifts. They’re sturdy, without feeling wooden; they provide support without contorting the foot; and they’re sleek and ambiguous enough to wear outside work, say, in the mosh pit at a metal show.
A healthy luxury of The Industry is movement. We in the kitchen definitely don’t sit on our asses. Upright, constantly moving and always on our feet, we avoid the sedentary rot of nine-to-five jobs. “Sitting”, “relaxing”, “resting” are all foreign terms in the kitchen, outside of the occasional smoke break. This ethic is generally healthy at work, insofar as it involves actual movement, promoting circulation and flexibility. Rather than being left to seize and stop working, an injured limb or joint recovers quicker if it is exercised smartly.
But despite all our moving in the kitchen, we still should exercise in one form or another.
If a visit to the gym or putting in miles on a bike isn’t an option, the point is to stay moving, keep the blood pumping. Stay mobile and loose, even if it’s dancing along the line on a busy Friday night.
If The Life has left you injured or with the all-too-common bad back, there’s still no excuse for not exercising outside work. A general rule: If you can’t stop doing something unhealthy, balance it with something more healthy. This doesn’t excuse the bad behavior, but it at least helps diminish the unhealthy effects.
As much as we’d like to sit on our asses in our dwindling free time, it’s important to keep the blood pumping. Listen to your body, and don’t be afraid of a little pain (as long as it recedes post-activity).
In the kitchen, pain is par for the course. Burns, gashes, strains, sprains and achy joints are all part of the uniform. But a few remedies help manage these painful guarantees.
For burns that aren’t an open wound, give them a few hard slaps. It’ll hurt. And it should. This helps distribute the blood and guards against bigger blister formation.
Use ibuprofen, not Tylenol. Any pain pill in high doses is gonna wreak havoc on the stomach, liver, and good gut bacteria. But those full of acetominophen (Tylenol) cause actual stomach bleeding. So unless you’re running a fever, reach for ibuprofen or Aleve. And if you’re planning to drink, it’s better to avoid pills altogether. But you already knew that.
For sore muscles, joints and general pain from old injuries, reach for effective salves. Tiger balm is an excellent topical analgesic—just wash your hands well before hittin’ the head. Arnica and comfrey are both roots (tubers) that come in cream form. While pricier than generic Flex-All, they act as effective topical remedies. Not only do they reduce swelling and bruising, but certain brands also promote healing. A solid choice for all topical applications is Nature Rite’s Bruise-Strain-Tear repair. Find them HERE.
Heat, ice and elevation. As mentioned in previous articles, alternating hot-and-cold works wonders. A hot bath (ideally with epsom salt) followed by an ice pack on the affected area is a great pain reliever and swelling reducer. (A bag of frozen veg or some ice cubes in a grocery sack are good replacements.) If an arm or leg is swelling, use ice and heat followed by elevation (raise the affected limb higher than the heart in 20-minute intervals).
When all else fails and you can’t afford to be off your feet, it’s worth investing in decent joint braces/sleeves (knee, ankle, etc). They’re worth wearing even when you’re not in pain (just don’t use them as a literal crutch). Brands like Incrediwear produce great sleeves for joints.
And when in doubt, gauge an injury thusly: if it hurts when doing a certain activity, stop. If pain recedes, then you’re relatively ok. If pain persists during zero-activity, it’s likely there’s an underlying injury.
(Obviously, consult your physician or urgent care doc before beginning any pain relief regimen.)
Like a bad hangover or predicting a dinner rush, there is no magic bullet for the ailments of the kitchen. But like any good cookery, it’s about a good foundation: eat, stay hydrated, sleep when possible, keep your body limber, and take anti-inflammatories on a relatively full stomach.
We cooks obsess over clean, organized, and well-stocked kitchen stations. Now it’s time to apply that obsession with maintenance to your body. It’s the only one you’ve got.