I had turned myself inside out and ran myself into the ground until there was nothing left, when I decided it was time to jump off the hamster wheel—that’s how I felt when I left my former career as an executive producer running a production company. My friend Julie used to say, “BIG job, BIG car, BIG deal. If you’re not happy then what’s the point?” She was right.
I’ve always worked at BIG name companies and worked my way up to BIG titles with BIGGER salaries and ultimately BIGGER headaches. Fred Flintstone soared down the dinosaur tail at 5 p.m. sharp everyday from the quarry and headed home to dinner at the table. I never had a quitting time. I worked weekends, listened to people whine, took calls at all hours of the day and night. Vacations could never be planned, and being in a bad mood became my normal mood, until one day I looked in the mirror and said, “Who are you?”
So I sat down and had a chat with myself and I tried to listen to that little voice I so often ignored. The one that always tried [in vain] to steer me right but I gave little attention to. I wasn’t sure who I was or what I wanted to do, but I knew all too well what I didn’t want to do, and that was take shit from one more person—I wanted off the wheel! But after all these years of doing just that, how does someone just…stop?
Easy, as it turned out. I just did. I took a leap and I just stopped. Stopped everything. Stopped “working” in the traditional sense and instead, became “the busiest non-paid person I know,” as my sister Grace likes to say. I took classes, I traveled, I got rid of my TV, I went to the bookstore, and I cooked with abandon. I was a sponge, taking in everything while learning to recharge my soul and lick my wounds. There was no plan, I just knew I couldn’t go back. In two years I went through every drop of savings I had. I didn’t know how to make money and support myself anymore. But I had generous friends, who weren’t opposed to showering me with a little tough love…“Yeah that’s great and all you’re so inspired and you wanna hang out at the bookstore, but you need to make some money.”
Right, money! If only my parents had left a trust fund… They didn’t.
So I took every odd job there was. From working for a race car team, to being a “people mover” for an event company, you know, “this way folks!” I went from waking up every day saying I can’t do this and I can’t do that to, “I can do this”… as long as it doesn’t involve extreme sports or risk of personal injury.
My dearest, most industrious and talented friend Plumby, sat quietly and patiently by and then said one day, “You gotta start doing what you love. You love to cook, you know how to feed a crowd, you know production…you can do this!” Yes. I knew people. I knew chefs and pastry chefs. And I knew production—but instead of film and equipment, it would be food and kitchens. I also grew up in a family and a neighborhood where food meant everything. We’re Italian and Colombian and the only way we know how to resolve anything is over a meal—a great big one.
But could I make it work? Like really, really work? I mean I cooked for my friends and family, and they always had seconds…didn’t that account for something? (Ignorance is bliss). But Plumby time and again reminded me with a slap to the head that I could do it. She had more faith in me than I did. Most of my friends and family did too. They were great cheerleaders.
So when I got a call from a friend who was in a pinch and needed someone to cook in her restaurant after the staff was fired, I said, “yes ?” I learned that cooking for your friends and family is way different than cooking at a restaurant, where churning out food is more the order of the day. But I knew if I remained calm I could figure it out. And I did. I cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It wasn’t a culinary tour de force but it taught me for the first time what an honest days work was. In my previous life I shuffled paper. I learned diplomacy—even though my first impulse was eff off, I’d say kindly, “Thank you, you’ve given me a lot to think about.” And I was great at delegating! But for the most part, I never got my hands dirty. Now I was working, working. Sweating. Schlepping. Cooking. Cleaning. There was no time for a break. Get those plates out! Feed that table! We have a lunch rush! We have a large party coming in for dinner! I was exhausted, but I loved it. I loved the satisfaction of doing good, honest work.
I became good at baking too. I made awesome cupcakes and cookies. Happy food. I started talking to everyone I could, big notable chefs, and offered to work for free just to see what it would be like to work in a “real” kitchen. Many times I got my ass kicked. Everything needs to happen fast, fast, fast! I cut myself a lot, and I learned to hate squeezing lemons because of it. My hands and feet hurt all the time. I stunk of garlic and smoke and food. But I got better, and more importantly, I was happy. I had found what I wanted to do. And dare I say, I had a knack for it. Feeding people was a blessing. And having people enjoy my food was a gift.
Around this time, after I quit and left the “business,” I was out shopping for a friend’s birthday. I didn’t have a lot of money so I decided to buy some flowers and as a last minute thought, I picked up a baguette for dinner. As I was leaving, I bumped into a few former work associates… Ugghhhh! I hated for them to see me at this point in my life because I knew the first thing they’d ask is what I was ‘doing.’ I was broke and ashamed and I was no longer an executive but a cook at a restaurant. But it had been the beginning of summer and I was a little tan and carrying my flowers and baguette—apparently, the two greatest props for looking like you have a great life. When they saw me they just kept saying, “Wow, you look amazing!” And when they asked the dreaded, what-are-you-doing, I said, somewhat sheepishly, that I was cooking in a restaurant. “COOKING?! That’s incredible! We’re so jealous! You look wonderful! You seem so happy! And relaxed! And tan! And on and on.
I’m convinced it was the flowers and the baguette. But this little run in with my previous life was exactly what I needed. I had to confront myself and own who I was. I went from trying to explain what I had been to what I was.
Today, I’m a cook…a chef! I own my own catering company. I make kitchenware. I travel. I meet great people. I host my own cooking show. I live well. I eat well. I’m happy. And most of all I’m grateful. I have great friends and family and work with some of the most talented people. My hands and feet still hurt. I still schlepp. But I make great things and I smile often.
Changing your life doesn’t happen overnight. I’m thankful for the things I learned early on, though. For the most part, my years in production trained me for anything. I like to call them my “MBA years,” ‘cause that’s what it felt like I was getting! In production you learn to say, “Yes!” to everything first, and then you figure out how in the hell you’re going to make it happen. The first way I found, was to surround myself with the best people and make them part of the solution. That worked every single time.
Here are some other semi-practical ways to change your life and survive. I did…
- Have a plan. Or in the absence of one…follow steps 2-11.
- Have a serious heart-to-heart with yourself. Or several.
- Believe that no matter what, IT can happen. (Whatever your “it” is).
- Don’t listen to everyone. Some people are just fearful or jealous, but really they don’t have the cojones you do. (Parents are exempt…they just worry).
- Be brave. Repeat everyday: I AM BRAVE…I AM BRAVE…
- Eat well. Make it a priority. Your body, mind, and spirit need you to steer them, so nourish yourself.
- Say “yes” to everything. Even if you have no idea: Yes, I can! You’re smart enough to figure it out. Ask your friends or Google it. That’s what they’re there for.
- Be kind. Nobody likes an angry a-hole. You’ll need the kindness of friends, and family, and strangers. And you never know where your next opportunity will come from.
- Be honest. When people ask how you are, tell the truth. It’s in our nature to want to help. Letting others help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength!
- Smile. That’s right, smile! Like for reals. Even if you don’t want to, let it be your meditation. Feel it deep down in your belly. Do it right now! People will smile back.
- Dream. It’s absolutely free! Dream big, ridiculous dreams. There is no limit to what you WILL do!