Redefining Badassery

By Kaleena Bliss | Megan Swann

By

Kaleena Bliss
Megan Swann
Kaleena Bliss, Human & Executive Chef at the Thompson Hotel
Kaleena Bliss, Human & Executive Chef at the Thompson Hotel

I’ve always thought that a little bit of suffering went hand in hand with success in the kitchen. It’s an idea ingrained in us as young cooks. We should be able to endure various forms of physical and mental pain while exuding a sense of flawless strength, if we’re to be taken seriously. That’s the kitchen culture that I and many others came up in.  

So we do. As chefs, we live in organized chaos. The more hours we clock and the tougher the situations we work through, the stronger we’re perceived to be. We’re badasses, right? I drank enough in my twenties to last me a lifetime, because that’s how I learned to decompress after a long night on the line. I never considered it a problem, because I was constantly succeeding in my career. Like so many others, I’ve missed countless holidays and disappointed family members without even a thought. I’ve left work to get stitches to then come right back and work dinner service. I powered through third degree burns and the passing of both of my parents. Never once did I feel the need to step back and take a break. But, eventually, it caught up with me. 

Upon leaving my previous job, I vowed to give myself time to recoup; clear my head. That thought alone unleashed a wave of anxiety. What would my peers think? How would this look? I remember the day I disconnected my work email, and the feelings of boredom and panic that immediately overcame me. I realized that throughout my entire professional life, I’ve been so accustomed to living and breathing the kitchen, that the thought of not being a part of that made me feel anxious and guilty.

The next day, I took a train from Seattle to northern Idaho. I retreated to the mountains with my backpack and climbed 2,500 feet. My phone went out of service. I couldn’t communicate with anyone back in the city, even if I wanted to. There were no kitchen emergencies to wake me in the middle of the night. There was just, quiet. In addition to that, there were sunsets. Sunrises. Thunder and lightning rolling through the valleys. The problems that had kept me tossing at night, heart pounding out of my chest, felt very small. 

During the rest of the month, I found time to reconnect with friends and family, inviting those that I had long neglected back into my life. I did things that I enjoyed, like digging up matsutakes in the San Juans, and practiced making sourdough bread. I found energy I hadn’t felt in a decade, and to be honest, didn’t realize still existed. It gave me the clarity I needed to immerse myself in a new kitchen project. I learned that I wasn’t immune to burnout, nor are the strongest, most passionate of us. I think as chefs and leaders, we should support others in recognizing when they might be on the brink of collapse and help them find a way to hit that reset button. I don’t think it always means that we must quit the work we love doing, but that it’s ok to give yourself time to recharge. Mental wellness has long gone ignored in our industry, leaving us ashamed to be anything less than what others expect us to be. The only way we can break down that stigma is to start talking about it. At the end of the day, I think we can still be badasses... and also admit we’re human. 

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