What drives a chef?

What lights that fire in your belly that drives constant, compulsive pursuit of perfection, that makes finding the best ingredient or getting a great review a matter of life and death, that gives you sleepless nights and gets you up at 5am – not because you have to but because you want to?

Where does that manic OCD to get the same plate perfect every time come from? That willingness to sacrifice memory-making with family and any semblance of a normal social life? Instead you’re walking the early morning markets with your team, standing at the pass rejecting any dish that’s missed some small detail, hanging out in late-night bars with other chefs because those are the only places open after service.

Why is one star not enough, you must have two – then that’s not enough, you must have three. You must make the World’s Best 50 list, then be in the top 20, then the top 10.

It might seem like a strange question for a chef to be asking about chefs, but I often wonder about this – and especially I wonder what it is that separates the excellent from the truly extraordinary, and what motivates them to keep striving even after they’ve reached the top of the top.

Take Le Bernardin in New York, just as an example – a three-Michelin-star restaurant and currently one of only three in the city to have a New York Times 4-star “extraordinary” rating, that it’s held since 1986, number one on La Liste last year, a regular in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants … What separates Éric Ripert from the chef with “only two” Michelin stars and a NYT 3-star rating?

The two-star chef is clearly also hugely talented, and clearly has drive and motivation, so what is the magical line that he’s not yet managed to cross?

You have the chef who’s always striving for more – opening more restaurants, looking for fame and wealth and more stars. And then you have the guy who is happy pouring his whole life into one restaurant and doing it really well.

Both are after perfection, aiming to do better every day – but clearly they are different creatures, driven by passion, but in different ways.

I wonder if that obsessive-compulsive drive for perfection is inborn, in our blood, if it’s a case of “we can’t help ourselves”, we can’t “not do it” or, if not born with it, where it comes from. Is it something in your training, or who you are trained and mentored by, that ignites that drive?

By the same token, there are many professions that rate as more stressful than that of a chef, but there doesn’t seem to be any other profession that has the same kind of mania and obsessiveness attached to the pursuit of perfection. (Plastic surgery maybe?)

The really successful, top-of-their-game, chefs are obviously driven and hard-working, they’re meticulous perfectionists and at some point they discovered they had a talent for food and channelled their passion in that direction – but I often wonder, if they had followed a different career, that also demanded a high level of attention to detail, say a surgeon or a pilot, would they have that same manic-ness, or is it the chefs’ world that brings that out?

That non-stop drive, that burning desire to be perfect, and better than perfect, every day – that literal pressure cooker of the restaurant kitchen – seems to be at least part of the reason for the high rates of burnout, depression, broken marriages, drug and alcohol abuse in the chef’s profession.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times, something driven by a global fascination with food, a 21st century pursuit and desire for awards and recognition, a need for affirmation.

At the same time, there’s a need amongst consumers to have and to show off their fine dining experiences – look, I’ve eaten at Daniel, Noma, Osteria Francescana … – and then to say, ag but it wasn’t that great.

It wasn’t always like that.

Look at the old-school French chefs of years ago – taking their whole team to the market early every morning, prep for lunch service, clean, come back to it in the evening, clean again and start all over the next day.

How did they manage to raise families and have seemingly happy marriages and keep going into their 60s and 70s? Is it possible these days to be at the top of your game AND have a healthy family life?

Perhaps it was because the business was the family – they lived above the shop, chef in the kitchen and his wife running front of house, their kids raised in the business and following in their footsteps.

You still see that today – the chef who is happy to have one restaurant, to live upstairs, his whole life revolves around it and he’s not seeking out celebrity or fame or chasing the bigger house, better car, private schools and overseas holidays.

I’ve so much respect for those chefs, who spend their entire career dedicated to one restaurant and to making it great, keeping it great.

Many eventually become restauranteurs and spend less time in the kitchen, but what is it about that guy who’s still at the stove for every service into his 50s and 60s, still pushing to get to the next level – where does that kind of love for the business and that commitment come from?

It’s not about lack of opportunity. There’s always the opportunity to open another restaurant, grow your empire and chase wealth – some aren’t satisfied, they want more, while others choose not to.

I wonder why?

I don’t have the answers, but I’m interested to know what you think?

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