Editor’s Note: ‘Letters from the Industry’ is an ongoing series on Life & Thyme where professionals from the culinary industry speak on their own behalf about their experiences, struggles, challenges, and journey through life. Today’s letter is by Frank Fejeran, who has worked everywhere from brewpubs to fine dining restaurants across California and Chicago. Currently, Fejeran is executive chef at The Ravens Club in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Letters from the Industry
This past September, I had the pleasure of working with a talented film crew for TasteMade. The schedule for the piece was what you would expect for a spot on a local chef: interview, film where you go for local inspiration, cook something local.
The interview was the first day, and it started as expected. The same questions every person always asks a chef:
“Why do you love cooking?”
“What makes a good chef?”
“What’s your favorite local farm?”
The only difference is that this crew was asking me the same question over and over and over, which inherently led to a more in-depth and diligent answer each time because I was forced to think more about what I was saying instead of just giving a cookie-cutter response. Eight or nine questions in and they asked a question that has since changed my career, and therefore my life.
“What does cooking mean to you, and why do you cook?”
I have been asked this question dozens, if not hundreds of times. The answer is always something like, “It means everything, I was a punk kid and needed the structure. I don’t know where I’d be without the kitchen…blahblahblah, Anthony Bourdain already said it.” But as with all the other questions they asked, they asked me this one eight different times, and each answer drove me deeper and deeper into why I do what I do. Each answer went back a few years prior to the previous answer. The answer to this question rarely goes deeper than what cooking means to me at the current kitchen I am heading, or which city, or what style I am interested in. And it never goes farther than why I initially started living a kitchen lifestyle. I have always pushed the real meat of the story deep down where it could be hidden, eating away at me like a never ending Las Vegas buffet line. So far down, I never had to even think about it again, let alone face it.
But that day, on the seventh reiteration of that question, with three people I didn’t know eyeing me and the heat of the lights bearing down on me, it came to the surface like a fucking hurricane. The sacrifice, the greed, the anxiety, the self absorption, the ego… all the reasons I stayed in the kitchen, and never once had I been forced to think about them until that day.
I broke down in tears.
I started working because my dad was mentally and physically abusive, and it got me away from him. I went to culinary school because I abandoned a promising career in basketball, and felt nobody had a genetic advantage in the kitchen—anyone could make it if they worked at it. I constantly worked at the best restaurants I could get my foot in because I left a great person in my life in the dust for it. And I worked harder than the person next to me every fucking day, never called in sick, never asked for time off, never went on vacation, always read up on a new subject, and have completely immersed myself in this passion because of one of the two regrets I have in life. I missed the last three days of my grandmothers life because I didn’t feel like I could ask for a weekend off…
That eats me the fuck alive every time I button up my chef coat.
Every time I align that cutting board down on illuminated stainless steel.
Every time I deep clean an oven or pull the hood vents down for a scrubbing.
Every day of my life I think of that decision I made, and every day I promise her it won’t be for nothing.
That is why I stayed in the kitchen.
The first decade of my career was a pursuit towards chef-dom that literally had nothing to do with food at all. Sounds completely idiotic as I write it out, but that’s the truth. It was about competition and feeding my desire to be great at something. It was about stomping the line cook competition and getting my station set up on time. Executing a flawless service. It was to make sure no sacrifice I had made in my years was in vain. Nothing was going to get in the way of that, and nothing did. I was a good line cook. To hell with humility, I was and still am a badass line cook. I worked at some of the best restaurants in the country and for some of the best chefs, and quickly advanced to be the top in every kitchen team I have joined.
But, at the end of the day, I couldn’t tell you when tomato season was, or when asparagus was at it’s freshest, or the difference in properly raised pork or commodity pork…but I could cook all three better than most.
The last five years or so I have really pursued understanding the quality of the products I use. The time I used to use practicing my brunoise is now focused on how to coax the flavor out of a carrot, while still keeping it in it’s most natural state. I’ll taste three carrots from three different farms before I decide which farm I buy from. Two days later I repeat the process and it might be a different farm whose carrots are better now. I have no control over this part of cooking, and it is very frustrating and exciting all at once. It’s a totally new chapter of cooking for me. It’s almost the polar opposite of what it once was. How could I have the balls to take a carrot that has been poured over with so much love and attention from a passionate farmer and cut it into perfect little cubes? However it looks when it is pulled from the ground is how it should look, and is what was crafted from very diligent, hard work. It has been such a challenge and I have really enjoyed it. It has been a key part to my success as a chef here in Ann Arbor. I have learned so much about food systems and flavors. It has led to very deep research into chefs who are also part of this chapter in food: Redzepi, Brock, Kostow, Kinch, Waters…
It has also led to very deep self-disappointment and depression…
I read their stories and feel their passion for ingredients. I see how simply they orchestrate beautiful produce and really elevate the ingredient to its highest potential. I respect it so much and yearn to have their love for food. But that isn’t why I continue to get better at this craft, and it isn’t something that is taught. It’s been a false, shallow sense of pride and self-worth that I have force-fed myself. Everything I have accomplished in this industry was forced through insecurity and a need to feel loved. It was a way for me to show people that the punk kid with nothing but a jump shot and a vicious right hook could make something of himself. My mom could be proud. Those were my driving forces, my dedication, and my passion.
I am finishing this essay in my basement, watching my amazing son play a video game on our one hundred inch projection screen. This is when it makes the most sense. My mother and step-dad are very proud of everything I have done, and are always so excited to read the next blog about their son or see me on the local news. I walk into the restaurant and everybody is working smoothly, quickly, and executing above the expected level. The dining room fills up quickly with excited guests, a dining room that two years ago would have been empty. In under fifteen months, I’ve lead a kitchen team and turned our kitchen around from being at the bottom of the barrel in Ann Arbor, into one of the most fun, respected, and praised restaurants in the city. We were awarded the 2014 best restaurant and best chef in Southeast Michigan. I leave work and pull into the driveway of my two story, three bedroom house, I purchased at the age of twenty five. My beautiful lady is happy to see me and so is my son…they are happy. This is success, right? I did everything I said I’d do, if not more.
“What does cooking mean to you, and why do you cook?”
Nothing anymore. I don’t want to.
I’ve spoken with my father once in the last 10 years, it was at my brother’s wedding. I used to think about it and wonder if I was just being rebellious. Until the day my son looked in my eyes and fully understood I was Dad. I could never treat him the way my dad treated me.
My career in the kitchen proved far more successful than any route of basketball I could have taken. I might have a nicer body right now, but no regrets there. Peace. I have a beautiful lady and son, and we live in a great neighborhood that is safe. Peace. And no amount of work, success, or regret will change the decision I made about my grandmother. But I fully believe she would rather see me be a great father and friend, than work fourteen hours a day behind a stove to prove anything to her. She would want me to spend the time with those I love, and not at work. I won’t make the same mistake twice. That’s the way she would want me to make it up to her.
I spoke with Don Yamauchi, a close friend and mentor over the holidays, and we were speaking about that exact subject. And we agreed that on our deathbeds our sons will not remember a James Beard award, a Michelin star, or a the perfect roasting of a chicken. They will ask us questions like:
“Did you hold my hand?”
“Did you show me what love is and how to love?”
“Was it you who raised me and showed me how to be the man I want to be?”
And at the end of the day, I don’t want my son to even have to ask those questions, because he will already have the answers. The passion of being a chef has now shifted to passion for being a father. I don’t want to be good at both… I want to be fucking great at one.
I love this industry with everything I have. It has given me and my family all I could ever ask for. It has made me everything I am today. I am thankful for that, but I owe it nothing. I have given this industry more than enough. This is the end of my restaurant career and I will miss it every day.
After I email this essay out, I am talking with the owner of the restaurant to discuss my exit. I’ve had one crazy fucking ride through this industry and I have enough memories to last a lifetime. It is time to make peace with myself, accept my faults, and give those who love me my time.
Have a good service, everybody.