Skip to main content

How to Stay Sane in the Food and Beverage Industry

Anybody who’s worked in the restaurant and bar arena knows that it can be a downright pressure cooker. Things get busy, guests get heated (or wasted, or entitled, etc.), and you’re juggling multiple orders, tasks, plates, cocktails, and special requests. It’s a lot and can lead even the best industry types into dark mental and physical territory.

le pigeon
Le Pigeon Le Pigeon/Facebook

But there are ways to keep your sanity in this demanding world, some simpler and more overlooked than others. Chris Leimena has worked at some of the busiest, most celebrated restaurants in Portland, both front of house and in the kitchen. He’s done quality time at Higgins, Langbaan, Le Pigeon, and more. He even worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. Presently, he’s tending bar at Les Caves, a venerable wine bar on the east side of the Rose City.

“During work, I think it’s important to remember that it’s just cooking or just waiting tables,” Leimena says.

He says staying sane is two-fold, with at-work and at-home facets. “During work, I think it’s important to remember that it’s just cooking or just waiting tables,” Leimena says. “I always want to do my best and continue to grow but without over-inflating the importance of what I do. Most people get into this for the fun and fast pace. Once you take it too seriously, it removes the positive benefits of the job, affects your mood, and has negative effects on the guest experience.”

Leimena, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, reminds himself often that what he does is a series of simple tasks that he’s practiced countless times.

Away from it all, Leimena suggests checking out completely. “Exercise works best but hobbies work, too,” he says. “Some of the most successful chefs in Portland are championing exercise and sobriety.” He adds that there are restaurant running and biking clubs. Many of his colleagues photograph, paint, do ceramics, rock climb, practice yoga, and more. “These jobs can be stressful and it’s important to balance the intensity with hobbies and some endorphin relief. Otherwise, you just drink and smoke weed all the time.”

waiter with food on tray
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Older and wiser these days, Leimena still enjoys a good drink but also champions a hearty late lunch, tons of water, and expertly-timed coffee breaks. Some shifts, though, persist into the wee hours. “When you have to be on all night long, whether talking to guests or preparing elaborate food, sometimes you just need a moment with a cheap beer,” he says. “Sip a drink you don’t have to think about while you don’t think about anything.”

Strangely, I miss the job more than I would have imagined.

This writer used to work double shifts at a popular Willamette Valley winery. The place would get hammered by large tour busses, on top of an already full weekend of heavy tasting room traffic. A coworker (or two, if we were lucky) and I would pour flights for scores of visitors, sneaking in occasional vineyard tours and trips to the kitchen to assemble a cheese platter. We’d shut down shop promptly at five, exhausted, only to prep for a wedding later that evening and another shift behind the bar.

Strangely, I miss the job more than I would have imagined. There’s a performance aspect to it, and as a writer especially, I learned to greet this with competitive glee. Presenting a wine almost always involves a backstory and I would go out of my way not to explain it the same way twice — not just to avoid feeling like a broken record but as a personal challenge. It kept me engaged and fine-tuned my skills as an orator. Usuals would take notice, signing up for the wine club or buying wine by the case instead of just the bottle.

man pouring sparkling wine
Image used with permission by copyright holder

On the physical side, good diet can’t be overlooked. If a big shift is coming your way, pack in the calories before, even if you’re not that hungry. When you can sneak in a snack, go for easy, healthy, energy-giving options like dried fruit, trail mix, or energy bars. You’ll likely be swimming in leftovers or staff meals but you can up their health content (if need be) with quick additions like fresh veggies or flexible items like hummus or avocado that can substitute for fattier proteins. 

The worst shifts took the joy out of wine, something I never thought possible. After a general break from the stuff (every post-shift glass did less to unwind than remind me of an unruly customer), I rekindled a healthy relationship with Pinot Noir by changing its context. I skipped the after work pour with coworkers (healthy as some commiserating can be) and would instead bring some wine home to enjoy while cooking, or have with my eyes closed and ear buds in, blasting a favorite record. Barkeeps and chefs can do much the same, by removing their craft from its typically hectic surroundings and seeing it in a changed, decidedly more relaxing light.

A great way to perpetuate sanity in the food, drinks, and hospitality arena is to learn from your worst patrons. You know, the ones who answer their phone while you’re explaining a dish, tip with coupons instead of cash, or get shit-faced and obscene in your establishment. Catalog these traits and mannerisms and vow to never replicate them. This is implied for seasoned industry types, but it never hurts to remind. After all, your next Negroni might be concocted by a poor soul who’s already been through the ringer that shift.

Class begets class.

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
Ironclad Distillery: A historic rise from an extraordinarily humble background
What to know about Ironclad Distillery
Ironclad bourbon whiskey on a table

It is often said that big operations have small or humble beginnings. It's hard to imagine some of the biggest brands in the liquor and spirits business starting small, but that's true of most companies. Of course, since many started closer to a century ago, we never witnessed those origins (probably because most of us weren't even alive then). So, it's quite a treat when we get to see the start of something great, much like we're seeing with craft distilleries, such as Ironclad Distillery.

To talk shop and learn about its humble origins, Dan Gaul sat down with Owen King, the co-founder and head distiller of Ironclad Distillery. While we're not exactly present at the point of its creation — the distillery actually started ten years ago — we are diving in right when things are getting interesting. The Virginia-based distillery operates from the S.W. Holt & Co. warehouse built in 1913. Inspired by the Battle of the Ironclads in the American Civil War, the warehouse is located on the James River with a view of the battlegrounds.

Read more
The best coffee cocktail recipes: Our top picks
Want some caffeine with your booze? Try these coffee cocktail recipes
Two coffee cocktails

 

Hats off to the genius who first mixed caffeine with alcohol. The combination often works wonders, easing the bitterness of coffee until it becomes a well-integrated and enjoyable cocktail.

Read more
The Daiquiri is the perfect cocktail to enjoy white rum
White rum, lime juice, and sugar - all you need for a beauitful classic cocktail
A daiquiri cocktail

When the weather is warm, it's time for rum to shine. And as today is National Daiquiri Day, it's the ideal time to try out this classic cocktail.

Although many rum drinks are on the sweeter and more tropical side, there are other characteristics of rum that are worth considering as well. Some rums can be highly filtered and have a very netural taste, almost like vodka, but there's been a trend in recent years toward more robust, characterful rums which express their flavors more boldly.  A good quality rum should have notes of fruit and spice, like hints of banana or clove, and a white rum should be a delicate, smooth drinking experience.

Read more