This First Person article is the experience of David Ferguson, a chef and restaurant owner in Montreal. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
“Are you working tonight, papa?”
Prior to the pandemic, my children would have never asked such a question; they did not need to. They knew the answer was always a “yes” followed by a guilty “sorry.”
My restaurant did not stop for birthdays, school concerts or yellow taekwondo belt exams in community centres (a parental trinity that is not always holy). Bad weather or much-needed repairs wouldn’t close our doors. The restaurant ruled our roost, without question, and it never slept — dictating most of my days.
Then the world went upside down.
In the ’90s, when I decided to become a chef, I was seduced by the intimate photos in Gourmet and Bon Appétit: the thoughtful chef looking off into the distance, searching for an elusive inspiration, or the relaxed, jovial chef laughing alongside a farmer as they relished earth’s bounty in an old wooden cart. Blah, blah, blah. False advertising.
Twenty-five years later, if by 4 p.m. I have not found myself stuck underneath a sink, lying on a wet floor, discussing an overbooking with a server as I fix a leaking drain, I call it a good day.
Do I love what I do? Yes!
Was I blind to how I was doing it? Absolutely.
Before the lockdowns, I had never decompressed and looked at my whole life in a single frame. My days had been governed by a self-generating, never-ending, list of tasks. As I would frantically cross one task off my list, another one seemed to appear; it was like living in one of Zeno’s paradoxes.
I did not see my kids grow, my hair turn grey or a beard emerge from inertia.
My emotions were driven by the restaurant’s cash flow, providing my accountant a greater insight into my mental health than my therapist. Neither had a positive assessment.
Then the pandemic struck, and the world just stopped, closed, turned off. I had not failed or done something wrong; none of us had. We had no agency in the matter. Years of work simply turned to dry soil in our hands.
Some said to “pivot,” I twisted my ankle. Being 50 years old and overweight, I was too old to learn a new dance. Takeout wasn’t for me. Fortunately, my wife (who wishes to remain anonymous, as I spill my guts) kept our household afloat as I decided to take a sabbatical for the first time in my restaurant career.
I had my tools in the basement to occupy my hands, and a laptop to journal my rants.
Mostly, though, I had my family bubble.
The slow days and early nights seeped into my mind and soul. Time lapsed gently as I dawdled through projects, ones that had irritated our household for years, before I leisurely began to cook supper. Even my rants dissolved into mindful prose.
Was our home, our bubble, a tranquil Buddhist’s temple? Hell, no! Trying to help three teenagers fight the demons of COVID lockdown was like putting a hat on Medusa’s head: painful to witness and soul-crushing to think about. The repetitive days, hypnotized by the Tiger King’s haircut, unhinged most of our sanity. Yet, we stuck together.
When the rest of the world was stripped away, it was my crazy bubble that remained. I love my clients, but they were not allowed in my bubble. When the restaurant is open, I literally cook for them from behind plexiglass.
One day, my restaurant will permanently close. They all do. But now I know whoever is in my bubble today, will still be there after my restaurant’s demise. And when my demise comes, it is my bubble I wish to have at my side as I take my last breath. If I am surrounded by clients, it means a cardiac arrest during service, which is entirely possible.
Today, I am happy to have my kids come home and ask, “What’s for dinner?” before they even say hello. I enjoy grimacing while they hurl unfiltered comments at the evening’s menu that would make even a Yelp reviewer blush. Even being ignored by them means I am still there to be ignored. I love it, and I do not want to give all this up.
When I first decided to have the restaurant only open three nights per week, it was to manage the labour shortage and potential burnout. Now it is to preserve a life I have discovered.
I am happy to go through this at 50 rather than 60, giving me more time to enjoy a new perspective on life. Still, I wish I was 40 when it happened.
Now, when my kids ask, “Are you working tonight?” I only have one thought.
Can you really not remember the days of the week I work?
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