Chef Barry Tonkinson

Staying Inspired and Nurturing Talent

Chef Barry advises aspiring chefs on motives, longevity and mentality in the restaurant industry.

When choosing a career path, there are always key factors that will sway your decision in selecting a fulfilling and successful work life. Marketability, salary, work environment, stability and trajectory are a few that are often considered.

Most employers can tempt their future employees in a direction with promises of fulfilling these common desires and keeping them on track for a long and fulfilling career. But what do we do in an industry that doesn’t often meet or even offer these common goals? The hospitality industry often struggles to keep its workforce dedicated to long-term employment, and in a world where global food media is blurring the lines between show business and reality, the strain to keep those passionate about this career inspired and hungry becomes ever heavy.

As a young cook, meticulously perusing the pages of Marco Pierre White’s “White Heat” in the basement of a west London bookstore, the only factor that mattered to me was passion. That book was stirring. The beautifully colorful and glossy pictures of Marco’s food juxtaposed with the stark black and white images of the rigor of his kitchen were jarring, fueling a spike in adrenaline and a hunger that would drive me through the next lump of arduous days full of anxiety-ridden mornings, blistered fingers and muscle aches.

Chef Barry works with a Culinary Arts student in class.
Chef Barry works with a Culinary Arts student in class.

I see the same fervor flowing through the young cooks at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Teams of students bouncing around the city’s culinary delights and discussing their next kitchen trails. My deep hope is that they stick with it and reach their potential. Quite often the first few years in the kitchen are a blur: information overload, a fast ramp-up to get to grips with restaurant life, and developing that muscle memory when folding pasta or perfecting knife cuts.

After a few years, the rigors of kitchen life often cause those in the industry to reevaluate their careers. Bodies are tired, holidays are spent away from loved ones, and the emergence and evolution of family responsibilities mean a skew in priorities and objectives. The passion that was once rousing is now stagnant, and as life’s inevitable demands grow, there’s a temptation to second guess decisions. So how can we maintain that driving force which once so forcefully held us? How can we stay inspired?

Being honest and open about the realities of careers in the hospitality industry is crucial. Not every cook will go on to reach stardom, own their own restaurant empire or earn the kind of recognition that a handful of chefs globally achieve. If you choose this industry for fame and recognition, you chose to climb a mountain with the narrowest of peaks. We must remain tuned to the true reasons that we chose this path in the first place. It must be about the food, the creativity, the art. It must be about the team around you, the camaraderie, the feeling of achievement after a crushing service and the looks upon the faces of those eating the food of which you played such a crucial role. You may not realize the impact that you have on others, but it is real, tangible and salient.

It is also the responsibility of the chef in every kitchen and restaurant manager in every dining room to maintain a positive mentality. This does not mean a break in the rigor of a tight ship, but the understanding that we work best when we are inspired, respected and challenged.

A chef of modern times must be able to recognize how to nurture inspiration and adopt creativity and intrigue amongst their team. Gone are the days when the tyrannical chef would torment their fellow brigade, pushing them to breaking points to fuel strength and robustness. Now we know that we need to nurture, educate and inspire. We are all in this together and the more we can lift everyone up, we can begin to push culinary boundaries and mend a broken paradigm within our industry.

It is vital to every kitchen that an unspoken promise is made between the chef and their cooks, that the hard work required within the walls of the kitchen or restaurant are equally expected and respected. When it is time to move on, there is nothing more pleasing to see than a chef helping their cooks pursue their next moves.

Staying inspired is not always an easy thing to do. In between jobs, take a break. Go on a culinary adventure for a week, a month, six months, and relight the flame which drew you in the first place. Stage at restaurants in every new city you visit. Volunteer with chefs at events. Read books, old and new. Even now looking back at “White Heat” stirs up some energy in me. We must all find a way to push each other further, educate one another, challenge one another and support each other when needed. Yes, this industry is tough, however it is full and rewarding in many ways that other career paths are not. And when we are inspired, we inspire those around us.

The legacy of a good cook is left not by their dishes but by the influences left upon a fellow chef. We are all part of the culinary community, the more we can develop the next generation of industry leaders, the more our industry will thrive.

Stay inspired in ICE's career programs and professional development classes.

Add new comment