It is pretty fair to say that most chefs are not in it for the money. With the long hours, the hard physical work, and the painfully narrow profit margins, there are countless other, much smarter ways to make money. Chefs do what we do because we feel pulled to it, the love of cooking and feeding people is deep inside us, and in most cases, there is a passion for food that is so strong, it keeps us from doing anything else.
When I started my career working in non-profit and attempting this off-the-beaten-path approach to being a chef, I quickly realized that there were no footsteps for me to follow, and that whatever I wanted to do would be something that I would have to build for myself. I also realized that I would be embracing a further degree of financial insecurity working in non-profit. But the chance to do work that I believed so strongly in was a compelling enough reason for me to embrace the challenge of both financial insecurity and being a one-woman-show. At the time, my only dream was that I could make enough money to keep a roof over my head so that I could do work that I was deeply committed to.
Fast forward about 13 years, and here I am! I’ve got a career that has been the most delightful surprise, and I am proud of and grateful for the opportunities and accomplishments that it has brought. This said, I’ve also learned that the cost of the security of a salaried job with benefits is my freedom and autonomy, as almost all of the salaried jobs I’ve had have ended at the hands of some sort of power struggle. I have a very clear idea of the kind of work I want to do, and the impact I want to make. And because of this, I know now that it’s best that I work for myself. This has meant contract work that comes to me as the result of a pretty dedicated and stressful hustle. I often feel like I’m buckling under the weight of both doing this interesting, innovative work trying to rebuild our food system, and generating the income to keep it all going. Luckily, I’m a pretty high capacity woman.
I’ve taken what feels like an endless string of leaps of faith, and every month when I find myself once again worrying about piecing enough money together to pay my bills, I also wonder if this may be it. Is this the month where I finally smarten up, forget this good food nonsense and get a nice steady, secure job at an insurance company? We all know that I’m much too far down this road to stop now, and neither I nor the insurance company would be happy with each other.
But here’s the thing: I’ve been at this for more than 10 years now. And thankfully, my work has made some lasting impact. I have laid down some new track, and created viable, effective ways to rebuild our food system. For all intents and purposes, it’s working. However, the financial insecurity persists. As we turned over another month, and I managed to just squeeze by with making payments, I felt particularly overwhelmed by this situation, and posted this on Twitter:
Predictably, a number of my freelance colleagues liked and seconded the sentiment. I know that I am not alone here, and that there is a large community of people across this country in this very same situation. We do the work we love, and the work that feels important, and we’re not as tied to how much money we’re going to make as a result.
For the last year I’ve made a major resolution to really limit the amount of work that I do for free. Food is a chronically underfunded thing in this world, at both global and individual levels. We don’t take our food seriously enough, and thus won’t spend our money on it, particularly when cheap facsimiles are as readily available as they are. Both people and governments want to spend as little as possible on food, with little to no appetite for investing in a new vision simply because it’s the right thing to do. Social change does not always mean good business, and I often find myself having to choose between doing something for free or not doing it at all. About 75% of the messages that I get through my website are requests for me to do something for free. Needless to say, I volunteer a lot of my time, often with the hope that it could lead to something paid in the future, but mostly because I want to keep the wheels turning on this good food revolution.
Here’s the truth: we’re at a point now where I’m personally subsidizing the rebuilding of our food system. I know that may sound extreme, but it IS what’s really happening. And when you combine that with the brown lady tax that I pay to just move and live in the world, it’s a fucking wonder I’m here to tell the story.
One of the responses to my tweet was from a friend and colleague who was very surprised, and said that she thought I was always “very entrepreneurial”. The truth is, I’m only entrepreneurial because I have to be. I own my own business because that’s the easiest way for me to maintain a compliant relationship with the CRA. For me, making money is little more than a necessity, the tool required to let me do what I really want to do with my life.
And speaking of what I want to do with my life, my current project is incredibly exciting! I’ve just signed a book deal with ECW Press to write about my take on the institutional food revolution. This will be the first of its kind in the world, and this blueprint and toolkit will (hopefully) be the spark required to start a movement to improve the way we source, cook and serve food in public institutions.
I have a wonderful editor and agent, and now I have a deadline to submit a manuscript. But what I’ve realized is that I can’t hustle to pay the bills and dive into a creative project like this, so I went hunting for some grant funding to keep me going while I write. Much to my dismay, after investigating all levels of arts granting, I’ve discovered that there is no funding for the kind of nonfiction writing that I am doing. This was both a frustrating and familiar place to find myself, and has forced me to be more creative with my thinking. I’ve decided to try my hand at crowdfunding. The campaign will launch at the beginning of June 2018 (stay tuned!), and I’m feeling quite optimistic and excited about it. There is a sizeable community of folks who have been paying attention to me and my work, and who believe strongly in the value of what I’m trying to do. Is their belief strong enough to back my campaign and make a contribution? That remains to be seen, but I’ve got to at least try, right?