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How To Beat the Ticket Machine Dream



Nathan Sartain

If you’re a chef or a line cook, most likely you’re familiar with this dream—or should we say nightmare. “It’s called the ticket machine dream,” says Nathan Sartain, director of culinary arts at Saint Paul College. “The ticket machine is running and you almost (catch up)…but you can’t get your wheel stainless.”

Every industry has some version of this out-of-control dream that jolts us out of REM sleep and keeps us awake at night. But for a job with the physicality of working in a kitchen, good sleep is sometimes as illusive as it is necessary.

The restaurant industry is contradictory. On the one hand it’s welcoming and accepting, and on the other: “We have to put out food in seven minutes,” Sartain says. 

Which is where the stress starts meeting the rubber. Pile on varying shifts, the need to be constantly creative, the physicality of being on your feet all day, a minimum-wage paycheck, a bus load of tourists arriving just as you’re about to close and you begin to see why alcohol at the end of the day and staying out late partying with your coworkers may seem like the best way to unwind. But that’s not the way Sartain sees the industry. 

“I think that how we portray ourselves (as an industry) doesn’t pay us well as a recruitment tool,” he says. The stereotype of the bad boys—and now girls—who are rebels isn’t the way to convince people to make foodservice their career. Nor is a lifestyle of stress, late nights, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. 

Which is why students in his program get a lesson on work-life balance.

“When you’re a 22-year-old kid, you’re made of elastic,” Sartain says, which is why early in their careers cooks’ bodies can take the stress. But in eight to 10 years “when their knees are barking,” they may need a plan to get off the line. “That’s why our program has short-, medium- and long-term goals,” he says. 

In addition, the restaurant industry is changing. “It’s becoming a more artistic medium,” he says. “It’s not just making menu items and pulling the greatest hits list together.” Seasonality plays an important role in menu planning, as does plating. And then there’s the stress of the front of the house—i.e. customers. 

Some of the work-life advice is as simple as staying hydrated during and after a shift, putting some separation between work and sleep or taking natural remedies like melatonin for sleep. Exercise always helps calm the mind as does listening to music and zoning out. 

A good life also involves how to manage people. The culture of screaming at workers in kitchens should be a footnote in history, not a current practice. “Treat your human capital as such,” he says. “Get rid of the cut-throat” mentality. Fortunately the Twin Cities has a number of leaders who see the value in this. “Thomas (Boemer) does it, J.D.(Fratke), Tim Niver,” he says, ticking off a list of successful chef/owners. “Remember that article about the Tree of Tim McKee? He understands; he’s a huge advocate for his people. Once you’re one of his people, you’re always one of his people.”

And when that bus load of tourists shows up just as you’re mopping the kitchen floor, embrace it, Sartain says. “It is what it is.”

It doesn’t mean we can’t make the industry better for everyone, but even a late-night tourist deserves a warm welcome. 

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