Class notes: How-to

How to keep your cool in the kitchen

Daria Papalia, PhD ’94, MA ’90, Director, Counseling and Psychological Services at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Illustration by Jean-Manuel Duvivier

Interview by Michael Flatt

According to Daria Papalia, being a chef, or learning to be one, is not as brutal as we’re led to think. “This is not ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’” she asserts. “There are media portrayals that are over-the-top, and they don’t represent our schools, nor do they represent the industry.”

But the work does present challenges. All cities witness restaurants come and go, even popular ones, and behind every surviving establishment is a group of people trying to stay abreast of constantly evolving tastes and trends in a field crowded with newcomers promising tastier, trendier, healthier, better.

Thus, in addition to food prep and flavor matching, CIA students learn how to cope with stress and stay focused in a high-intensity environment, thanks to outreach programs and counseling sessions provided by Papalia’s team. Without those skills to keep them stable, young chefs can burn out, which is often as painful on a personal level as it is on a professional one. “Food is so much more than sustenance,” Papalia explains. “Food is an emotional experience.”

We asked Papalia for tips on how budding young chefs can cope with the stress (most of which can be applied to any high-stress career path).

How to keep your cool in the kitchen:

Say yes to therapy
We do a lot of psychotherapy as our front line of care. We talk about emotional intelligence, self-awareness, resilience, managing stress and other life skills. We also help people replace negative coping patterns with positive, long-term strategies. That’s what psychotherapy can do for you. You don’t come in only when you’re in a crisis.

Be open to change
The industry is really broad. Some students will love working the line, being in the back of the house, creating things. Others will realize they love the front of the house, socializing, greeting customers. Some go into management. Students might say, “Wow, I thought I wanted to do that, but it turns out I want to do this,” and they have to know there’s nothing wrong with that.

Find a mentor
If you’re struggling to find your way, that’s where a mentor comes in. A mentor can show you what your options are after you graduate and how to work your way up. Mentors often have contacts in the industry as well, which can unlock doors for a young chef.

Cook (but only if you want to)
For some students, cooking when there’s no grade attached to it is therapeutic. They’ll often get together on weekends to cook and socialize, and that’s healthy. Other students prefer to balance their lives with activities or interests that do not involve cooking, and that’s OK too.