What Makes You Great Also Breaks You

Before opening his namesake bakery, Hinman worked as a pastry chef in Colorado restaurants for more than 20 years with Secret Sauce (owners of Vesta, Ace Eat Serve, etc.), Big Red F (owners of Jax, Post Brewing Company, Lola, etc.), Marczyk’s Fine Foods and more.

But, the demand from owners, stress from coworkers and need for success caught up with him. For Hinman, the pressure to perform manifested into alcoholism. He cited two major moments that forced him out of the kitchen and into recovery, but looking back, he said he can now see more of the small, moving pieces that slowly chipped away at him.

“Alcoholism will always be there, but it manifests itself in different forms today,” Hinman said. “The compulsion to drink is gone, but now it’s about not being a jerk… like stomping, zinging my phone across the room or wanting to go and hide.”

Other chefs like Brandon Foster agreed. Foster explained that you’re so passionate about the work you’re doing that it can be hard to put it down when you need to, especially when you’re already sacrificing so much for it.

You work so hard that it gets addicting. The camaraderie is what draws you in,” said Foster, now executive chef at Project Angel Heart. He too has spent almost 20 years working 60 to 70 hours per week in kitchens across Denver.

Hard to Stay, Harder to Leave

Perhaps it’s easy to read about this stress and offer a simple solution — if you don’t like it, quit. If you can’t handle it, leave.

But, it’s not black and white. From the chefs I spoke to, I learned that the only thing harder than doing it is not doing it. The job pulls you in and you don’t see a way out because your whole identity is wrapped up in what you do for a living. Without it, you’re lost.

Ryan Leinonen started in a kitchen washing dishes at 15, moving his way up to work for Hotel Boulderado, The Kitchen, Root Down and Colt & Gray — eventually opening his own restaurant Trillium in 2011 and selling it to leave the industry in 2015. After the sale, he went to the doctor for the first time in 10 years, and the doctor said his stress levels were pushing him closer and closer to a dire health emergency.

“It felt like I was digging a hole and someone else was standing at the top, kicking the dirt back into the hole,” Leinonen said. “But, as stressed as I was with it, I was lost without it. Ever since I was 15, I’ve only wanted to open and own my own restaurant. When it was over, I didn’t know what to do.”

Solutions From Within

“One of my first mentors said this to me, and I want everyone to hear it,” Foster said. “He told me — ‘You’re going burn out. More than once. It’s the nature of the business. But, it’s about how you rebound from that. You have to take better care of yourself outside of work. Make sure that you’re fulfilling life outside of the kitchen.’”

For others, Colorado has been a place to do just that. Seabolt explained that moving here was his attempt at rediscovering life beyond his work.

“I have found more balance by moving to Colorado,” he said. “I’m told not to work a lot by my bosses, which is new. I’m hiking, going to the gym, training for a half marathon. Really just finding ways to set goals and push myself in my personal life so I can remember that my worth isn’t only measured in the kitchen.”

Reilly agreed that he wishes it was something that was discussed more, especially early on in a chef’s career.

“I wish we were talking about this years ago,” he said. “I wish I had someone give me this advice a long time ago, but I’ll say it now… It comes down to three practices — exercise, meditate and be present. When you do have time to be away from the restaurant, you need to be 100 percent in whatever that is. You must be present in your moments away.”