Cutting through the smoke

by Andree Lau, CBCnews.ca

I've never worked in a restaurant or a professional kitchen, so I'm fascinated by the barrage of reality food shows on TV, especially the pressure-filled, expletive-laden Hell's Kitchen.

As I dutifully watched this season's finale this week, one question still bothered me: why do these aspiring chefs smoke so much?

Contestants on Hell's Kitchen vie to run one of chef Gordon Ramsay's restaurants. (Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

A few times every episode, the contestants who were vying to run one of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's restaurants would be shown puffing away while scheming during breaks, crafting a menu, or unwinding after service.

I know smoking is supposed to help with stress, but doesn't it also dull your taste buds?

I took the question to Kevin Kent. He's spent almost 20 years cooking his way through professional kitchens including River Café in Calgary and St. John in London.

Stress was his first explanation for the smoking.

"It also has something to do with the chef lifestyle which is akin to the pirate lifestyle," said Kent. "I think chefs see themselves outside the norms of society, kind of like rock and roll for people who can't play guitar."

Eloquent food blogger and chef Barbara Fisher goes further, writing about kitchen workers: "They don’t get enough sleep, they often eat too little, and they cannot relax in any normal way, so they turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, and yes, foul language, to make it through the days and nights of their existence, all so they can turn out endless plates of gorgeous food for people who have the money and leisure time to spend on it."

Kevin Kent shows one of his knives to customers in his store. (Andree Lau/CBC)

Kent used to smoke, but quit when he realized it was hurting not only his health but also his sense of smell and taste. He doesn't miss the smoking, but does miss the rush and the camaraderie in a kitchen.

"People on your crew are your family," says Kent, re-living some fond memories over the phone. But it's also why he had to leave to nurture his own family, including 8-month-old Elliot, at home.

"I knew if I was working noon to midnight every day, that it wouldn't be conducive to seeing him. He's going to grow up quickly and I don't want to miss it," he says.

That's why Kent turned his passion for sharp blades into a specialty store called Knifewear in Calgary this March. It's got fire-red walls and beautiful handmade Japanese blades. Kent offers a sharpening service and tons of knowledge about all the glistening knives in his glass cases.

But he definitely plans on getting back into a kitchen and opening his own restaurant one day: "I miss the creativity. I miss writing menus. I miss creating specials," he admits.

What was working in a restaurant like for you?