In my 20s, I subscribed to the adage about spending all my money on books, and if there was some cash left, I’d eat. In my mid-30s, I went through a period of great disillusionment with literature, and not only stopped buying books altogether—I stopped reading.
Not only did I not write or read anything, but I also spurned the careful, measured asceticism of the reader: the discernment, the curiosity, the habit of living a rich interior life.
Everything was about surface. I took countless photographs, was drawn to shiny objects and glittery people—fast cars, fast highs, fast pleasures.
It was all a rebellion, of course, trying to prove that I could survive away from the keyboard, from the nights of tapping away while the rest of the household slept. What I discovered was that literature owes you no favor. Because the muse was with you once, and stories and poems and fables flowed in your imagination into just the right words did not mean that they would do so—ever again.
This is why I always urge people with the ability and the urge to write not to put it off for another day, not to wait till they are older, for instance, to start that novel. Literature will not call you back plaintively and ask, “Why have you abandoned me?” It is you—to be specific, it is I, who had to come crawling back on my hands and knees, having made peace between myself and the written word.
What happens to chefs when they get old? It seems that either they burn out or they sell out.
Hertog Jan, a restaurant in Belgium, famously closed last year just when it seemed it was at its height. The pressure of sustaining a three Michelin-star place was too much.
André Chiang closed his restaurant with the vague promise of returning with something new, but so far, no announcements have been made.
Across the world, it seems more and more common for chefs to either reject or return their stars, simply stop at the top of their game, and abruptly say goodbye and thanks
for all the fish.
From hype to hype
Closer to home, in Manila, I can count a number of chefs who seem to be the M. Night Shyamalans of the food-and-beverage world: How on earth do they keep getting people to fund them? They lurch from one new restaurant to another, often high-stake ones that obviously require deep pockets to back, from hype to hype, from closure to closure.
I say this not with intent to deprecate. There are some who are genuinely untalented, like Shyamalan, and continue to coast along on the strength of one good hit. But there are chefs who simply have to brave the fickle nature of the hospitality business, and deal with having their purity of vision compromised by spreadsheets and the caprices of financial backers who made their money in some less salubrious trade and want to have their own restaurant. (It’s a bit like this—if someone had made a certain amount of money, he, at some point, decides he wants his own airline.) Thank god for vanity, sometimes.
Cooking, unlike writing, is such a visceral, physical activity that it’s hard to imagine living that kind of frenzied life well into old age. Not only does your back hurt, but also your senses are no longer as keen. There are stories in the trade about elderly chefs who overseason and go wild with the aromatics because they can’t smell anything anymore.
It’s hard to be working the line as an older chef, although I have great respect for a neighborhood bistro in Paris I used to go to—the chef wore a monocle around his neck, and when the order ticket came in, he would hold it up to one eye to read it. He had been preparing the same, dependable, excellent fare for the last 30 years, which was why the bistro became an institution in the quartier.
But for chef-auteurs, the main problem might not be as mundane as lumbago, but the less definable one of keeping current. The crowd that travels the world and is willing to drop $300–$500 per meal is more sensitive to trends than Anna Wintour. This restaurant, that pack will say, has lost its touch—clearly, as it has fallen to the lower half of the 50 Best list. This restaurant is at the cutting edge of fermentation, but it falls short when it comes to foraging.
The old days of having learned one’s craft and getting better and better at it, and then eventually mentoring a younger chef in one’s old age, are past.
This is true not just of chefs, of course. There is a plethora of articles about how people in all fields are being forced to retrain, because the pace of innovation has simply gone too far and too fast for one person to be doing the same thing he did at the start. This is doubly true of women, who often take a pause in the middle of their careers to concentrate on having and rearing children, and find it hard to reenter the job market.
It’s even true of writers. There are some print editors, who cut their teeth in the days of typewriters, who now find themselves counting their “likes” on social media. For many photographers, the great culling came with the advent of digital photography. Some made the transition gracefully, others less so.
Among writers, we often wonder which was the better option—to have one’s work come out in print, but to have that newspaper relegated to lining waste bins the next day; or to have it on the internet, where even virality can bring only so many minutes’ worth of exposure.
Most articles don’t even get that—they whizz past as a barely registered blip, then sink into oblivion. It might live on forever in Google, but in obscurity.
Creative people struggle with the terrible thought that their greatest work is behind them, and that they will never do better than what they did in their youth. It’s why the internet is filled with inspirational quotes about people who achieved success later in life. Perhaps it reflects the age demographic of my Facebook feed as much as anything else.
And for the most part, it is very difficult to compete with one’s past self. This is maybe one reason writers’ reunions are full of crochety old characters reminiscing about the good old days, when you could get from Balintawak to Magallanes in 20 minutes, and when words flowed like hot butter from the keys of their IBM Selectrics. There is much bile, and so little mentoring.
A graceful exit for writers to whom words no longer come, or for a chef who can no longer work the line, is to teach. The younger generation should not be viewed as adversaries, but as our responsibility. —CONTRIBUTED