The French chef who put meaningfulness ahead of stars

Fresh bear garlic on wooden tableThis week, French chef Sébastien Bras, whose restaurant Le Suquet in Aubrac, France, has three Michelin stars, asked the Michelin guide to drop his restaurant from their rankings. In explaining why he wanted to walk away from what is every chef’s dream accolade, Bras said:

‘In silence and solitude, you can only hear what really matters. Today, at 46 years of age, I want to give new meaning to my life, my professional life, my life in general, and to redefine what is essential, which is this: together with my family, to continue the work I love, to continue sharing the taste of [the region of] Aubrac, the source of so much inspiration and creativity …. Today, together with my wife Véronique, I want to experience the freedom of spirit that will enable me to continue, calmly and without stress, making the cuisine, the welcome and the service at our restaurant the living embodiment of our state of mind and of our land.’

He talks of the great satisfaction he has experienced in running his acclaimed restaurant, but he also talks of the enormous pressures caused by the three star designation, with the anonymous judges potentially arriving unannounced at any moment.

Sébastien Bras is clearly someone who finds his work immensely meaningful. The way he talks about his partnership with his wife and family, his pride in the quality of the food he makes, the way he focuses on the enjoyment of the diners eating in his restaurant, and his connection with the local region, epitomize how meaningfulness is embedded in the daily, hands-on experience of working at a job that resonates with who we are, and the people who matter to us.

His story also shows how the higher-ups (in this case, the Michelin judges) can destroy a sense of meaningfulness (in this case, by causing undue pressure to consistently meet near-impossible standards of perfection).  Bras is not walking away from his work, or trying to change the quality of what he does. Instead, he is reclaiming control over his own destiny and the freedom to set the standards himself, rather than dancing to someone else’s tune. He is removing the cause of meaninglessness.

Lucky Sébastien for having a job where he can do this! He is stepping away from the judges at the very top of the ladder, not while he is scrabbling around in the dark with a torch trying to find the bottom rung. Having been so very successful, he can afford to say, ‘no more’.

Sébastien Bras reminds us that what matters most at work may not be what we think it is. Many chefs, I imagine, would do anything to get three Michelin stars. Many no doubt work tirelessly towards an award they regard as the pinnacle of their career, sacrificing hours of sleep and time they could have spent on other things.  By stepping back and saying, it’s not the prizes that matter, it’s my own satisfaction with my work that counts, Sébastien shows that meaningfulness is found within ourselves, not derived from the judgement of the outside world.

 

 

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