How I Learned to Listen to My Body and Prioritize Sleep as a Professional Chef

Sleep brings balance to my life. Here’s how I learned to change restaurant culture by embracing self-care.

Andrea Drummer in her chef's whites against a pink and blue gradient background.

I’m a later-in-life chef. I worked in non-profits for several years, which is what originally brought me to Los Angeles. I was getting burnt out, so I asked myself, “What do I like to do that feeds me creatively?” I debated between food and fashion, and ultimately went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. Once I graduated, I started working in restaurant kitchens. Most people take on that profession young; I was in my 30s at the time.

Right away I noticed this sense of martyrdom that chefs had — that to be the best, you had to sacrifice taking care of yourself. There was this bravado, partly because it’s a male-dominated culture and industry. Being in a restaurant kitchen for 18 hours a day, there isn’t a sense of balance. As a Sagittarius, I crave balance in my life, so I found that detrimental. If I’m not feeding my soul, how do I feed other people? If I am not well-rested, how then do I put my heart and soul into the food that I’m cooking and serving other people?

I was going to bed between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. and getting up early, too. I would close my eyes at night, but my nerves would not still — it was just blinking and agitation. I was depriving myself of rest. And it was affecting everything: my mental health, my motivation, how I engaged, and my leadership. I had to really tap into my body and ask, “What’s happening here?” I was suffering, and I know I had to proactively get a hold on my sleep patterns.

Overhauling my sleep for newfound balance and health

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I did an entire overhaul of my sleep, starting with my bed. I had mine for over 10 years; instead of getting a new mattress, I would just find a topper. I’d had a bout of sciatica — that’s when I started consuming medical marijuana — and sinking into these too-soft toppers was compromising my spine.

During the pandemic, I also had to have a hysterectomy and have seven pounds worth of fibroids removed.

Pre-surgery to post-surgery, my body completely changed. I had to consider how I slept best — side versus back versus tummy — and if my position shifted during the night. That all played a part in the firmness and selection of a mattress. I spent a month scouring mattress places to find a perfect bed, but my life depended on it.

I upgraded my sheets and pillows, too. I had to be mindful of genetics because allergies are a big thing in my family. I realized that pillows with down feathers made me cough in the middle of night. I got bamboo pillows, cooling cotton sheets, and a cooling comforter. I have two sets of pillows with different firmnesses and sizes, so if I can adjust if I need more support for my neck or body.

One of the best things about hospitality is the feeling of walking into a hotel room and seeing a freshly made bed that’s just for you. (Did I mention that I worked as a chef at the Ritz-Carlton?) So, at home I recreated a sleep environment that channels that same hospitality. My bedroom looks like a spa; I even have fresh flowers. But they can’t be flowers with high pollen because that causes allergy flare-ups. I was doing a lavender spray on my pillow, but my allergies suffered. So, I switched to soothing scents that are reminiscent of really great human pheromones. I like to create a balance of feminine and masculine energy, including the smells around me. It balances me and I’m able to sleep better. It might sound extra, but I had to take an active role in making sleep a priority.

The importance of sleep hygiene

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I learned about sleep hygiene and made other changes to improve it. I set the air conditioner at a temperature that helps me rest better. I put my phone and other distracting devices across the room or in a different room. I used to always sleep with the TV on; now I have music, but it can’t have high crescendos because that affects how I fall asleep. I don’t eat after sundown; if I do, it’s a light snack. I drink a lot of water throughout the day, so I must be mindful of when to stop.

I’m intentional about the hour I go to sleep. I’m still very much a night hawk, but I give myself until 11 p.m. I created a wind-down routine incorporating meditation and sound baths: During the pandemic, I started working with a reiki healer who does sound baths and I started doing them at home. I use crystal sound bowls, one for the solar plexus and another for the heart chakra. When the heart is good and the solar plexus is centered, I rest so peacefully.

The pandemic triggered a lot of anxiety. There was so much uncertainty around the café being closed and not having a regular work schedule. I had to be mindful of that and how anxiety plays a significant role in sleep. I found a new daytime routine to compensate, including getting up at a specific time and working out, cycling, hiking, and getting sun.

Mental health and self-care come first

My interest has always been to change the narrative in restaurant culture. We don’t have to be martyrs and we don’t need to treat each other poorly if someone needs to take care of themselves, to take a sick day, or even a mental health day. People, especially the younger generation, are more open to talking about mental health issues.

I’m trying to lead by example and show employees that not taking care of themselves makes them worse at their job, not better. Go home and rest, be with your family, love on your partner or kids. You loving yourself makes you better at work. It’s important for me to give resources to staff to take care of their mental health, to be able to take care of family, to go on vacation. It was written into the application to the city of West Hollywood before we opened the first cannabis café.

It’s my belief that everything is energy. So, what kind of energy am I putting into my craft if I’m not well-rested and not spending time with loved ones? I believe in taking the proper amount of time away from the workplace to reenergize and come back to the plate.