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A chef and restaurant owner finds his passion making furniture during the pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Help wanted signs in restaurant windows, promises of signing bonuses, higher wages - owners and managers are struggling to try to get employees back full time after the pandemic's disruptions. But for some of those workers, the time away from the service industry has opened new doors.

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NICHOLAS VAN ECK: Hi, my name is Nicholas Van Eck. I live in Portland, Ore., and I make custom furniture.

SIMON: Nicholas Van Eck was a chef for nearly a decade. He also co-owned a small restaurant. But lockdowns ended that and left Nicolas Van Eck with something unusual - free time.

VAN ECK: The first thing that I did is exercise (laughter), which is something that I've - had wanted to do. But when you're working a 16-hour shift every day, you can shoehorn in a workout before that or in the middle of it, but it always feels a little bit ridiculous. So that was what I was really excited to start doing - and just reading and just chilling. I was finally able to do a lot of the things that normal people (laughter) have the time to do.

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VAN ECK: I started making furniture almost immediately. I had to watch a lot of YouTube videos - made some stuff for relatives and then made some stuff for friends and then decided to share what I had been up to on social media. And then it was kind of a deluge after that - a ton of business that came in immediately.

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VAN ECK: It is a really different type of hard work than restaurants. I think restaurants are both physically and very emotionally draining. It's really long hours. In a high-pressure restaurant environment, once you're there, you're really kind of locked in. You might have hours go by where you can't use the bathroom, you can't check your phone, you can't take a moment to just mentally rest. And often I kind of went into a panic as soon as I went to - got to work and was in, like, a heightened state of adrenaline for 12 to 16 hours straight. I think that that can take a toll.

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VAN ECK: Before the pandemic, I kept having nights where I would have one beer and I would wake up the next day with this horrible hangover. And I was like, jeez, I'm 28. Am I really getting that old? I stopped drinking entirely pretty early in the pandemic. And a couple of months in, I did a couple of private events - cooking - was kind of like back in restaurant mode for, like, three or four days straight. The day after this event, I woke up and I had that same feeling. And I realized that wasn't a hangover. That's just the exhaustion that comes from not blinking for four days straight.

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VAN ECK: When I first started cooking, part of the reason that I was attracted to it was because it was such an intense, almost militaristic environment. I kind of thought, I'm going to put myself through the wringer and I'm going to be a stronger person for it. And I had this realization after I was able to take some space away from it that difficult experiences don't always make you (laughter) better. Sometimes they make you worse.

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VAN ECK: You know, I think that there, for the most part, are a lot of really good people who are still working really hard. And I might have a little bit of survivor's guilt about leaving. I really do care about the restaurant industry. And I view those people as my peers still. And I really want things to change. I think that I had to just make a calculation for myself about whether or not I wanted to be a part of that or whether or not I just wanted to kind of duck out and take care of myself and also just have another chapter in my life.

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SIMON: Nicholas Van Eck of Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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