Even now, after years spent building a successful designer handbag business, Natasha Durham sometimes slips into restaurant lingo.

“Eighty-six the new buck leather,” the former restaurant chef will call out to her staff, who are more at home with fashion than with food. Or “We’ve got 15 of the old gold satchels all day.”

Durham once owned three Portland restaurants – Bintliff’s American Cafe (now Bayside American Cafe), Natasha’s and Mims Brasserie – but after 17 years in the industry, she hung up her apron and walked away from the kitchen. Then she poured herself into building her fashion business, working chef-like 16-hour days. It’s not just the hours and professional vocabulary that are similar. Durham considers both fashion and food creative endeavors, and they each satisfy her artistic leanings in different ways.

“My mise en place is not perishable,” Durham said, referring to the textiles she uses in her new business as a chef would refer to ingredients laid out in the kitchen and ready to be cooked. “All I’ve ever wanted is to have all the beautiful ingredients and then not to have the stress of wondering what’s going to happen to them in the next 24 hours.”

Food magazines are chock-full of stories about talented young chefs yearning to show their chops in the kitchen and work their way up to executive chef. Maybe they’ll even own their own restaurant one day. But sometimes, though we don’t hear about it as much, life happens in the reverse. Talented chefs walk away from their stations, sometimes with scarcely a look back. And, like Durham, they end up in a completely – or at least somewhat – different place.

Former Portland chef Erik Desjarlais now sews leather goods for a living and has his own shop in Freeport. Gallit Cavendish, whose impressive resume includes stints at Daniel and the Waldorf Astoria in New York City as well as Chase’s Daily in Belfast and the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, became a farmer in Bowdoinham. Lucian Burg worked at Chez Panisse, Zuni, and other restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area for 30 years before moving to Maine in 1990 and becoming a book designer.

Barton Seaver, who opened seven restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, is now living in Maine and working on ocean sustainability issues with the National Geographic Society and Harvard University. Jeff Landry, former chef/owner of The Farmer’s Table on Commercial Street and a veteran of several other well-known restaurants, went to work for Native Maine Produce after his restaurant closed. Most recently, after his last chef gig at the Royal River Grill House in Yarmouth didn’t work out, Kevin Cunningham of Lewiston decided to leave restaurant work so he can spend more time with his family, including his brand new baby daughter. He hasn’t entirely cut the cord yet: He’s working day shifts at a casual seafood restaurant in Freeport, frying clams and making lobster rolls, until he finds something else.

At least one industry expert says that as more alternatives to running a kitchen become available to chefs, more chefs are taking them.

“When you’re the person making the first pot of coffee in the morning, and you’re there through dinner service, it’s trying,” Cunningham said. “It ruins marriages, it ruins families. Your kids don’t know their dad. It’s not what I wanted. It is what I thought I wanted.”

Natasha Durham started her store Rough & Tumble in Norway after founding three successful restaurants.

Natasha Durham started her store Rough & Tumble in Norway after founding three successful restaurants.

ARTIST FORMERLY KNOWN AS CHEF

Natasha Durham never dreamed of being a chef; she got into the restaurant business on a whim.

The daughter of a fashion designer, Durham moved to Maine when she was in high school and attended the Maine College of Art. She wanted to be an entrepreneur – anything artistic would do. One day in 1993 she saw that Bintliff’s was for sale and she thought to herself, “That would be a fun job.”

It was a steep learning curve. “I didn’t know how to turn the stove on,” she recalled. “It was primarily a brunch house when I purchased it, and I didn’t know how to flip an egg. I only knew one thing: that I could work harder than anyone else.”

Her gamble paid off. Building on Bintliff’s success, Durham went on to open Natasha’s (first on Portland Street, then relocated to Exchange Street) and then Mims. The bigger the company got, the more Durham took on a management role and the less interested she became. Seventeen years after she flipped her first egg, she got out.

“I really loved cooking, and I still do,” she said. “I really wanted to try something different. I began to not see myself doing this at 50, and thinking ‘Well, what else can I do?’ ”

Durham loves working with “gorgeous ingredients,” whether that’s 10 pounds of diver scallops or 1,000 square feet of Italian lambskin. During a year-and-a-half sabbatical funded by the sale of Mims, Durham made herself a handbag out of some vintage textiles. She got compliments on the bag, so she made more. She discovered Etsy.com, and a new business, Rough & Tumble, was born, based out of Norway. She now has 25 employees and, just before the holidays, opened a second store in the Old Port.

Just as Durham used her creative skills to transform her career from cooking to fashion, Burg used his to become a book designer and form his own company, LU Design Studios in Portland. Burg worked summers as a chef on Vinalhaven Island from 1984-91. His wife is from Maine, and when they moved here permanently in 1990, he continued working in restaurants, but as a waiter, not a chef. Gradually, he realized that unless you own your own place, restaurant work is “a young person’s game in our society.” For Burg, it had become a grind.

He learned digital skills working for local food photographer Russell French. Then he started working with a book designer and discovered he loved it.

“It’s great now,” he said. “I’ve got weekends and nights and vacations, and I don’t have to cover peoples’ shifts. I don’t have to work a million hours and come home sweaty at 2 in the morning, which was great when I was young. Now that I’m older, I’m so glad I’m not doing it anymore.”

Erik Desjarlais at Evangeline, formerly on State Street in Portland. Below: Desjarlais is now a seamster making knife rolls and other chef gear. He has his own shop in Freeport.

Erik Desjarlais at Evangeline, formerly on State Street in Portland. Below: Desjarlais is now a seamster making knife rolls and other chef gear. He has his own shop in Freeport.

STOP THE WHIRL, I WANT TO GET OFF 

For Durham and Burg, changing careers involved a long period of self-reflection. For others, things happen more quickly.

For people whose identities are tied closely to being a chef, a sudden transition can be brutal. Erik Desjarlais, who owned the well-regarded Bandol on Exchange Street and later Evangeline in Portland’s Longfellow Square, still remembers how painful the initial days and weeks after he closed Evangeline were.

“It’s like cutting off a leg,” he recalled. “After 20 years of doing it nonstop, it’s all I knew. I don’t know what else to really compare it to – breathing, I guess.” Desjarlais and his wife had just had a baby, so he focused on taking care of his daughter. He says it took a few months to get his “head straight” and find a clear path to a new career as a seamster making knife rolls, aprons and other chef gear.

Kevin Cunningham has worked in the food business since he was 14 washing dishes at a local restaurant. He went on to earn a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales and a bachelor’s degree in food service management. Over the years, he worked food management jobs at Fenway Park, the Boston Convention Center (where he put in such long hours he often slept on a fold-out couch in his office) and the University of Southern Maine. He also gained a reputation for being the go-to guy for opening a new restaurant. His dream, though, was to be head chef at a fine dining restaurant where he wouldn’t have to step aside once it was open.

But when he actually starting landing such jobs at places like Marche Kitchen and Wine Bar in Lewiston and Royal River Grill House in Yarmouth, he found the work sucked all the joy out of cooking.

“When I got there, I wanted to be at home with my kids,” Cunningham said. “I had changed as a person, but also the industry has dramatically changed.”

He found it difficult to hire talented, hard-working and loyal staff. At the same time, he discovered that the expectations of restaurant owners have changed. He was spending way too much time in meetings.

“Now we have people out there who are not from the biz, and they’re looking at spreadsheets,” he said.

Worst of all was the impact on his family life.

Now Cunningham is making half the money he used to, but he and his wife finally had the date night they’d put off for five years. He’s home by mid- to late-afternoon and has dinner with his family every night.

Chef Mark Wright, chair of the American Academy of Chefs at the American Culinary Federation and department chair of Hospitality Management at Erie Community College in Buffalo, N.Y., said that as other options in the food industry proliferate – hospitals and other institutions, as well as grocery stores, are hiring more trained chefs – more cooks are opting for work other than overseeing a restaurant kitchen. And, as was probably always the case, older chefs get burned out and leave.

“I don’t think people realize the stress and the mental and physical work that needs to be done every day,” he said, “and you’re only as good as your last meal.”

Wright himself missed his own sister’s wedding because he had to work. “I don’t know if my mother ever forgave me for that,” he said.

Kevin Cunningham holds his 6-week-old daughter, Bailey, as his wife Jill pushes their son Jameson 2, on the swings at their Lewiston home. Cunningham was the executive chef at The Inn at Brunswick Station.

Kevin Cunningham holds his 6-week-old daughter, Bailey, as his wife Jill pushes their son Jameson 2, on the swings at their Lewiston home. Cunningham was the executive chef at The Inn at Brunswick Station.

‘IF YOU THINK YOU SHOULD DO IT, YOU PROBABLY SHOULD’

None of the chefs interviewed for this story had serious regrets about their career change, though some miss certain aspects of their old lives.

For Desjarlais, it’s “the physical act of cooking” and “the tactile sensation of working with food.” He doesn’t cook much at home, except for occasionally roasting a chicken. Now the man who used to wax poetic about his French duck press has different priorities: “I get excited about tacos,” he said.

Cavendish doesn’t miss the kitchen because she still cooks regularly for her family at her home on Fishbowl Farm, even making her own puff pastry. She’s taught her 5-year-old daughter good knife skills. But she does miss the availability of ingredients she had as a chef – vanilla beans by the pound, saffron by the tin. “I have nice pots and pans,” she said, “but I don’t have eight burners.”

Lucian Burg said he misses the social energy of restaurant work, where colleagues often come to feel like family.

Now he works by himself, and “I have to force myself to get out in the world and go to things instead of just working, working, working,” he said. “That’s been the downside.”

Also, “I can cook any cuisine in the world, still,” he said, “but I’m not a spot-on cook like I used to be. I have to look at cookbooks a lot more than I used to.”

Desjarlais has advice for chefs who are considering leaving the business: If you think you should do it, you probably should. And don’t be afraid.

“I know a lot of younger guys have it in their head that ‘This is all I can do. This is all I know,’ because they’re so into it and so dedicated to it that they couldn’t even imagine leaving it. When I was younger, that was in my head: Life is cooking, and cooking is life. And that’s really not the way it is.”

Now, he has finally let go.

“People still refer to me as a chef,” he said, “and no, I’m not. I’m not a chef. I don’t have a kitchen.”

And he’s fine with that.