Ballerina Takes Dance Ergonomics to Boston’s Culinary Scene

Courtesy Rachel Cossar

Courtesy Rachel Cossar

“There is such alignment between the world of professional ballet and the professionalization of the restaurant industry,” says Rachel Cossar, a food writer and former dancer with Boston Ballet. “In the whole experience, from the minute the diner walks in to the second they leave, they’re coming into this world, they’re leaving their stresses, they’re putting their evening in someone else’s hands, they’re being carried throughout, and all of their senses will be stimulated at some point. And very much like dancing, a perfectly curated meal can have that same effect.”

Ms. Cossar, a writer for her own site Rachel On Pointe and for The Daily Meal, paired her insights into the worlds of food and performance with her entrepreneurial spirit to create “Choreography in the Kitchen,” a program that trains restaurant staff who are on their feet all day to align their bodies properly, to move with posture that counteracts aches and pains, and to use conscious physicality to create a positive dining experience.

“I worked in a restaurant as a hostess a few years ago, and I remember even then—and I was a dancer at the time—after my shifts at the restaurant I was so tired and my feet hurt,” Ms. Cossar recalls. “You’re running around ‘backstage,’ you’re moving things, lifting things, you’re lunging—there is a lot of movement [in restaurant work].”

In Ms. Cossar’s rubric, she observes a restaurant staff in action to assess their working environment and pinpoint areas of concern in their movement, then teaches them to move in proper, healthy ways. “You stand and align your bodies and understand what proper alignment is and understand where the root of the support comes from, from the ground up, and from the core,” she says. “Then your upper body can be free and relaxed and do all kinds of things—it’s the exact same thing we’re taught as dancers.”

Next, the proper posture is applied in situations such as bending over to reach a refrigerator, moving boxes, or, for the front staff, attentively curating diners’ restaurant experience. “How would you seat them? How would you angle your body so that it’s not confrontational but also not dismissive?” Ms. Cossar explains. “How do you serve a couple at a bar and read their dynamic so that you’re not interrupting or breaking in, but so that you can actually interject and become a more interesting part of their evening?”

Photo by Dane Shitagi

Photo by Dane Shitagi

Ms. Cossar recently gave Choreography in the Kitchen a beta run with friend Joshua Lewin, co-owner of Juliet in Somerville. “The staff said from the very first session they began to think about their work differently. They started paying more attention to the way they were standing, lifting and cooking things and the way their guests might be perceiving them,” Ms. Cossar says. Mr. Lewin noticed the difference in his staff, too.

“Choreography in the Kitchen was a groundbreaking team-building exercise for our staff,” Mr. Lewin says. “Not only did we have the opportunity to do something fun and different together as a team, but Rachel's unique professional dance experience, combined with her passion for and understanding of restaurants, gave us new ways of thinking about how we move through our space to protect our bodies and put on a more effective show. Choreography in the Kitchen will have long-term impact on the way we do our jobs!”

It was rewarding, Ms. Cossar says, to help Juliet’s team think about their work in a new way.

“My favorite moment was when one of the team members said the way I suggested he use his body to leverage and approach the opening of a low refrigerator was revolutionary and that he had been applying that philosophy to other things he finds repetitive and physically strenuous,” Ms. Cossar says. “I was thrilled!”

After working with Juliet, Ms. Cossar looks forward to bringing Choreography in the Kitchen to more restaurants who want to invest in their staff and their business. “As a chef, as an owner, you’re not [running a restaurant] because of the money or because it’s an amazing business. It’s not. It’s hard. It’s a labor of love, it’s a passion and it’s an art,” she observes. “So, if you’re doing it, you want to do it as well as possible.”

Ms. Cossar sees her program as a practical tool, but it is also deeply personal for the dancer, who retired from Boston Ballet in 2016. “I’m not on the Opera House stage anymore, but anywhere I go, I bring that history with me. I think that in transitioning, you should never close a door entirely, and you should allow [your past] to inform the next chapter.”