The real working life of a chef: a view from the inside

indexby The Red Chef

It seems that over the last few years the chef has become a rather in vogue character following the rise of some notorious TV chefs like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey, Marco White and others. Here in New Zealand the weekly show Masterchef displays the extent to which many individuals would love the ‘opportunity’ to enter the hospitality industry and work in kitchens. Having worked in hospitality for many years now, and more recently as a chef in a trendy Wellington restaurant, I am writing this article in order to clear up some misconceptions about the supposedly glamorous life of the chef that the celebrity bigwigs would like us to believe. The reality of life working in kitchens is one of brutal exploitation, pure and simple.

The entire structure of work in a kitchen has clearly been conditioned by many years of attacks on the conditions of the chefs who work there, so that now the first thing a person needs to be able to do when they begin working in kitchens is multi-task or, in other words, do multiple people’s jobs all at once. This is because, like in many other industries, the workforce is kept as lean as possible. So, in my case, I might be chopping some vegetables, roasting some food off in my oven, frying some food on my grill, all while constantly making toast and keeping an eye on the new dockets which are always coming in.

We only get an hour to do our prep work before the kitchen opens for service. This is never enough time so the result is that we must be constantly prepping throughout the day in order to avoid being stuck in the kitchen for a long time after close.

The kitchen itself is far, far too small to accomodate the work that needs to be done. For me the most stressful times of the day are the times when I need to take trays out of my oven, because once I put them on my bench to cool I am left with a space of roughly 50cm by 70cm on which to prepare food. If at that time I have some large rounds coming through where I have to plate up 7 or more different dishes at once then the lack of space can become an absolute nightmare. Chronic lack of space is a feature of many kitchens because the employers prefer to reserve as much room as possible for paying guests in order to maximise their profits. Exploitation is built into the physical structure of the modern restaurant.

My shifts are 11-12 hours long and I can honestly say that even that is barely enough time to complete all of my work; for this reason on a busy day I will work upwards of 12 hours straight without taking a single break. On days when I do get to take a ‘lunch break’ all that means is that I will stop doing prep for 10 minutes while I crouch down and eat a sandwhich so that I am out of sight of the customers. We jokingly call this the ‘staff room’. If any orders come through while I am eating I will have to stand up and get them ready before returning to my meal. On a busy day, however, I might not eat a single thing for the entirety of my shift. This can be particularly torturous when I have to spend my entire day preparing food for other people. 

The only way a person can get a few breaks throughout the day is if they are a smoker, as it is generally accepted that a smoker should be able to go out for at least 2-3 cigarette breaks during their shift. It is for this reason that I took up smoking quite heavily when I began working in kitchens; despite the terrible effects it had on my physical health it was a godsend for my mental stability. I have since kicked smoking as it was having a very negative impact on my physical fitness; however the price of looking after my health is that I don’t really get regular breaks any more. I think that one of the first concrete steps kitchen workers should take to improve their solidarity and sense of unity is to all go out for a break when the smokers step out for a cigarette. We will sometimes do this, however it is still not a regular feature of the workday unfortunately.

Amongst chefs it is common to work extremely long hours, often during periods of the day and the week when most other people are not at work. I think this can have a destructive effect on a person’s social life and is probably part of the reason why drug and alcohol abuse is so common in the hospitality industry. A friend of mine who works at a different local restaurant recently told me that one of his co-workers worked through the entirety of the weekend. By that I don’t mean he worked normal shifts Saturday and Sunday; I mean he literally worked for the entire weekend. He began at 5am on Saturday morning and worked through until service finished at around 1am the next morning. He then ‘hit the crack pipe’ (smoked some meth-amphetamine) and cleaned the entire kitchen before beginning work again at 5am Sunday and working through until close at 1am Monday. Another chef told me that when he was younger his shifts would start at 9am one day and finish at 1am the day. Unfortunately there is a somewhat macho tendency amongst many chefs and it is clear that some take a large degree of pride in their ability to work these absurd hours. I consider this tendency to be idiotic and self-defeating as it hampers our ability to fight for our class interests.

The pay rate for hospitality workers tends to be pretty low. For many years I was on minimum wage at my previous jobs and now that I’m a chef I’ve moved up to $16.00, which is relatively high for a hospitality worker. The higher pay rate for chefs to a certain degree reflects the higher degree of skill necessary to work in a professional kitchen; however I think it also reflects the fact my employer has had problems maintaining long-term employees in such a brutal environment. A chef who has spent many years mastering their trade may earn around $20 an hour, however the only real long-term pay off for a chef would be if they were to open their own restaurant. It is for this reason that many chefs seem to think of themselves as members of the petit-bourgeoisie, despite the fact that the vast majority of them are proletarians who will spend their entire lives working in kitchens they don’t actually own.

I think that if militancy and self-organisation were to take hold amongst chefs it would most likely begin with those who are most transient and for whom the life of the small business owner is not really a serious option. For example, this would include the many migrant workers whose conditions are even more inhuman than those experienced by a New Zealand citizen like myself. There are also many young people who are not particularly attached to life in the kitchen and are constantly plotting their escape, either by studying or looking for other work. Those higher up in the kitchen hierarchy tend to want to defend their reputations, part of which involves their ability to endure terrible working conditions, so I think it  is inevitable that the more senior chefs would drag their feet and perhaps even side with the employers.

I don’t think that a union is likely to come to our aid any time soon as it would be incredibly difficult for one union to organise in such a vast array of small businesses and then negotiate contracts with many different employers. I think this is why unions like Unite have had most of their success organising in larger chains like McDonalds and Starbucks, since it makes the entire organising and negotiating process much more straightforward for them. However, in the short term, I think that hospitality workers who are working for small businesses should support the struggles of unionised workers in larger chains, since a victory for them can set a positive precedent for the rest of us.

What astonishes me about the people I have met and worked with in kitchens is the degree to which many of them maintain a totally genuine passion for their craft despite the brutal conditions in which they are forced to work. Working in a kitchen requires a lot of skill and I am constantly amazed by the abilities of some of my more seasoned co-workers. Nevertheless it remains the case that under capitalism our work is alien to us and comes to dominate us, even when it is work we are passionate about. I hope that, in the short term, hospitality workers will begin looking for ways to defend their human needs, despite the odds which are stacked against us.

When I feel like there’s no escaping the prison of the modern kitchen I remind myself of George Orwell’s observations upon visiting revolutionary Barcelona:

“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle… every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle… every church had been gutted… every shop and cafe had an inscription saying it had been collectivised… Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the eye and treated you as an equal. Nobody said ‘Senor’ or ‘Don’; everyone called everyone else ‘comrade’ or ‘thou’…. Almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. Down the Ramblas… the loud speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”

One day, after the exploited of this world have risen against their masters and the great settling of accounts has been finished with, we’ll be able to build a world in which the people who prepare and serve us our food are treated with the respect and solidarity they deserve.

 

7 comments

  1. Well said, I agree we working class are merely Serfs these days and in days gone by one day we will all be equals.

  2. This is a good essay. It speaks the truth about restaurant work. One of my sons is a chef, and the other two work in the food industry as cooks and manager of a pizza shop. I get pretty disgusted when I hear people talk about the glamor of restaurants. One person I know went on and on one evening about how the work in a fancy restaurant was like a symphony. I wanted to slap her across the face for such stupid bullshit. Cook your own fucking food! My sons are always getting burned and cut, and the work is stressful beyond words. They have great skills, and most of us could not do this work for a single shift. Yet, we just order our food and never think about what is happening in that kitchen. Plus wage theft is common, and unpaid hours are the norm. At least when some drunk college kid gives my one son a hard time late at night, my son might just grab him by the shirt collar and throw him out the door. Watch the regular cooks on the show Chopped and listen to how much that $10,000 prize means to them. Fuck every celebrity chef and fuck all the “foodies” too.

    Organization is a must for chefs. Probably have to be on a kind of workers’ center model, where all the kitchen workers in a town or city join a single union and agree to support one another no matter where they work.

    As to drug and alcohol abuse, another cause is owners and head chefs giving young workers booze or drugs. Plus after work, how can you not have a few drinks? One last thing is the masochistic work ethic cooks develop, almost pridefully taking on more than most of us would think was humanly possible.

    When my wife was a hostess in a small café, I’d do odd jobs, like pick up the linen at the local cleaners. One night I worked clearing tables and cleaning glasses. We had a good night. When everyone is working together and there is a good crew, you see what the work could be like under different relations of production. It’s the control that matters.

    • “As to drug and alcohol abuse, another cause is owners and head chefs giving young workers booze or drugs. Plus after work, how can you not have a few drinks? One last thing is the masochistic work ethic cooks develop, almost pridefully taking on more than most of us would think was humanly possible. ”

      I have definitely heard of senior chefs supplying drugs to their staff during a busy service, just to give them some extra pep. More obviously, many employers retrieve a lot of their employees wages back just by offering staff tabs and a bar.

      I am very familiar with the masochistic work ethic you mention, it is an ethic which purely serves the bosses. In an article which I can’t find right now, Gordon Ramsay mentioned that his UK restaurants had managed to weather the recessions thanks in part due to the fact that a 16 hour work day is the norm. He complains about losing money in France however because the chefs there would only work 32 hour weeks. Says it all really.

  3. Phil Ferguson forwarded this excellent essay to an email list, and some of us (including Michael Yates, above) commented. I was prompted to recount my own experience in the restaurant business, which differed from yours but for reasons I explain below — not least the presence of a union:

    This thread resonates with me. During the Sixties, I worked in the restaurant business for five years between semesters while attending university. But in peculiar circumstances.

    I worked on dining cars on the transcontinental railroads (Canadian National and Canadian Pacific) between Vancouver in the West and Saint John, New Brunswick in the East as well as on shorter trips between Detroit, Buffalo, Toronto and Quebec City. Dining car crews were members of a major railway running-trades union, which meant we had relatively decent wages and regular workers had some job security. At various points I worked as a cook, waiter and finally steward (maître d’).

    We also had unusual schedules. On a typical run, I would be on the road for four days, westward-bound between Montréal and Winnipeg where a crew from Vancouver would take over and after spending the night in the company’s elegant hotel, at its expense, we would head back to Montréal the next day on the east-bound transcontinental train. We then had four days off before the next trip.

    In addition to the diversion of changing scenery, we had the advantage of being largely remote from senior management. In fact, apart from the occasional inspector who would show up unexpectedly (most of them were former stewards or chefs) we were self-managed as a crew while on the road. Of course, we had to operate with set menus, standard uniforms, and meal routines determined by custom and railway management. But we ate from the same menu as the passengers. Between meals we could relax, read or chat while being paid at company expense. And occasionally, after taking a chartered trainload to a destination we would “deadhead” back to base feeding only ourselves, all on company wages.

    While on the road, we slept on the train, usually in a crew car equipped with bunks and a shower, located just behind the locomotive (I got used to sleeping through the sounds of the whistle at level crossings). On some trains with older equipment we stripped down the tables, hung curtains and slept on cots we set up in the dining car itself. If there was a spare bedroom or bunk bed on the train, a friendly porter might allow you to use it.

    In those days there was a certain pride in these jobs. The dining car service was high-class, with linen tablecloths and napkins, silverware (even finger bowls), and fine wines. And there was a definite camaraderie among the crew, cohabiting in these conditions for days at a time. It was standard practice to pool our tips and distribute them evenly among all the crew. On a good trip this could almost double your income. After a run, we might all go for drinks together in a bar near the station.

    But there were real limits on this. The railroads were one of the last vestiges in Canada of a virtual Jim Crow-like racial discrimination. The dining car crews were all white, and almost all the sleeping car porters were Black. I witnessed many examples of how this separation encouraged racial prejudice among the dining car workers (more than one referring to porters as “Mau-Mau” for example, in the sense of savages, not liberation fighters.) And all of the running trades employees, including porters and dining car crews, were male.

    When I worked out of Montréal, many of my co-workers were Québécois. Not always proficient in English, they were disproportionately cooks and other kitchen personnel. Some of the older workers had begun working on the railroad in the early 1940s, to avoid conscription (the draft) in WWII, which was very unpopular in Quebec. They were exempt because the railways were classed as an essential war industry. In those days, they told me, a typical working trip would mean being on the road continually for a week or more, with only a couple of days between trips as they transported troops across the country and to embarkation points. They had helped to organize the union.

    For many of these older workers, the dining cars were a career for life. On union wages, you could raise a family. With seniority, you could bid on the best, the regular runs with the best tips.

    That was the Sixties, however, and in later years, for a variety of reasons, the service deteriorated rapidly along with the fate of passenger rail service in Canada, which is now inferior even to that in the USA. And there is a world of difference between the conditions I experienced then and what my daughter (now a 21-year-old student) has experienced in the restaurant and bar industry. Her experience corresponds entirely to what is described by Michael Yates (and Robert Schardein in the excellent item he referenced, below). Working in the restaurant industry on the pre-neoliberal railways in Canada was indeed quite peculiar — and not least because we had a fairly strong union, which covered even temporary employees like myself.

    Richard

  4. As someone who Michael Yates wouldn’t agree with because I proudly love good food, going out and having someone else eat my food, he appears someone who wants the whole industry to go away, which, in the U.S. would mean 10 million or so folks going away.

    The conditions in restaurants ARE in fact well known largely because all of us seem to know people who work in them, either in the front of the house, the wait staff, or the back, in the kitchen. People in advanced industrial countries are getting to know the conditions, largely due to television which shows in excruciating details, the conditions of workers in this industry. We are made aware all the time of what goes into our food, how it’s prepared and so on.

    At the level of chef, most I know get into it because they love to cook and express themselves, artistically, through their food. Most I know still love it. Some own their own places but most work for someone else.

    Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential brought the hard conditions of the professional staff in a kitchen to the eyes of millions of Americans and more millions overseas. This dovetails with millions who are learning to appreciate local, seasonal food, how it’s produced and the conditions from which it is prepared. To Michael: most people who consider themselves ‘foodies’ in fact DO cook a lot of their own, probably more than those who don’t and whose idea of ‘cooking’ is opening a can of raviolis and nuking it in the microwave.

    I think the essay here is great because it helps expose yet another aspect of being exploited in a restaurant. It is “wholly truthful” in this regard and few that I know of have ever, in writing about conditions, talked about militancy or unionization. I applaud the Red Chef for his or her contribution!

    • I share Michael’s contempt for foodies. Just as the world of high fashion is built upon a foundation of brutality and death amongst garment workers in Bangeledesh, the culture around food and wine is resting upon a world of misery from the kitchens to the farms and the vineyards. The hospitality industry, along with the parasites who feed from it, will have to be destroyed along with the entire capitalist division of labour if we’re ever going to be liberated from this decomposing order.

      Red Chef

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