We need to talk about kitchen culture.
People often ask me why I’m not working in a restaurant, after training so hard at becoming a chef. This article out in the Guardian last week, about how one of the UK’s highest-paid celebrity chefs pays his staff less than minimum wage, goes some way towards answering that. It’s not just the fact that one restaurant is treating its staff unfairly — anyone who works in the industry will shrug off this news as tell-me-something-I-didn’t-know normal. But what this dickmove represents (sorry, but that’s what it is) is unfortunately an entire culture of still treating people who work ‘in the back’ as little more than slaves. New joiners are all expected to sign away their employee rights to a 48-hr workweek as pretty much the first thing they do. Awards like Michelin disproportionately value consistency above all else, sometimes visiting the same location six times in a year, which means restaurants want the same team of chefs working every service. That in turn means that for many chefs days can start as early at 7am and not end till midnight. 14–17 hour workshifts are common across the industry, and it’s what some of my friends are struggling through right now. Kitchens often expect chefs to double as cleaners, and still accepting last orders at 10.30pm mean the team won’t have cleaned down and left before 1am. And all for salaries so pitiful that the only saving grace is that you really don’t have very much time to go out and spend it. And of course you can forget about having any semblance of a normal family life. Plus, if things are bad in the UK, consider the fact that the three-starred kitchens in Spain routinely hire apprentices to form up to 90% of their work staff — which means the same back-breaking work every day, just completely unpaid. And all for the draw of the Michelin star on the chef’s CV.
I’m very conscious of my privilege in even being able to write about this. Others in the industry who have tried have been shut out, called unemployable, suffered abuse, and in the end, can’t afford to lose their jobs. I am lucky in that I don’t *need* a job in this industry, that I am in the position of an interested observer with one foot in and one out. But I am maddened by it. I used to think my 17-hour workdays in advertising were tough. I used to rage and whine about being expected to travel 3 weeks out of 4. But the bottom line is that those 17-hour days were happening in comfortable, temperature-controlled offices with ergonomically supportive chairs, and that the travel was at the front of the plane. I now realise that I had no right whatsoever to complain, even after the days when I hadn’t a break to pee all day, or felt faint from endless tension migraines. Compared to the sheer physical exhaustion felt by kitchen teams, the back-breaking exertion for so little in return, I feel that my adland career was a veritable walk in the park — and it wasn’t, which is why this is so messed up.
The fact is, the people in kitchens that we treat so badly are some of the brightest, most creative, talented minds we have. Sure, they may not be rhetorical virtuosos, but they are some of the most accomplished, intelligent, and impressive people I’ve ever met. From the sheer level of organisation it takes to run a professional kitchen, to the the encyclopaedic mastery of techniques both classical and disruptive, the teamwork and people skills to not all kill each other in the heat of intense stress, to the deep knowledge of produce and seasonality and suppliers, to financial sense and business judgement, mastery of cultural trends, not to mention the immense physical stamina it requires to be on your feet for 12+ hours a day, every day (no-one who has not done it can claim to know how it feels) — I am pretty sure that chefs work about three million times harder than most of those who eat their food. So why are they not considered as deserving of basic respect? I have personally never been asked to do anything harder in my life than the short time I spent working in a professional kitchen, and that includes all the degrees and companies, new countries and new languages I’ve put myself through.
The fact is that the chefs who are affected the most are not articulating the issue, at least not in a way that serves them well, or to the people who matter. There could be many reasons for this — the most flippant I’ve heard is that being mostly early school-leavers, they’re less able to articulate their arguments, which may be true sometimes, but is increasingly not the case. I think it’s more that they’re not naturally complainers, because a complainer wouldn’t make it through day one in the kitchens. They’re not entitled and they don’t believe anything should be handed to them on a plate — they believe in doing their very best, pushing through the pain, even when it goes beyond the call of duty. And the truth is the longer you stay in hot water, the harder it gets to call it out for what it is; your reference points from the outside world disappear when you live chef hours (adhours are much the same). Add to this the unfortunate false glamorisation of the culinary world by the media and celebrity-chef culture, and you have a toxic mess in which the only points of view we get to hear from the industry are from those for whom it is just not sensible to present anything but a brave face and a positive story.
The current global chef-shortage is clear indication that people are starting to have enough, and are tired of working double the hours of everyone else for less than half the pay. But the industry’s reaction so far — to cut down on a day-shift here and there, and in some places to recruit ever-more unpaid stagiaires to farm out the bulk of the gruntwork, isn’t sustainable, and isn’t getting to the heart of the problem. We need to all be more comfortable paying, really paying, for food — for ingredients, for what it costs to grow them responsibly, and for the talent to turn it into something amazing. We need to see culinary art as a real art — the same as film, music and theatre. We need to broaden our definitions of intelligence to include those who don’t have the skills or wherewithal to articulate themselves well, but are nevertheless supremely talented at what they do. In a work world that bleats about the power of makers, we need to stop valorising outdated and false distinctions between manual and mental labour. We need to respect that the young people in kitchens do have other options these days, and they’re doing it out of passion, and in a world full of disaffected young people all whining about not knowing what to do with their lives, to be driven by passion is the most wonderful thing. And we need — I can’t stress this enough — to stop congratulating and awarding aggressive, testosterone-fuelled, toxic work cultures in which not only women but everyone is ground to the bone in the service of the corporate success gods — this applies as equally to advertising and most corporate cultures as it does to professional kitchens. Michelin stars for kitchens and Cannes Lions for creative agencies are the same — and samely toxic. They’re ultimately unwinnable wars with no end, at which we throw our best and our brightest, knowing that with every year of battle we weaken them further.
I realise I may not be qualified to pass judgements or suggest solutions. You could (rightly) point out that I’m a privileged and entitled white-collar one-percenter who has only just dipped my toe into the culinary industry for fun. But I stuck it through full training at the most demanding culinary school in the world, which was pretty hardcore for me, and I did try to work in a top kitchen before the reality hit that I simply don’t have the physical strength or stamina to do it full-time. And that I simply don’t care about winning (often arbitrarily conceived and judged) awards enough to dedicate my life to chasing them in yet another industry.
I could just move on from it as another experience to throw in life’s bucket. In many ways, I have. But having now been on both sides of the great collar divide, I thought it was remarkable that we’re making many of the same mistakes across both, and that Guardian article seemed like as good an excuse as any to put those thoughts in one place.