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Why cooks should stop fetishizing work

Just keep your head down and work, chef.

Just keep your head down and work, chef.

I've been there. Too many times to count. My niece's birthday? Sorry, I'm working. Labor Day barbecue? Nah, thanks, but I'll be working. Saturday night cocktails with the crew? You guys, you know I work Saturdays. Every Saturday. My friend (and fellow cook's) wake? He woulda understood if he was still with us. We gotta work, man. (This is an absolutely true story, where a group of colleagues forwent the remembrance of a beloved chef because it was being held on a Friday night, and well, we had to work.)

J. probably wouldn't have come to ours either. He would have been working. 

As we've known for a good long time now, the culinary industry is approaching crisis mode where it comes to recruiting new talent. It's a local problem, it's a national problem, it's the first topic on every chef's lips: They need a cook. They need six cooks. Much has been written on the subject. We've written some here. And here. In a viral Chicago Tribune article entitled Where have all the cooks gone? writer Kevin Pang investigates the phenomenon around the Chicagoland area. He unearthed three very interesting, not often discussed factors potentially converging to aggregate the problem:

  1. An improving economy (more and better jobs making the hospitality industry less appealing) 

  2. Higher rents (making hospitality work even less appealing because higher rents necessitate fatter paychecks) 

  3. A slowing of the influx of Mexican labor entering the U.S. (immigrant labor traditionally being a fertile pool for employers) 

    Pang discussed some other factors as well, but there's a glaring one that I think he may have forgotten: Restaurant kitchens have a PR problem.

    Last weekend was Labor Day weekend and I put up a Facebook post whilst in a grateful reverie regarding the three-day weekend. I opined that every week should be thus, and that the five-day American work week is anachronistic and unbalanced. A barrage of mirthful LOLs rained upon my little fantasy from restaurant folk.

    "FIVE day work week? What's that?!" After many years of restaurant schedules, I have entered the realm of the pussy 9-to-5 set, and my tales of 40-hour work-week woes were not going to gain any sympathies with my former colleagues. No, sir. 

    If you trace French culinary technique (which the typical serious American restaurant still operates under, at least for systems and approach, however loose the interpretation) back to its roots, you're tracing it back to Escoffier's brigade system. The system is militaristic in its pedigree, and to its credit, works well in large or Michelin-starred restaurants, where moving pieces are endless and achieving excellence requires that degree of organization. Along with the system comes workload. It's not unheard of, at the best restaurants, for chefs and cooks to work 18 hour days, 6 days a week. The French Laundry and the late El Bulli even had campuses for culinary teams to live on. With a schedule like that, where else would they be going? 

    But most restaurants are not the French Laundry or El Bulli. Why, then, are restaurant workers still regularly subjected to 10- and 12-hour work days, and six-day-a-week schedules?  

    When the New York City health department attempted a crackdown on such onerous schedules, David Chang, ultra-famous celebrity chef and owner of several restaurants in the city, was quoted as saying you can't learn to cook properly in a 40-hour work week. The craft takes more arduous attention than that, to develop the many skills to become masterful at the job. And he has a point. But what about after you've learned? What if you know how to tournee your carrots and get a proper sear on a scallop and debone a chicken in no time at all? Then what? 

    The question is whether the restaurant world wants to change. In any physically laborious, testosterone-fueled, embattled workplace endeavor, there comes an air of prideful machismo, an us vs. them mentality that emerges and in many ways keeps you going. The military does it, firemen do it, construction workers do it, medical residents do it. Culinarians surely do it. The longer you can stand on your feet, the higher your capacity to work through cuts and burns, the longer you can stomach red-faced insults from your chef — all of this makes you a better cook, right? You're now a badass, right? 

    While you may not learn to cook in 40 hours, I maintain that you can certainly cook in 40 hours, and do it well. If the restaurant industry can't figure out a way to work smarter instead of harder, in a few years it's going to have an even bigger crisis on its hands. There's nothing glamorous or thoughtful about flouting what labor unions worked long and hard for way, way back at the turn of the last century — eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure, and eight hours of sleep. It took almost a hundred years to finally enact this seemingly simple, humane system. Why does restaurant culture want to turn back that progress? 

    Aside from the brotherhood, the culture, the "otherness" of it, there are few attractive qualities about the life of a cook. Pay is notoriously low, most restaurants do not offer benefits, it's hot and potentially dangerous (and everything is sharp and flaming), it makes family life difficult and untenable, and contrary to popular belief, it's not all that creative. You tend to do the same tasks, day in and day out. It's blue-collar work. And finally, the hours are long. Real long. 

    So what would make us release the death grip on the fetishization of "work"? Some days, it's all we have. 

    But we also have the niece's birthday party, the funeral, the Labor Day drinks with friends. The family.

    Or, at least, we could.