Why do we do it?
As chefs we work in a unique environment of extreme temperature, limited fresh air, intense adrenaline and the constant threat of physical harm. Working an average of 13 hours a day, although it is not unheard of to exceed 16 in a day, in fact scrap that.
It’s actually quite common to work a 16 hour day, unwind with a beer after work with your beaten colleagues whilst you disperse the remaining adrenaline before heading home and watching nonsense on telly having another beer and falling into an exhausted slumber for 4 hours. Now your alarm is going off telling you to get in early today, because its Sunday and you’re going to get beasted at lunch! If you don’t follow your after-service ritual you will not sleep, and if you do it’s a guarantee that you are going to be dreaming about still being in service, so when you wake up its like you never left the stove.
So why do we do it? Why do we put our bodies and sanity through it? Why do we turn up again the next day to steam our faces over boiling pans of water, score red lines on our forearms with the grill or oven shelves, and toughen further the callous on our knife hand index finger?
Because secretly we love it! Each chef has a certain sadistic element to their personality, ask a chef when he returns to work after his week off “good break” and most will reply “Yeah I needed it, but I’m glad to be back!” We miss it.
We miss being creative, turning raw ingredients into something special and devising new ideas and concepts, challenging ourselves and constantly asking the question “can this be done?” Only one way to find out, get creative. We miss the pressure and the violent time restraints, we’re too used to living off a little amount of sleep, if we have too much it freaks us out and we simply cannot function properly the next day. It is possible to be tired from too much sleep. We miss the friend standing next to you on the stove or pass that we share so many hours, jokes and banter.
Each day is different for a chef, nothing is ever mundane and every-day is rewarding. We learn and teach, and constantly share ideas. We create and design and put smiles on your faces and leave you asking “how do they do that?” We enjoy our day and make the most of it, we’re all friends, we work hard and at the end of each day we know that we have earned that cold beer to bring us back to “your” reality with a huge sense of achievement and customer satisfaction. That’s why we do it and we wouldn’t change it for anything.
Here is my advice for anybody looking to start a career as a chef or looking for work in a kitchen…….
Applying for a position; Firstly pick what restaurant and with what chef you wish to learn in your area don’t just scatter your cv around town, its rare it works unless a restaurant is in desperate need of someone and your timing is extremely lucky. Don’t post your CV, it will be handed to the chef when they are busy or doesn’t have full attention to the paper just handed over. We are face to face hands on people in any vocational industry and you will have far more of an impact by meeting the chef and handing over a cv in person, it shows effort and willingness and it also speeds up the process as you can arrange the next stage of the employment process immediately.
Find a way in, because other people will be! Good restaurants get lots of CV’s that are normally “filed” and never viewed again. Knock on the door, ask for stages and part time work, show commitment to getting the job, sometimes a restaurant will create a part time position to accommodate a future employee we are willing to invest time in, just so long as its reciprocated.
Experience is never essential in landing a junior position in a kitchen, but it does help. We are looking for a willingness to learn, punctuality and commitment to the job. For chefs at the top of their craft the job comes first and we are looking for the same passion and energy from the junior chefs we are investing time to teach.
Don’t rush into a position for money, if you don’t like the restaurant and leave after a few months it gets noted and shows on your cv and reputation, you are asking for someone to invest time to teach you and in return you should approach a postion with the consideration that you will be there for 18 months, anything less and you are considered a “leapfrog” a person that jumps from job to job and restaurants will be less likely to invest time in you. Start with a stage (a few shifts or a week unpaid work) to gauge if it’s a restaurant you want to work, can learn in and commit time too. This will also help you gain experience as you can stage at more than one restaurant, make contacts and put you in a much stronger position to be considered for a full time position.
When you do have a foot in the door, take a notebook and be a sponge, its the most important advice I can offer anyone, write everything down, trust me you will need it later! Buy cookbooks, eat out and research your local town, where is good to eat? Who are the most talked about chefs? Do you have any friends working in restaurants that could set up a meet with the chef?
1. Do your homework on the restaurant and area, find out where is good to eat.
2. Apply in person
3. Take your time and be prepared to stage and work part time in the view to later becoming a full time member of the team
4. Dress smart when you meet the chef, first impressions count
5. Keep your cv concise and short and relevant, I don’t care that you like swimming but I do care that you can work in a team are flexible and know where is good to eat in your area.
As chefs we are having to become more and more aware of food allergies and tolerant to the more unusual things that are raised to us through the blinding lights of the pass, from a member of the waiting team flustered and annoyed about having to make the extra kitchen trip during a busy period to communicate to the chef who is already in the full force of service, pan slinging and orchestrating the team of frantically organised colleagues, to discuss the menu contents because table 3 has a garlic allergy. However untimely, this does need to be discussed in great detail because people can die from eating disagreeable ingredients and things are starting to come into play to ensure we are giving this issue the attention it warrants.
So here are the facts; 22% of the population in the UK believe that they have a food allergy, 1in 50 children will have a nut allergy, and recorded cases of food allergies in children has tripled in the last decade. There an average of 20 recorded deaths per year related to food allergies, fuck about this is serious!!
Well if you ask me allergies and intolerances are on the rise because parents are bubble wrapping their children to ridiculous degrees. Growing up I let cats and dogs lick my face, I ate mud and threw frogspawn at my friends, drank water from puddles like a feral animal, I swallowed sea water and swam in swimming pools that weren’t sanitised beyond belief with intolerable amounts of chlorine. I ate food that was dropped on the floor and I risked certain death by eating woodlouse and earwigs for dares. The amount of times you hear mothers discourage their children to not touch that dog, are put something down because “darling, its dirty!” fuck that, don’t put it down, pop it in your mouth and swallow, I guarantee it will make you stronger you pampered little shit.
Laws our on the horizon to ensure that catering business inform our consumers what is exactly in every dish we create or sandwich we sell in either written form or verbally through waiting staff, this I agree with, however I am hopeful that this is not putting all the emphasis on the food staff to declare what is in every plate of food we serve. We are taught to never assume and that’s a two way street, the last thing we need is people blaming us for their swollen face and limited airway as they jam an epi-pen into their gut for not telling them that the gazpacho contained tomato. If I had an allergy (I don’t because I ate mud like normal kids) I would make damn sure to tell the restaurant in advance, again when I arrived and then my waiter exactly what I cannot eat and find out what would be good for me to have, I certainly wouldn’t rely on them guessing I can’t eat something or gamble that ingredient hasn’t been used. Why would you? It’s mental!
From December 2014, current EU food labelling laws will change: all establishments or suppliers providing food products will need to provide full allergy information to customers.
There are 14 different food allergens which will need to be clearly listed in order to comply with the new laws. This includes on packaging, menus, shelving or information provided by staff (who will need to know the contents of each product). Trading Standards will be enforcing the new requirements once they come into force and non-compliance could result in prosecutions.
In a current age of rising dietary requirements and allergies, people are becoming more disassociated with food in every aspect. Consumers are more motivated to find cheaper food that tastes good then to fully understand what they are eating, and for what underlying price. Take for example a shop bought pre-packaged chicken sandwich, served cold and so tastes like licking the inside of the fridge in which it was stored, minimal amounts of filling, handled by people who don’t care who eats this floppy cold face filler, and a long time ago. Made fresh that morning maybe but at 1am in a factory 50 miles away stored and transported through the night, placed at the back of the shelf behind yesterday’s sorry specimens.
So how much does this on the go, quick and easy, flimsy hunger quencher cost? Let’s be kind and say £2.00 although I reckon that’s a bit cheap in most places for a chicken sandwich, if you can even call it chicken in some cases after all of the manipulation. Mass produced in factories smashing apart the environment with unethical farming procedures, cruel conditions and seriously threating the stability and longevity of local family run farmers. Not to mention the added chemical nasty’s to help fight disease and enhance growth in the pitiful amount of protein hidden between your cold, wafer thin floppy pieces of bread. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a tree hugging activist hell bent on policing farming regulations, and you won’t find me staging a hunger strike at the next anti-fracking campaign. I just care about local business and the effect that has.
How much more would it cost you to know what’s in your food? In a chicken sandwich £1 more perhaps, to have that sandwich made fresh in front of your very eyes, made by people who care about how it tastes for you and where it has come from. They will even pack it full of your choice of filling, and normally on a choice of bread, fresh bread at that! It won’t be served at near frozen because it’s fresh, and not the fresh you understand of sitting in a fridge for 8 hours before the wet mess touches your lip. These people care that it is tasty for you because they want you to come back, to talk about how good it was and most importantly, you are going to be supporting one of your own without even realising.
Imagine your mum owned a small sandwich shop (mine doesn’t by the way, she’s a publican and doesn’t serve food) and was forced to close because people stopped going to her little lunch time haven, content on paying a quid less at the Tesco express cold cabinet down the road. Because ask anyone trying to scratch a living in the food industry at any level, it’s a knife edge in many cases! Helping your own? The person that owns the deli or sandwich shop is someone’s relative, in your local community, probably someone you know! But yet you would rather pay cheaper and give your cash to a big company for a lesser product. “Go big or go home” is a very popular saying, but how about this “go local, or put someone out of a home” scary eh? Oh well, saved yourself a quid!
Have you all enjoyed some extra time off over these Easter and May bank holidays? No? Well don’t worry there is another one next weekend! What a fucking joke! People have said Easter has fallen late which means we have had a cluster of extra days off to enjoy the outside world and really get into that manic bank holiday party mood, unless of course you work in hospitality! Oh yes, the forgotten workers over bank holiday periods, the people that are working whilst you enjoy extra time off for……….I bet you don’t even fucking know?!!
Let me give you an idea of just what’s going on behind the scenes because you have been given the day off for no other reason than you work sitting on your arse and are not in hospitality. (Don’t get me started on teachers!) Because for some reason you all become far more demanding over bank holiday weekends, you flood food and drink establishments on mass and expect better bank holiday service, and you rarely book?! Maybe it’s just that spontaneous bank holiday feeling. I had a table of 11 “Walk¬-in” on bank holiday Monday lunch asking to be “Squeezed in” and what annoys me the most is that after some shuffling, we actually could as it was only 15 minutes before we close, Insert desired expletive here as mine wouldn’t be suitable to publish!
Wednesdays and Thursdays are spent preparing menus and dishes in preparation for bulk ordering over the busy period, because unbelievably our suppliers and delivery drivers also take this period off because the markets close also, yet you still complain that we shouldn’t run out of stuff when were this busy. All of our deliveries are late because the suppliers are having to deal with loading and unloading so much stock it always puts them behind and they also get stuck in bank holiday traffic, because all you fuckers are congesting the roads instead of the internet. Sunday becomes yet another Saturday because you lot aren’t yet ready to start calming down because “fuck it! We’re off tomorrow as well!” and so therefore, Monday becomes another Sunday, slammed at lunch but with the added challenge of very few of you booking, fooling us into believing that this could be a different type of bank holiday. Fuck that here you all are, like you have been waiting and plotting around the corner to all walk in together at 1pm and then huff that the service is a bit slow today, or get shitty when the host askes if you have booked, of course you haven’t, it’s a bank holiday!
So with yet another bank holiday on the horizon spare a thought for all of the people serving you food and drink working hard whilst you enjoy extra paid time away from your desk, because double pay or time and half is a thing of the past and don’t even think about complaining about all those emails you have to come back to because you took an extra day off to get blind drunk and annoy the rest of society. I have said it before but the hospitality industry should have our own bank holiday, and let’s see how you fuckers like it!
Firstly lets gain clarity in the band of chefs that I’m describing, I’m not talking venues, to most parts, granted boil in the bag ping cooks are not included in what I’m about to dribble on about, but that said, you don’t need to be working in a Michelin starred restaurant to empathise or understand a long day as a chef. When I’m describing a chef, I’m describing a person who lives for the kitchen, constantly strives to be better, creates and delivers, understands the industry and knows that the current trend of chain burrito joints is a 5 minute phase.
It’s no hidden secret that chefs work long hours and so I will use my average day to provide a window into the world of a chef, having been asked only this week by my pastry chef, “chef, when do you sleep?” and recent conversations with people outside the industry. The very fact that I’m writing about kitchens on my day off after visiting my fish supplier this morning for a good look around the landing market, sitting in front of two shelves of kitchen literature, biographies and cookery books, could very well stop you from reading any further, slamming you laptop shut and muttering something about me getting a life.
I normally get up at 7am (7.30 after a few snoozes) and am in the kitchen by 8am. It’s a 15 minute walk for me and I’m always the first in, lighting the stoves and taking in the first deliveries sipping my second cuppa of the morning. A few hours of prep later and I’m in lunch service for a couple of hours. We work split shifts but I never take one, I will use the time to test a recipe or a new technique that I have read about or dreamed up, cook some staff food for half 5, ram some food down and roll straight into dinner service. I’m fortunate to work in a reputable and busy restaurant so service is rarely slow mid-week and never on the weekend, finishing up with last orders at 10 and if the restaurant gods favour me that day I won’t have a table of 4 well done steaks walk in at 21.58!
I’m cleaned down and sat on the pass writing my mise (job) list for the next day within about 30 minutes and start on the orders after a brief discussion about the next day’s menus with the brigade over a cold beer. I’m home between 11 and 11.30 but after a busy day the last thing you want to do is go to bed, so I will catch up on great British menu, eat something, have a beer, go for a beer, write a recipe for tomorrow and have a shower, but normally all of the above. I go to sleep between 1 and 2 normally, never earlier, then repeat for 5 or 6 days depending on who’s on holiday or how busy the restaurant is.
So do we work too hard? Maybe, but I really wouldn’t have it any other way. If I take some time off I get twitchy, I miss the constant hum of the extraction that chefs ears are muted to, I miss cooking, the heat and hustle, working hard and being pushed. I miss the people I spend so much time with and who’s mums, nans and sisters I abuse on a daily basis. I miss pleasing people, teaching and sharing. But I guess like many others in this game, that’s just my nature. I couldn’t work 9-5 it’s just not me. I actually enjoy the unsociable hours; I actually really fucking love my job. I work hard because I like improving my knowledge and skills, making myself better and sharing that. Food moves as fast as fashion and if you don’t stay on top you will get left behind, and I’m just not up for that.