If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen – Part Two

December 10, 2015
If You Can't Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen - Part Two

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen – Part Two

You don’t have to go to culinary school to be a chef.  Jamie Oliver didn’t.  Neither did Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, Alice Waters, Charlie Trotter, Madhur Jaffrey, Tom Colicchio, Martha Stewart, Heston Blumenthal, Rachael Ray, Delia Smith, Paul Prudhomme or Ina Garten, and they are (or were) some of the wealthiest and most celebrated chefs, restaurateurs, cookbook authors and/or television personalities around.  Culinary school, at least when my husband attended (ahem) years ago, was regarded as a vocational or trade school, not the starting point of a trajectory to wealth and fame.  Training to become a chef was akin to learning to become a plumber, dental assistant, mechanic, aesthetician or paralegal; all worthy, necessary and respectable jobs, but not employment traditionally associated with vast earning potential, the possibility of international celebrity or the likelihood of supermodel bangability.  I don’t know how or why being a chef suddenly became a hot occupation but, as noted in my Part One of this rant, I think the Food Network is partly to blame for the random celebritization of cooking for a living.  But say you really do want to be a chef, and not because you want to be rich and famous.  Well, good for you; I’ll talk about the merits of this vocational aspiration in a future post.  Just please don’t use all your buzzwords on me in your interview after you’ve graduated.  When I hear chef wannabes talk about their “passion for food” I want to punch them in the throat.  I’m passionate about food too, in the same way that I’m passionate about oxygen.

Let’s assume that you’re not like the celebrity chefs listed above, that you didn’t have the good fortune to grow up in your family’s restaurant business, or the wherewithal to eat your way across South America, or the time to read everything about cooking that you could get your hands on.  Maybe you didn’t have an Italian nonna, or a Jewish bubbeh or a Taiwanese ama who could teach you her rich culinary traditions.  Maybe you just have a “passion for food” and decide to go to cooking school.

Becoming a chef generally requires one year of culinary school (or not – as noted above it’s not a prerequisite and arguably unnecessary) and about $5,000, not including books and living expenses for a year (or $0 if you forego the schooling altogether).  Becoming, for example, a lawyer in Ontario requires a substantial investment of time (four years of university and then three years law school) and money (well over $100,000, not including books and seven years of living expenses).  After graduating from law school, you complete your education by “articling” for one year.  Then more time in school taking the bar admission course.  If you want to be a heart surgeon it takes even longer and costs even more.

When I articled (mumble mumble) years ago, my annual salary was somewhere in the neighbourhood of $30,000.  As I recall, that was about the same annual salary that my husband earned as the sous chef of a high end restaurant.  It seems to me that we worked the same number of hours in our respective jobs (each working 12 – 14 hour days, sometimes six or seven days a week), but on different schedules.  But by the time I left the practice of law some years later, my salary had probably at least quadrupled while my husband’s had stayed about the same.  If I had remained a lawyer, my salary now would likely be about ten times what it was when I articled.  I assure you, my husband’s income has not quadrupled, never mind increased ten-fold over the intervening years.  Is that fair?

Some occupations are paid more than others.  I’m no economist, and absent outliers like the Jamie Olivers of the world, I expect that higher paying jobs usually require greater levels of education and longer periods of experience.  Some positions pay well because they pose greater risks or have greater responsibilities than others.  There is also the supply and demand factor, the public perception of relative value, and the strength or weakness of individual and collective bargaining power.  If you are looking to earn a fortune, don’t become a chef.  In addition, you probably want to stay away from anything to do with the arts, and everything that smacks of mothering and other career paths traditionally regarded as ‘women’s work’.  Notwithstanding that people always say that motherhood is the most important job on the planet and remark upon how rewarding motherhood is, I am still waiting for my freaking cheque!

Generally speaking, chefs don’t get paid much and doctors do.  Leaving aside the question of whether that is fair, just consider the amount of time and money invested in becoming a chef versus the time and money invested in becoming a doctor.  Are cooks paid too little?  Probably.  Are doctors paid too generously?  Possibly.  Remember, as well, that not all doctors and lawyers earn whackloads of money.  Someone has to finish at the bottom of their law school class in order to become the ambulance-chasing attorney with the bad suit and worse haircut.

When my daughter decided to go to art school after graduating from high school, she was worried that I wouldn’t approve, that I would be disappointed that she hadn’t chosen architecture or dentistry or some other profession that would likely lead to financial security.  I told all my children to do what makes them happy not what makes me happy.  And besides, what makes them happy does make me happy.  I told my kids that being motivated solely by the almighty dollar isn’t the purpose of higher education or the ideal way to choose a career.  I told them that if you hate what you do it doesn’t matter how much you are paid and if you love what you do it doesn’t matter how little you are paid.  Of course, this advice is somewhat disingenuous but it’s also somewhat true.  I admit, I now have some reservations about this advice.  Having three children hoping to pursue careers in film-making, acting and classical singing, respectively, likely means that I will end up in a seriously shitty old folks’ home.

Let’s assume that I’m right and that you should follow your dream.  Just because you love what you do for a living shouldn’t make you a candidate for exploitation.  In a recent Globe & Mail newspaper article, author Corey Mintz claims that many cooks regard it “as a badge of honour to work so hard with so little financial reward” and that this “misplaced pride in suffering is key to a cycle of exploitation”.  I have no dispute with the factuality of the wages and salaries paid to Toronto cooks and cited by Mintz in his article.  According to Mintz, compensation is variously calculated as between the minimum wage of $11.25 (give or take – more about this later) to $19.49 per hour, or from $125 to $165 per day, or $700 per week, or $40,000 annually, and, occasionally, free.

If you have ever purchased a pair of shoes at Joe Fresh, a blouse from H&M or a sofa from IKEA, you know that you get what you pay for.  Mind you, at some point, the balance tips again such that I can’t imagine that a $1,200 pair of shoes is objectively better than a $200 pair of shoes.  But, as most employers know (at least those employers who aren’t swollen-headed, rapacious, big-frog-in-a-small-pond celebrity chefs), you can’t flog a dead horse.  If you pay your employees the bare minimum (or less) and work them like dogs, they won’t perform to the best of their abilities, they won’t stick around for the abuse and your restaurant won’t stay busy for long when the dishwasher has to be promoted to saucier.

It is appalling and revolting to tolerate, expect or insist that employees come into work before their scheduled start times and work for free.  It is entirely dishonest to claim, as chef and restaurateur Rob Gentile did, according to Mintz, that cooks who volunteer their time do so willingly simply because they are “enthusiastic”, “motivated” or “driven”.  Gentile is yet another emperor-has-no-clothes chef who has let his slavering and sycophantic press get to his head, obviously interfering with what would otherwise be the good judgement not to say things that could get him sued.  If I were still a lawyer, I would take his employees’ case in a heartbeat.  Sadly, while he may be the only chef to go on record on the matter, he is not the only restaurateur who permits or requires staff to work at least part of their day for free.  Anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry for five minutes can list a number of well-known and otherwise well-respected chefs and restaurateurs who demand or expect a few hours of labour off the clock.  I hope Mintz’s article encourages employees in these situations to say “no” or “let me just consult my lawyer about that first” or “let me just start a union real quick and then see what the union boss has to say”.

‘Staging’ (an unpaid kitchen internship lasting days, weeks and even months) is, however, a different story in my book.    If the ‘stagiaire’ is actually learning at the master’s elbow, then a ‘stage’ can amount to a valuable free education offered by an expert, and I have no problem with that.  The ‘stagiaire’ can learn skills and techniques that aren’t touched upon in culinary school.  And, on a resume, the ‘stagiaire’ can claim a kinship with the stars of the culinary firmament.  Unfortunately, many chefs are stars of the culinary kingdom only in their own mind, or abuse the ‘stagiaire’ by having him or her spend their internship peeling potatoes or building a sculpture garden (true story).  But I strenuously encourage anyone who wants to be a chef to spend some time ‘staging’: it’s a fast and cheap way to learn that cooking for a living has nothing to do with a “passion for food” and everything to do with a career that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

If a young cook wants to ‘stage’ as part of their culinary education and to beef up a resume, then I say “knock yourself out”.  The truth is, however, that seeing a ‘stage’ on a young cook’s resume doesn’t impress me much.  A ‘stage’ suggests to me that you probably just have wealthy parents who can bankroll your unrealistic dreams, that you might be a know-it-all who will challenge my authority just because you once saw a celebrity chef hork up some molecular birch bark foam, or that you’re maybe kind of a pretentious dick.  I am more impressed by the young cook who started out in high school washing dishes in a restaurant and stayed on as a garde manger to help support their cooking school education.  This is a kid with drive, ambition, experience and open eyes, not starry deluded ones.

As for the complaint that servers earn substantially more than cooks, possibly leading to resentment between the kitchen and the front of house, I say “so what”.  What servers take home is entirely irrelevant to whether cooks are paid enough.   I know we’re talking about restaurants here but that is just stirring the pot.  Again, some jobs are just more lucrative than others.  It’s like an orange complaining that it’s not as red as an apple.

I agree with Mintz that there are cooks who may display a certain “pride in suffering” due to low pay, long hours, and real or potential injury, but I disagree with him that this is what leads to a cycle of exploitation.  Some employers are jerks, whatever the field of endeavor.  Cooks are exploited by their own preposterous, uninformed and delusional desire for fame and fortune.  It might also help if cooks didn’t spend so much money on piercings, beard wax and all those stupid pig part tattoos, and saved up for law school instead.

Read Part One of “If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen”…

Read Part Three of “If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen”…

Now make some mashed potato biscuits and listen to this playlist from Patrick Watson

Photo credit: #1, by Eve Dias, is licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, cropped.

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