After a busy summer in a top local restaurant putting out award winning food, I have finished the season feeling a little maligned about the industry as a whole.
It has nothing to do with conditions or pay where I’ve been working as they have been exemplary and have possibly the best equipment and modern,up to date working environment anywhere in the industry.
Just the sheer workload and the labour intensity of providing such fresh food, where everything prepared from scratch is borderline slave intensity. Have you ever stood and turned a box of artichokes? I have, many times. A box that fills your bench to begin with ends up being a handful of portions. Such labour intensity for so little yield. Or shelling fresh almonds? a huge box whittled down to a small plateful.
As a chef it’s an absolute pleasure to have the produce above delivered daily to your kitchen, from your own gardeners and dedicated team of local fishermen. But the labour intensity is overwhelming. First, I have to outline that I am a self employed freelance chef, and I was there of my own free will, getting paid very well too as industry standards go. But there just did not seem to be enough hours in the day to get things done. Now I maybe getting on a bit but I haven’t slowed up that much, have I?
That was it, the seed of self doubt had been sown, and like any chef with a tenacious work ethic and years of slog forged in the fires of top kitchens, I wasn’t about to let this one get the better of me and with an average age of the team a good 10 years my junior, I could show these guys a thing a two couldn’t I??? I’m at it again…….
Well not wanting to talk badly about the industry I have been in for 22 years, I do feel a little contemptuous about it at times. I have witnessed time and time again how it can treat its employees woefully, every minute of every hour of every day (and they are bloody long days). Firstly, I must say that I haven’t stumbled across some poorly run back street restaurant, employing illegals and treating workers as slaves. On the contrary, the place I’ve just worked at has been possibly the best equipped, best staffed and run establishment that I have worked in recent times. All the equipment was state of the art, with an induction hob system & cool air makeup, as kitchen environments go I can’t think of a nicer cooking experience than the kitchen being sometimes cooler in the full pelt of service than the restaurant we are serving- it is a strange feeling!
The issue I have is with the sheer labour intensity of making such high class top notch food. This isn’t even Michelin starred food, it’s just high end cooking. When I was younger I had my own experiences of starred cuisine working at a 1 star Michelin establishment and staging at a 3 star temple of gastronomy Michel Bras in Laguiole, France. These were just endurance tests and as a young chef de partie I relished the experience and didn’t mind the brutal physicality of a 17 hour shift…..
But now I’m knocking on 40’s door things are a little different and my perspectives and priorities have changed somewhat.
There has been a lot of media hype surrounding the catering industry and its failure to attract new blood into its kitchens, and also stem the flow of old experienced blood, such as myself, exiting the industry. We are at times left filled with contemplation wondering what it was all for?
Above: A picture of me twenty years ago representing Wales in a Culinary competition. We beat France on their home turf in Nantes cooking a classic Beurre Blanc Nantais a la Brochette. Which is Pike with white butter sauce to you and I.
Why all this talk of blood you may ask? Young and old it doesn’t matter the main ingredient in the catering industry today is Human Sacrifice, as it’s always been and until this changes, we’ve no hope of attracting new chefs into the industry.
I’ve been very lucky I have survived the last 22 years relatively unscathed, I have a very understanding wife who’s been with me for 19 of those years. She has been the backbone of our family and the glue that holds us all together. The amount of times she has been to friends and family parties, engagements birthdays etc, on her own or with my boys is far too many. The subtle reminder that she sometimes presses me to realise that, ‘no actually you can’t miss this it’s really important’, makes me realise all to much that I have been a willing slave to the industry that I have grown up in. Friends, what friends? I traded them in a long time ago, and I now just have an extended family of misfits made up of colleagues but a few are more than that as I have spent more time with them than my own family.
I guess you can say I’ve witnessed it all over the years too. At times I’ve seen many a good chef crumble- for them it’s not pretty; drugs, alcohol, mental illness. Obsession, addiction they are almost a pre-requisite to this industry and too many good people have been lost to those darker fixes that help numb the stresses & momentarily release the pressures in such a fast paced environment. To those guys the price they paid was too high and they inevitably lost everything along the way including family and loved ones.
For me it was just the pure physicality of those 18 hour days that have taken there toll on my limbs. This year I had my leg veins stripped again which helps to alleviate the aching & circulatory problems that go with it (I had to be back in work for the weekend though, being Valentine’s Day and all!) Pain killers & joint relief are a must in my knife box, the most I can cope with nowadays is a mere 12 hours at the stoves! Anything more and my performance dips and my focus goes as the tiredness is almost crippling. This summer as I was back in a young kitchen I started pushing 15 hours to try and show them I’ve still got it, who am I kidding?
I truly feel that a top kitchen needs young people, it needs energy and enthusiasm. When I work with my young commis chefs they must have passion, dedication and a huge amount of energy. I watch the way they move and respond during a fast paced service. I say to them often if you’re not fast and energetic what have you got for me? They have no knowledge yet, but I can work on that, it’s more important to me that they’ve got energy and stamina. After all the donkey work needs to be done, I was somebody’s donkey once! Stark reality kicks in for these ‘newbies’, and I’m afraid the lure of friends, nights out and weekends off being few and far between, dawn on a young mind and they’re out the door, gone and another one bites the dust…….
www.thestaffcanteen has recently run an article by top chef Rene Redzepi highlighting the plight of today’s chefs working in the industry and has a good grown up discussion about how things could be improved. Even the BBC had an interesting story on their breakfast show which stimulated a debate on social media.
I predicted the inevitable skills shortage 5 years ago and here in Wales my business Fuller Flavour Consultancy works hard to bring students into the industry by working with local catering colleges to secure placements in the workplace. We also help employers to receive funding to improve pay and conditions for chefs in the workplace.
As an industry we have to change, we have to get better. We have to realise that people have to have a work/life balance and address our short comings. Until we do this we can’t even begin to attract new blood into the industry.
Onwards and upwards.