BOILING POINT: How chefs are changing the way they work and managing stress.
The restaurant business, like the news business, is a tough one. The risks are high, the pressure is fierce, and the environment is often filled to the brim with egos caught up in the whirlwind of creativity, consumerism, and capitalising on the hope that inspiration will pay out. It's an extreme mixture where people who work in that industry are both subjected to or impose long, intense hours and brutish behaviour. However, I recently came across an article in The Guardian about how the culinary culture is slowly evolving to not only recognise the impact the industry's working habits have been having on staff but also in order to retain the much-needed talent today, things have to change. Health and wellbeing are being prioritised, and that message is coming from head chefs, something unheard of in a world where 80 or 90 hour weeks in abusive environments were considered normal, badge-of-honour, behaviour.
Three years ago Michelin starred Chef James Close, stopped lunch service at his restaurant The Raby Hunt in order to ease the demands on his staff while also in the same year Sat Bains moved his operations in Nottingham to a four day week dinner only service. And just last Christmas, Stuart Ralston, the 35 year old chef and owner of Aizle in Edinburgh did the same because he realised not only was he burnt out, he wondered what he was doing it all for. With all his time being spent on his business, there was no room mentally and emotionally for his son.
With that realisation, it dawned on him the usual practice that his industry was known for just wasn't going to cut it anymore. He told The Guardian, "When I was coming through, Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White were idols. It was a badge of honour to say I've worked this-many-days-in-a-row or so many hours. In places I trained, I don't remember owners ever caring how many hours the staff worked or whether a chef had done 20 days straight."
On the website Chefs with Issues, a site where people working in the hospitality industry are encouraged to share their stories and concerns, a 43 year old chef wrote: "I’ve succeeded at being a chef, but, I have failed horribly at life. It’s a tough day when you realize that everything you’ve done, everything you bled for doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of life. Until recently, I’ve never taken a vacation, aside from work functions I’d never volunteered for anything, I drink and smoke way to much. This was my failed life, until recently. My stress level got to be so much that I’m on heavy medication to keep my blood pressure in a safe zone." In 2017, Britain's biggest union, Unite, conducted a surveyof professional chefs in London and their working conditions. They found, "Almost half regularly worked between 48 and 60 hours a week. Seventy-eight per cent said they’d had an accident or a near miss through fatigue. More than a quarter were drinking to get through their shift, a figure which doubled to 56% when it came to taking painkillers. A startling 51% said they suffered from depression due to overwork." What you can read into this is that once one dives into the culinary world, work-life balance is non-existent. The professional kitchen with its necessary discipline, is the ironic sanctuary many chefs crave, for others it is their vocation. In both cases, the industry that is about hospitality, sensory celebration, and seeing the smile on the mouths that they feed, the same cannot be said about what goes on in the very environment where it all begins.
With Ralston, the need for change came because he knew that lifestyle was unsustainable long term, especially if he wanted to maintain healthy relationships in his life, and have a meaningful relationship with his son. It's perhaps a change that comes with having children. I know for me that was when I was brave enough to make that conscious change. When you're young and have no responsibilities other than to yourself, you can and will work as much as possible, as many odd hours as possible, and in all conditions. Kathryn Francis, the co-owner and manager of the Michelin starred Checkers (soon to be re-launched as Checkers Pantry) toldThe Guardian, “When you’re young, you can push and push and it doesn’t matter if you’re ratty and knackered, because you haven’t got kids. But when you have, you put them first. Work is important, but you have to enjoy other aspects of life.”
The Australian chef Curtis Stone told me when I interviewed himin Melbourne in 2014, it was that all-consuming intensity he craved at the age of 22 when he knocked on Marco Pierre White's door in London aspiring to be a chef and learn as much as he could from the man who was notorious and meticulous. Stone had read MPW's autobiography White Heat and said it "transformed" him so much so that he "literally crossed the world to find it." He wanted to work for the three Michelin-starred chef because it was, as he described it, "like a sportsperson learning from a trainer that would just drive you so hard that you would be the best that you could ever be." Now remember, while Marco Pierre White was famous for being the youngest chef to ever acquire three Michelin stars, he was also known as a "tyrant". In his book The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef, he wrote, “If you are not extreme, then people will take shortcuts because they don't fear you.” Stone would go on to tell me, "the interesting thing about an environment like that is (your goal is) to make it through the day. And not everybody does. (MPW) threw people out of the kitchen here and there. You get through the day and you think 'I must be doing a good job because I'm not getting screamed at. It's that sort of reverse psychology."
Restauranteur Gary Strack said in The Boston Globein 2016, "restaurants are creative and artistic communities with a higher tolerance for eccentric behaviour. People are drawn here because it’s an alternative lifestyle. It’s fundamentally different than a 9 to 5 job.” It's similar in the news business. I know as a journalist I have had my share of working with and for eccentric personalities, people whose egos dictated their behaviour and management styles. I have friends who are lawyers and bankers who say the same thing. But when you're young and trying to make a name for yourself you assume it's all part and parcel of paying your dues. And it also becomes the glue that binds you with your colleagues. Your work becomes all aspects of your life--friendships, relationships, social events, and personal ambitions all circle around your job. And that's fine when you're young and single. But that also has a shelf life. Blink and the years pass, and if you're a woman who wants to have kids one day, those critical years where you are physically capable of having children become less and less. Hindsight though, as they say, is 20/20.
The beauty of the time that we live today is that more people are aware of what isn't working, what is not acceptable anymore, and what is outdated. Whether it is working in an unhealthy environment or working so much that there is no room for anything else in one's life. I have always detested that expression, "that's what I went through so you have to too" (or something like that). It's almost as if because we endured the tough times, everyone else should too. A twisted, sado-masochistic cycle threatening to continue to repeat itself. Perhaps one thing we can learn from the millennial generation is that they are more aware of that work/life balance and are demanding employers think and act differently (to be clear, bean bags and table tennis in the office aren't what they're asking for). And despite the older generation's staunch grip on how things are done, what is slowly becoming more evident is that taking a chance on change can be profitable. Rene Redzepi, chef and owner of the award winning and critically acclaimed restaurant Noma in Copenhagen wrote in Lucky Peach magazine: "I’ve been a bully for a large part of my career. I’ve yelled and pushed people. I’ve been a terrible boss at times...Maybe the old way has worked so far. But in the long run, it burns people out...We’re on course to really mess things up if we don’t start getting better at what we do...I want things to change for the sake of this profession. When we started trying to change the culture at Noma, we did it for the sake of our own happiness. I didn’t expect that it would also make us a better restaurant. But it did."
I worked in a highly intense environment for twenty years. Newsrooms are notorious for being pressure cookers. With passionate people dedicated to their craft and the need to feed a 24/7 beast is no easy task. I worked shifts that are abnormal to our physiological rhythms. At work either at 10pm till 7am or 2am till 11am, on weekends and holidays, for almost a decade left me feeling like I was constantly jet lagged. And while I look back at those wake-up calls with a shudder, I am extremely grateful for all my experiences--both the good and the bad. I am grateful because those times gave me the foundation I needed to prove that I could and can do the job. That was what was needed in that environment at that time. That was the generation I grew up in. We didn't know any better. Today, we as a collective are becoming more self-aware. We are beginning to understand and figure out what our priorities are.
I am seeing that shift being felt by many. It's a slow realisation but a necessary one. There are more stories coming out now about people who are defying what used to be seen as the norm, that sense of working to the bone ignoring personal wellbeing in order to be taken seriously, to be respected, and to succeed. There are many industries where workplace practices need to and are changing and to see it in the restaurant culture where the pressure to perform and produce perfection is always high is an immense boost for any one person or company trying to make a conscious change in their own life or that of their employees. I still get a lot of questions from people about the choices I have made to live in the countryside and not climb any corporate ladder because this new life that I am creating with my husband and son is still seen as an anomaly. But as we are noticing, it is becoming the way forward for many. I do wonder though, when my kid embarks on his chosen career in about 20 years, what he will be able to accomplish without having to worry about balancing the love he has for his work and the love he has for his life outside of work. And as for Marco Pierre White, in 2015 on the 25th anniversary of the release of White Heat, he told The Observermagazine, “When I see those pictures [in White Heat], I just see that I was very unhappy and in great pain. Work was a painkiller; it was where I hid. I was very young, and all of a sudden one day the world descended on me. Today...I live in Wiltshire with my beehives and my orchards and my dovecotes, and I’m much happier." I am sure the next-generation chefs will be relieved to hear that success in life isn't about living with all burners fired up. And the same goes for the rest of us.