Behind the kitchen door: the realities of working in the food industry

The restaurant trade in Ireland has been booming in recent times, but as Gary Ibbotson explores, it’s not as glamorous for the workers making it happen.

“There’s a phrase in the restaurant industry, it’s called the Michelin Madness, it’s where kitchens, restaurants, managers, and head chefs, spend their whole career going for a Michelin Star but they never achieve it and it drives them crazy. There are old wives’ tales of head chefs and general managers taking their own lives because they either weren’t in the guide or their star was removed.”

Mark Leonard, a chef in a high-class Dublin city restaurant talks about just how far some chefs go to obtain that Michelin seal of approval. “There’s a lot of value placed on what Michelin do for restaurants. In my opinion, too much”.

“They go all the way, they’ll do anything and everything. Not every chef is into it, but the ones who want it, that’s their drive, that’s their ambition in life.” Leonard talks freely about his opinions on the restaurant trade. In an industry so dominated by reputation and keeping in line, the inner workings of your favourite restaurant are rarely aired to the public.

 

Demands and pressures

According to Bord Bia, the recent popularity spike in people eating out since the economic recovery means that the full-service restaurant industry was worth €913 million to the Irish economy in 2016, with that figure predicted to rise to €1.12 billion by 2020.

With establishments having to keep up with the ever-growing public demand, and head chefs relentlessly striving for that hallowed Michelin star, more is required of the average chef’s performance and stamina than ever before.

According to Mark, these demands can be gruelling on your physical and mental state. “I find repetitive patterns occur within the organisation and the management. The ways staff are treated and the general demand on the body and the demands on yourself seem to be repeated over and over again. It’s the same problem that you’d encounter in every restaurant in the world I imagine.”

 

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Mark begins the process of creating stock. Image by Gary Ibbotson

 

Currently on his sixth year in the industry, Mark, now a Chef de Partie (a chef who is in charge of a particular station within the kitchen) began his career in a pizzeria in the suburbs of Dublin. “I started there as a part-time pizza chef, I suppose, and by the time I left, about four years later, I was the sous-chef (second in command), in charge of all the preparation for all the food in all of the stores.”

Critically, however, the ability to run and organise a busy kitchen was the not the only skill that Mark cultivated during his time there. He tells me his reasoning for quitting the plush pizzeria was down to the gradual realisation and understanding of how the food industry operates on the ground level.

“You’re never going to get a level of respect or encouragement. You’re never going to get that sense that you’re needed or wanted in this industry. At the time I didn’t get that. I just thought it was the management of that particular business.”

With the trade becoming more and more competitive as new establishments attempt to muscle their way in on the growing market of casual, casual-fine, and fine dining, a detached, unsympathetic characteristic of the industry is prevalent, Mark explains.

 

“The rare occasion I get a nine-to-five, it feels like a half-day”  

 

“The industry itself is quite impersonal. There’s a high turnover of staff and unless you really focus and try and get yourself into a good position – with a one track mind all the way to the top – you’re just a dog’s body and you’re never going to get that level of respect that you want or need.”

Perhaps the most well-known grievance against the restaurant trade is the apparent unsociable working hours that all staff must contend with. According to Mark, an official shift lasts eight hours but in reality, a working day for a chef usually lasts between 10 and 12. “The rare occasion I get a nine-to-five, it feels like a half-day”, he tells me almost nonchalantly.

 

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Chefs at the White House including executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, who has overseen every meal the President of the United States has eaten since 2005. Image by Wikimedia Commons

 

In addition to the extensive hours, staff often have to work for successive days that stretch well beyond the legal limit of six a week. “I just finished a 12-day stretch and my record is 14. But that’s small fry, I know one guy who done 22,” he tells me. “But you know that going in. It’s not a secret. When you sign up to be a chef you know you’re going to work long hours. There’s no way around it,” he adds.

Jane O’Leary, a former barista at a well-known, high-quality food emporium in Dublin, also witnessed how gruelling the hours can be. “There were regularly people working 12 days straight or more. One staff member fainted and was sent home after working something like 20 days with no break.”

Mark adds that “it’s just the way the industry is structured. It’s such a deeply embedded part of the trade that you’d need a seismic shift to change to an eight hour day, or structured breaks or anything like that. They just don’t exist.”

 

Glamour

Restaurants, and the profession of being a chef in particular, has got somewhat of a glamorous makeover in recent years. Helping this re-branding are celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver who occupy our tv screens, creating and sculpting the most delectable dishes right before our eyes in a studio resembling that of a show kitchen.

Unsurprisingly, this ideal image of the industry has become incredibly marketable and sought after. Shows such as Masterchef and The Great British Bake Off have pulled in huge viewing numbers while the latter is currently in the midst of a controversial multi-million pound transition from BBC to Channel Four. With online frenzy and corporate money surrounding the changeover, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the show is just about baking.

For most chefs, however, this family-friendly, glossy exterior of the restaurant trade is nothing more than skin-deep. With the exhaustive hours and increasing demand, Mark notes that keeping the superiors happy can be challenging.

“Most head chefs have certain character traits that would be common across a lot of different restaurants – mostly being a bloody – minded person. Someone who wants to do something their way and won’t compromise with that, especially when it comes to food.”

While working as a barista, Jane found that dealing with sexism was also a daily occurrence. “I had one friend who walked home crying after every shift because of her treatment in one of the kitchens.” She tells me that dealing with touching, disgusting comments and general inappropriate behaviour from staff and customers were pretty much a right of passage.

 

Coping

With the pressure of performing to the level required by the head chef, dealing with the draining hours, or attempting to keep up with demand, kitchen life can take a physical and mental toll on its citizens.

Some, perhaps not surprisingly, find a coping mechanism in the form of illicit substances. “90 percent of chefs that I’ve worked with are either drug users or heavy drinkers”, Mark tells me. “We’re humans, we’re sponges, we look around us and think, ‘oh that might be a good idea’. So it could just be a cycle of stupidity that we’ve gotten ourselves into, but it is still true. There’s a lot of drug use, there’s a lot of drink, there’s a lot misbehaving in kitchens.”

 

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Flambé: The art of burning off alcohol but keeping the flavour in dishes. Image by Waferboard via Wikimedia Commons

 

“I’m sure there were negative consequences to it” when asked about whether or not his own substance use had a bad effect on his work life. “But at the time when you’ve had a couple of beers in you or whatever you’ve done, it looks fine to you. I’ve never received any complaints about my dishes or my preparation (while under the influence), so if it is affecting me it’s affecting my mental attitude and my body rather than my work.”

“You could pretty much get everything as far as I could tell”, Jane says. “I don’t have any first-hand experience myself but it was a well-known fact that most of the staff were using. We got an email once about not smoking joints out the bathroom windows.”

Although seemingly a mainstay among the employees, Mark doesn’t believe the continuation of this practice is beneficial for the industry in any way. “It might help you briefly if you take a bump of coke during the middle of a busy service – you’ll get a jolt of energy for half-an-hour or so, it makes you actually want to do the work. But it’s only short-term, it doesn’t last forever.”

“So I imagine in the long-term, it’ll be the detriment to, not just the chefs, but the industry. It may help you instantaneously, but you can’t continue to put harmful substances into your body over such a long period time, during such a stressful period, and expect it to cause no damage. I don’t see it ending happily.”

As Mark alluded to, it seems that the restaurant trade has such deeply embedded cultures and practices that any required change is a long way from implementation. And that’s under the, perhaps mistaken assumption, that changes are wanted.

When asked about why Mark continues to work in the business, he answers as many of us would when questioned about our lifestyle choice. “I do what I do, it’s a wage at the end of the day.”

Disclaimer: All names and places have been altered to protect the identity of the people interviewed.

 

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