I have great admiration for chefs. I love great food and that by itself should be enough. I also often wonder why they do it. The hours are long and usually evenings and weekends. The conditions are hot and they work on their feet for hours. Its hard work. And until they progress quite far through the system they are profoundly poorly paid. One cannot help but marvel at the commitment they show to the craft of cooking.
Cooks will usually have some culinary training (some will work their way up through a kitchen but not usually in higher level restaurants). They then will work through a progression of kitchens to learn about different styles and techniques from a variety of chefs. The most committed will head overseas (usually to Europe) to do one or more “stages” in a kitchen. A “stage” is an unpaid visit to the kitchen which can range from a couple of weeks to several months.
On the face of it, the stage makes a lot of sense. A visiting chef can see another kitchen and learn from another chef. I can even understand an unpaid visit to another kitchen where you observe and contribute to some degree for experience. Obviously if you are new and rotating through to learn, you might not be as productive as a regular but an experienced chef will be up to speed quickly. It is, however, subject to abuse. I visited a restaurant in Europe recently at which 6 of 12 kitchen staff were there in an unpaid role – they did not even get a share of tips. This kitchen rotated through stages and this proportion was normal. The kitchen was open and we couldn’t tell the difference between the cooks on a stage and the regular employees. They were clearly contributing fully to service. One young woman we spoke with had worked and saved for a year (at low kitchen pay in her home country) for the privilege of working for free for three months in this restaurant. This strikes me as exploitive.
We hear continuously about a crisis in the kitchen – the critical shortage of skilled people to work in kitchens. As an industry, we need to find a way to make a career in the kitchen something that pays reasonably. We need to take a hard look at kitchens – we need cooks. Technology may reduce the need for servers (although not eliminate them but that’s another blog post) but it will be much slower to replace cooks – especially at the higher end. Let’s find a way to treat them with respect and acknowledge (and reward) the value they create.