Peeling Back the Curtain

With so many careers to choose from, pop culture mediums fill in the role of giving people an image of the job. Michael, a local San Diego chef, peels back the curtain of what goes on inside and out of a kitchen. 

Chefs face plenty of varying depictions across many artistic mediums. 

From Remy’s soup-saving antics in “Ratatouille” to Jon Favreau’s hyper diligence whilst making a grilled cheese in “Chef;” from Chris Meloni’s impressive wielding of cooking knives in “Wet Hot American Summer,” to Leona’s artful creation of the winning pizza in “Mystic Pizza”, movies tend to portray the artistic side of the profession. TV shows like “Chopped” and “Top Chef” tend to turn up the dramatic nature of the job inside the kitchen. 

Jiro and Anthony Bourdain, Julia Child and Gordon Ramsay: chefs seem to exude a level of confidence and gravitas matched only by entertainers. Like musicians, there’s some unspoken rhythm to how they move and work in the kitchen. 

Enter Michael.

Michael is an executive chef who works in a hotel restaurant in the North County area of San Diego. He has been working in the restaurant industry for the past 16 years since his fifteen-year-old debut in a Chicago kitchen. I asked him if he would pull back the kitchen curtain for a moment and share what his experience as a chef has been like. He generously agreed. 

There are several ways aspiring chefs can begin their careers in a kitchen. According to Reuters, most chefs start off by “chopping or washing.” 

Celebrity chef Bobby Flay began his career as a salad chef. Michelin starred chef Thomas Keller began by washing dishes in his mother’s restaurant in sixth grade. 

Michael started in a restaurant as a busser when he was 15. 

“My very first day in the kitchen was a blast. I started at the restaurant bussing tables, but I was always curious as to what was going on in the kitchen. I washed dishes for a few months so that I could sort of prove myself and then after that I would work the salad station and help the grill guy at night,” Michael told The UCSD Guardian. “Really basic stuff but it was a whole new world to me and I have enjoyed it since day one.”

After this period, chefs can work their way up the kitchen ladder in different ways. There are a myriad of paths that one can take in order to move up the ranks within a restaurant. Michael recounted how he worked his way up the ranks.

“I washed dishes for six months before I started cooking. I worked at several high-end restaurants over the next five years as a line cook and attended culinary school. I got my first sous chef job and realized I was in over my head as far as management went, so I put a lot of time and effort into studying and practicing leadership and management,” Michael told The Guardian. “I think the road to being an exec is pretty much the same for everyone, work hard and treat people well and the opportunities will come.”

Many aspiring chefs stay in the kitchen and work their way up the ladder to their desired position; however, culinary school is often the next step many chefs take. 

Michael was placed in a position where he did not want to attend a four year university, which made culinary school all the more appealing. He signed up for a two-year program at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. 

Through his time in school, the skills he learned applied more to his life outside of the kitchen. 

“Networking through my school was a huge benefit for me, because I had just moved to the city and didn’t really know anyone, especially in the industry,” Michael told The Guardian. “My school had a job board and I was constantly picking up little catering events and random dinners just to gain experience and meet other chefs. One of my biggest challenges was that I was working full time so the class load was a lot to handle. Culinary school is basically set up like a job, not how a regular university has classes. I went to school from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and then I was working at least 40 hours a week at night so it was just non-stop.”

Although culinary school can offer a foundation for aspiring chefs to work off of, Michael does not believe culinary school is best for all or even most aspiring chefs. Without school, aspiring chefs would work their way up through the ranks. 

“Being a dishwasher requires zero previous experience but you will learn how to clean vegetables, make pasta, stocks, how to work efficiently and deal with the environment. From there you move up to prep cook and so on,” Michael told The Guardian. 

As chefs work their way up, there are different positions to explore including sous chef, chef de cuisine, and executive chef. 

Executive chefs are at the highest level of the kitchen management structure and are generally only present at large establishments. Executive chefs have a management role and generally do minimal cooking as they are responsible for the operation of multiple outlets. 

Head chefs, or chefs de cuisine, typically control the entire kitchen such as managing staff and controlling kitchen costs; however, they will often leave the day-to-day running of the kitchen to the sous chef. 

The sous chef is second in command and the role may overlap with the head chef’s. The sous chef tends to be more hands-on and actively involved in the day-to-day running of the kitchen. 

“As a sous chef, you are running the day-to-day and as an executive chef, you are thinking months out about everything,” Michael said. “I am usually at least three months ahead of myself for anything that needs a serious level of planning. You can think of the sous chef as the one driving the car and the executive chef as the one who plans the road trip.”

Sous chefs, chefs de cuisine, and executive chefs have busy days. Daily tasks vary for chefs at different restaurants depending on their levels of seniority. 

As an executive chef in a hotel restaurant, Michael’s days can vary.

“Every day is different,” Michael said. “It’s never boring. Some days I am the electrician, the therapist, the prep cook, the office manager, the host, the landscaper. I get to problem solve all day while being surrounded by a great team. It is a truly fantastic job for those of us that want to be here.”

Typically, the average chef position requires 50 hours per week in the kitchen, including nights, weekends, and holidays. Daily schedules can change for chefs as well, as their days can range from eight to ten hours on average. 

“Right now I work from 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.,” Michael said. “Day-to-day for a hotel is very office heavy, our labor and food costs are major concerns right now [due to COVID], so making sure we have a clear budget and plan to meet those goals is a big part of my day.” 

Holidays and large events can bring him out of the office and into the kitchen. When the restaurant has events or holidays, Michael tends to spend more time in the kitchen. He currently has a younger, less experienced management team at the hotel and subsequently has to be more hands-on than he was at his last place of work where the sous chefs were more experienced. 

Although many may be drawn to the chef profession due to the excitement of working in a kitchen, some may be surprised by the fast-paced, high-pressure environment that they end up in. 

One reason kitchens may be stressful is due to the long working hours. According to trade union Unite, 44 percent of chefs report working between 48 and 60 hours per week.

Though the kitchen can be a fairly fast-paced, tense environment place to be, the level of organization chefs bring to their work spaces can play a critical role in minimizing their employees’ stress levels. 

“I would imagine most cooks don’t really consider the job stressful,” Michael said. “As long as you are prepared for the day there isn’t really much stress involved. I have worked in kitchens that weren’t very organized and I always felt behind, but restaurants like that are usually the ones you hear about closing down. The chefs you hear about that are yelling and throwing things are super old school and they are all dying out.”

Steaming pots and sharp knives are as much a fixture of the job as is pressure in the pursuit of perfection. Mistakes in the kitchen have traditionally not been tolerated. 

“I remember putting too much parsley as a garnish on a soup one time and my chef telling me to act like I know how to work in a restaurant or get out. I’ve been told many times to count how many doors they have, pick one, and get the fuck out for the most minimal of mistakes,” Michael recounts.

This pressure can cultivate devastating consequences for the mental health of kitchen employees. In a 2019 study, 73 percent of chefs reported that they suffer from multiple mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

“Anthony Bourdain was always a joy to watch, and as sad as it was to lose him to suicide he was a big wake up call to the industry about taking better care of our co-workers,” Michael told The Guardian. “Any kitchen position is replaceable, immediately. And you are reminded of that regularly. On top of that, it’s the norm to drink and do drugs to your heart’s content until your next shift.” 

Old school kitchen cultures can put restaurant employees’ mental health at risk. A 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration ranks the restaurant industry highest among 19 industries for illicit drug use and third highest for heavy alcohol consumption. 

“Honestly, I think the biggest solution to poor employee mental health is just to not treat them like total garbage and to give them the time they need to take care of themselves without consequences,” Michael said. 

Many chefs feel that destigmatizing discussion of depression and other mental health issues is a significant positive first step in the industry towards a more supportive environment. Some restaurants are beginning to employ different methods by which to support their staff. From capped working hours to peer-to-peer counseling, restaurant owners and managers are attempting to find ways to help their staff feel safe and stable. 

Philadelphia-based chef Jezabel Careaga started a non-profit in 2019 in response to the industry’s lack of initiative towards treating their employees’ mental health. Her nonprofit, Fuerza for Humans, shares mental health resources with hospitality workers while allowing space for dialogue and discussion surrounding mental health difficulties.

Other resources such as Sanvello, an app that connects those in the restaurant industry with therapists and peer support, and Ben’s Friends, a hospitality-focused substance-abuse support network, offer mental health assistance to chefs and other restaurant employees. 

Despite the challenges that come with the fast-paced, high pressure kitchen space, being a chef can be one of the most rewarding careers for creative, passionate individuals who thrive in the restaurant environment.

Successful chefs have different advice for those interested in entering their field. Michael recommends that anyone with an inclination towards becoming a chef should begin working in a kitchen as soon as they think it’s the career field they want to pursue.

“Go wash dishes for six months at the best restaurant in your city before you make any decisions about what it is you want to do,” Michael said. “The industry isn’t for everyone and no school or book or show can tell you what it’s really like. After that if you decide it’s for you then get to work and don’t look back. Work at the highest level you possibly can at all times, don’t let your standards slide for any reason and always treat everyone with kindness. Stay away from the drugs, alcohol, and drama that comes with certain parts of the industry. Stay focused and healthy. Follow that and you will be unstoppable.”

Photo by Adrien Olichon from Pexels.

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