If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen – Part Three
Upon reading Parts One and Two of If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen, my husband’s first comment was “you’re pretty harsh”. Say what? I figured that decades of working on his feet all day must have deprived his brain of the oxygenated blood needed for thinking straight. Had standing in front of screaming hot stoves for years seared off the ability to recall his life? Did regularly inhaling toxic fumes from cleaning chemicals obliterate his memories? Had he forgotten all the weddings and parties that he missed because of work? His children’s concerts, plays, soccer games, graduations and birthdays that he hadn’t been a part of? How about the fact that in almost thirty years of marriage we have gone on holiday, just the two of us, exactly once? Didn’t he remember that time he went to work even though he had a concussion? Or the time he returned to work just a few days after life-saving surgery? Or when he opened his restaurant mere hours after his father had died because it was too late to cancel all the reservations? Seriously? Because every single sacrifice he has made has been a sacrifice I’ve made too. And then he said, “you’re pretty harsh, but you’re right.” You’re damn right I’m right.
Chefs work long, hard days for a pittance. It’s a fact. And it’s not just a question of how little cooks are paid, it’s also a matter of the price cooks pay: abbreviated family time, dismal social lives, lack of career longevity, poor job security, constant risk of injury, actual and almost daily injury from burns, cuts, slips, heavy lifting and the like, fatigue, boredom, stress, lack of sleep, heightened risk of alcohol and chemical dependencies, and so on. Oh, boo hoo.
When I was a child, my dad left for work every day (and by every day, I mean Monday to Friday) about 8 a.m. and returned home around 6 p.m. As the sole breadwinner, my dad provided all the necessities and many of the extras for his family of five. As kids, we had sports training and music classes. We took vacations and went to restaurants. We had books, toys, art supplies and athletic equipment. My dad bought a new Oldsmobile every few years. Life was good. But the world has changed. Does anyone work 9 – 5 anymore? Does anyone have two blissfully work-free days per week? Does anyone take a month-long vacation every year? Is there anyone who doesn’t put in a few hours of work after dinner or on weekends? Can families even get by, never mind get ahead, on one salary today? This is the new world order and everyone, cooks included, had better get with the program.
In a Globe & Mail article, author Corey Mintz asserts that “cooks are worked as if they are labourers but paid as if they are artists”. I can’t imagine that cooks would find it any preferable to be worked as if they were artists and paid as if they were labourers and, consequently, Mintz’s claim seems rather a hyperbolic false dichotomy to me, particularly since so many chefs consider themselves artists. And if you don’t think they do, head on over to Instagram and click on any chef’s account where painterly and chiaroscuro depictions of local foraging expeditions abound. Most cooks need to get their heads out of the clouds and/or their butts. Most cooks are about as far removed from being an artist as a postal carrier is (no offense postal carriers everywhere!). I think we can safely say that Picasso was an artist – although some might quibble – but my hackles rise when Taylor Swift calls herself an artist or when Orlando Bloom claims to be one. You can only imagine how I might feel about the entremetier at Jack Astor’s referring to himself as an artist. In the interim, I eagerly await Mintz’s companion article about the exploitation of artists who, presumably, are also paid as if they are artists. Or maybe a corollary essay about how a priest’s vow of poverty interferes with his ambition to become a celebrity art collector.
Cooks everywhere need to remind themselves that what they do for a living (or less than a living as the case may be) isn’t exactly curing cancer, or alleviating homelessness, or raising a child, or solving the mystery to life, the universe and everything. It’s just dinner. Or lunch. And, in any event, just a pit stop on the way to the toilet. Being a cook is tough and it’s not for everyone. It’s definitely not for anyone who thinks they’re an artist. It’s definitely not for anyone looking to get rich quick and easy, or ever. I have no doubt that many cooks are exploited by their employers, but I expect that even more are exploited by their own delusional ambitions.
Does anyone actually think that a murder, a police investigation and a trial wraps up in under an hour because that’s how long it takes on Law and Order? Does anyone really think that Kim Kardashian wakes up looking paparazzi-ready? Does anyone actually think that a reality television show has anything remotely to do with reality? So why would anyone think that being a chef is anything like Cupcake Wars or Iron Chef? Wannabes need to develop a healthy scepticism about what they see on the Food Network and on a celebrity chef’s Instagram feed. Wannabes need to spend a single day ‘staging’ at The Keg and shadowing the dishwasher in order to learn what to expect from their culinary aspirations. And culinary schools need to stop pumping out graduates without making them aware of what to expect in the real world – psychologically, physically and financially.
Like my parents before me, I enrolled each of my children in at least one sport and one artistic endeavor. When my youngest begged to be released from choir because he had attained an age where he didn’t think choir was cool, I relented on the condition that, at some inevitable point in the future, he would confess that dropping his musical education had been a mistake. I mean, who doesn’t regret giving up on their piano lessons? It took quite a few years, but my son eventually agreed that choir was the best extra-curricular activity he had participated in and that stopping had probably been a mistake. Since their early teens my children have worked in our restaurants, variously as dishwashers, cooks, food runners, bussers and servers. They earn a wage, a nice dinner at the end of the night and a drive home. They gain experience, self-respect and a reality check. On occasion, one or other child has protested about having to work a Friday night with the complaint that none of their friends has to have a job, or that they are missing a party or some other critical social function. “Tough titties” was my usual reply. A few weeks ago, just into his first year of university, my youngest called to tell me that he was glad that I had made him work. “None of these kids has ever had a job! They don’t know how much things cost! They don’t appreciate the value of money! They don’t understand a hard day’s work! They don’t understand the sacrifices their parents have made! They expect everything to be given to them!” I couldn’t be more proud – or smug.
For someone who has spent public school being ferried by helicopter parents to gluten-free playdates, who has whiled away their high school extra-curricular time snapchatting selfies, and who has never had a part-time job, being thrust into a professional kitchen after one year of culinary school must be a seismic shock. But, as an employer, I will give you about ten seconds to adjust, adapt and man up, because that is all I can afford and all my customers will tolerate. This is the real world baby and I’m not your mom. If I were, you would have been washing dishes since you were twelve years old. When my chef husband barks an order for three Caesar salads, one dressing on the side, two split and one of the splits no bacon you would say “yes chef” and not burst into tears. And, sadly, it’s not just neophyte cooks who can’t cut the mustard without crying about it. The other day a man telephoned my husband to complain about an improperly packed doggie bag. Apparently, he was calling on behalf of his adult daughter, A DOCTOR (!), who opened up her takeout container of leftovers and promptly dumped it all over herself. I wonder if he still accompanies her on the school bus and cuts her steak up into tiny, non-chokeable pieces? I wanted to ask her name so that I could be sure never to require her heart surgery skills, seeing as she can’t even open a takeout box.
To the extent that a cook’s exploitation is at the hands of an employer, and not a function of uninformed ambition, well, that’s just wrong. Maybe it would help if employees complained or just said “no”. Doubt it. Maybe a few lawsuits would facilitate change. Probably not. Maybe Mintz’s article will ameliorate the problem. I hope so. Sadly, the best solution to ending some employers’ financial exploitation of cooks is just a throwaway, concluding line in Mintz’s article: “raise prices and let customers absorb the true cost of paying people fairly”.
I don’t know what I could possibly have been thinking, but I read the on-line comments to Mintz’s article, and the comments on the comments, and the replies to the comments on the comments. Many people suggested that restaurant owners are profiting from the poor wages paid to cooks. That opinion is just dumb and fantastically uninformed. Profit? Ha! Most restaurateurs barely get by. Most are lucky to make a living. Guess who profits from low wages? Restaurant customers.
When a lawyer charges you $400 an hour for your real estate transaction or to draft your separation agreement, you will probably grumble, but you’ll pay it. You fork over $200 to the computer geek to debug your computer, $800 to the auto mechanic for brake pads, $1,000 to the dentist for a root canal, $10,000 for a new roof on your house, but gripe about paying $30 for a steak at a restaurant, rage over paying a babysitter $15 an hour, and complain about being charged $20 by the kid who shovels your driveway or mows your lawn. Why the outrage for the babysitter charges but the acceptance of the dentist fees? Because our harshest complaints are saved for those services we could do ourselves. We can cook our own dinners and mow our own grass, but we can’t (or shouldn’t) perform our own dental surgery. It’s almost as if our shame regarding our own inadequacy or laziness is equal to our indignation about what that inadequacy and laziness costs us. Don’t be all holier than thou with me about what we pay our cooks (which is better than any of the wages and salaries listed by Mintz, I’ll have you know) if you are going to have a heart attack about being charged $4 for a coffee. Yes, I know, it costs you 25¢ to make a coffee at home. So why don’t you stay home and make one next time and instead of giving me the gears about it?
As Mintz points out in his article, you can’t simply say “I’d never eat anywhere that treats people like that” because you would never eat out again. But claiming to be horrified that some cooks earn less than minimum wage is bourgeois hooey. Check the labels of your designer jeans; made in some third-world sweatshop were they? How do you feel about that? Are you going to stop wearing them? And I guarantee that the fry cook at McDonalds barely makes enough money for subway fare given what you pay for your Big Mac. Do you stop going to McDonalds? Cheap food has an expensive cost. In the case of McDonalds, the steep cost might be indigestion and inevitable heart disease but, in the case of the upscale trendy resto, the financial consequences of your inadequately priced steak probably means a cook earning the bare minimum, or less. Chew on that.
Read Part One of “If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen”…
Read Part Two of “If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen”…
Listen to this playlist from Brad Mehldau…
And make this recipe for my version of “Bits and Bites“…
Photo credit: Carmel: Entrance to a Chinese restaurant!, by Ashwin Chaugule, is licensed by CC BY-NC 2.0, cropped.