Being a chef and having a blog means fielding dozens of questions from people all over the world who want to know the path to becoming a chef, cook, pastry chef or stagiere. Both in the comments section of eggbeater, and on the side, questions come in both frantic and even, inquisitive and demanding. Lately I've had a number of inquiries about how many hours should one work without getting paid.
It's no secret that cooks/chefs do not work 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week over a consecutive 5 day period. This example, in fact, would be called Part Time by most in the industry. The running joke at The French Laundry was that one day off was a weekend, and 2,vacation. For years I heard that in order to take an actual vacation from a cooking job, one must quit altogether, as paid vacations are a delusional fantasy for most of us in the field.
Even when a cook's schedule says arrive at 8 am and leave at 4 pm, there are hidden hours assumed. No cook who arrives on their station at 8 am will be ready by 11 or noon for service, unless their place of work demands very little prep from them. For those of us trained in fine dining, a 10-14 hour day is normal, even if our paychecks reflect 8.
Is this illegal? Yes. Should it be another way? Perhaps. Has it always been so? Yes. Will it continue on, even in free societies? Probably. Is this the only way to become a chef? Basically.
I belong to a worlwide organization that has an inside joke. It goes like this, depending on where you live, "We are not for people who need us, we're for people who want us, otherwise we would gather in Shea ________ (fill in your area's blank.) Stadium every day."
Being a professional cook is something like this. You should be passionate about food if you're going to enter the doors that lead to Chefdom. It is not the career path for everyone. Being a chef is not even for all the people in the world who love to cook, have a knack for cooking or are fantastic at it.
Like most of the arts, and paths to master craftsmanship, one should be more passionate about this than most any other thing in their life, if one wants to wear the temporary crown of Chef one day.
I say temporary because even at the top, with a Michelin view and booked reservations until the end of the next century, anything can happen.
Becoming a chef is a personal thing. It's more inward and private than one might think, seeing it from the outside or through a TV set. Cooking professionally is a secret society with rules and language and posturing and jokes and we have all this
because the hours are brutal.
And the only reward
is our integrity. Which we go to bed with alone every night, even if we're holding onto someone else.
And it's possible that that person we're holding onto every night can't understand, at all, why we have to work so many goddamned hours. She may ask us to quit and get another job. He may demand we spend more time at home. She may say we should quit this profession altogether. He may leave us because of it.
You have to be dedicated, really fucking dedicated, to your career and education in this field, if you're to stick out all those unpaid hours. You have to take and take and take during those unpaid hours. You have to watch and stare and ask questions and borrow tricks and put your head down and try and become faster and neater and more economical and efficient,
so you can do your job faster and better every day, and the next.
Not that you'll work less hours because of it, but you'll be able to take more on, and learn more, if you can manage your time better.
This came to me in a letter recently, from a fellow cook and close friend,
"You are, indeed, a professional, and that doesn't just mean you can bake, but that you know how to manage yourself on and off the job as well.
Remember one thing though... You are your hardest critic. If you pull back a little, it hurts because you know somewhere that you can give more. But you know what... They don't really know that, and even if they did, they would be ecstatic with the amount you are giving them.
Pull back and save a bit for Shuna."
I've been cooking for 16 years and I forget too.
There are a lot of pressures in this industry. And like a vacuum cleaner, they don't shut off until you pull the plug. One can only do so much in a day. One can only manage so well if one never takes a day off. One can only notice so much if one sleeps 4 hours a night. One can only work so fast, so efficiently, if one is on one's 12th day in a row of 15 hour days.
There's no accounting for all the unpaid hours we clock in, off the clock. There's no one carving the macho notches in our cook's belts, and when we walk in the doors to our next job they won't know we never slept and had no life outside of our last kitchen. Every job we start over in we have to prove ourselves again.
And in time, over the span of years, we do get better and faster and more organized and more efficient. And it IS possible that at a certain age, both in years and in experience, we can slow down, maybe, and work a little less. If we choose.
We can also choose to look at it a bit differently. Can you quantify all the hours you stayed up reading with that watermarked piece of paper you received one day in early summer after four or six years of semester after semester of worrying, studying, taking tests, borrowing books and listening to lectures?
If you feel like an immediate dollar amount should be attached to every minute you have a uniform on in the kitchen then you may want to consider a Union job or another profession altogether. If you sit down with a calculator and divide all the hours you spend in the kitchen by your paycheck, you will be aghast by the tiny number under that line.
Or you can go to bed every night with a stronger sense of self because you go into the kitchen day after day prepared to listen more closely, watch more intently, be more humble, give more generously, admit more wrongs, teach more patiently, learn with an open heart and feel proud to work among the people you do and make the food you make.
Cooking may or may not be an art, but it most definitely is a craft. And all crafts take loads of unquantifiable hours of practicing and studying to learn; to know intimately. To be paid for a concert one must have played their scales over and over until they couldn't stand it and then did them some more.
How many hours a day do chefs work?
If you're forcing me to count, I would have to say 25.