An account of working life in restaurant kitchens by the Red Chef, a member of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement.
It seems that over the last few years the chef has become a rather in vogue character following the rise of some notorious TV chefs like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey, Marco White and others. Here in New Zealand the weekly show Masterchef displays the extent to which many individuals would love the ‘opportunity’ to enter the hospitality industry and work in kitchens. Having worked in hospitality for many years now, and more recently as a chef in a trendy Wellington restaurant, I am writing this article in order to clear up some misconceptions about the supposedly glamorous life of the chef that the celebrity bigwigs would like us to believe. The reality of life working in kitchens is one of brutal exploitation, pure and simple.
The entire structure of work in a kitchen has clearly been conditioned by many years of attacks on the conditions of the chefs who work there, so that now the first thing a person needs to be able to do when they begin working in kitchens is multi-task or, in other words, do multiple people’s jobs all at once. This is because, like in many other industries, the workforce is kept as lean as possible. So, in my case, I might be chopping some vegetables, roasting some food off in my oven, frying some food on my grill, all while constantly making toast and keeping an eye on the new dockets which are always coming in.
We only get an hour to do our prep work before the kitchen opens for service. This is never enough time so the result is that we must be constantly prepping throughout the day in order to avoid being stuck in the kitchen for a long time after close.
The kitchen itself is far, far too small to accomodate the work that needs to be done. For me the most stressful times of the day are the times when I need to take trays out of my oven, because once I put them on my bench to cool I am left with a space of roughly 50cm by 70cm on which to prepare food. If at that time I have some large rounds coming through where I have to plate up 7 or more different dishes at once then the lack of space can become an absolute nightmare. Chronic lack of space is a feature of many kitchens because the employers prefer to reserve as much room as possible for paying guests in order to maximise their profits. Exploitation is built into the physical structure of the modern restaurant.
My shifts are 11-12 hours long and I can honestly say that even that is barely enough time to complete all of my work; for this reason on a busy day I will work upwards of 12 hours straight without taking a single break. On days when I do get to take a ‘lunch break’ all that means is that I will stop doing prep for 10 minutes while I crouch down and eat a sandwhich so that I am out of sight of the customers. We jokingly call this the ‘staff room’. If any orders come through while I am eating I will have to stand up and get them ready before returning to my meal. On a busy day, however, I might not eat a single thing for the entirety of my shift. This can be particularly torturous when I have to spend my entire day preparing food for other people.
The only way a person can get a few breaks throughout the day is if they are a smoker, as it is generally accepted that a smoker should be able to go out for at least 2-3 cigarette breaks during their shift. It is for this reason that I took up smoking quite heavily when I began working in kitchens; despite the terrible effects it had on my physical health it was a godsend for my mental stability. I have since kicked smoking as it was having a very negative impact on my physical fitness; however the price of looking after my health is that I don’t really get regular breaks any more. I think that one of the first concrete steps kitchen workers should take to improve their solidarity and sense of unity is to all go out for a break when the smokers step out for a cigarette. We will sometimes do this, however it is still not a regular feature of the workday unfortunately.
Amongst chefs it is common to work extremely long hours, often during periods of the day and the week when most other people are not at work. I think this can have a destructive effect on a person’s social life and is probably part of the reason why drug and alcohol abuse is so common in the hospitality industry. A friend of mine who works at a different local restaurant recently told me that one of his co-workers worked through the entirety of the weekend. By that I don’t mean he worked normal shifts Saturday and Sunday; I mean he literally worked for the entire weekend. He began at 5am on Saturday morning and worked through until service finished at around 1am the next morning. He then ‘hit the crack pipe’ (smoked some meth-amphetamine) and cleaned the entire kitchen before beginning work again at 5am Sunday and working through until close at 1am Monday. Another chef told me that when he was younger his shifts would start at 9am one day and finish at 1am the day. Unfortunately there is a somewhat macho tendency amongst many chefs and it is clear that some take a large degree of pride in their ability to work these absurd hours. I consider this tendency to be idiotic and self-defeating as it hampers our ability to fight for our class interests.
The pay rate for hospitality workers tends to be pretty low. For many years I was on minimum wage at my previous jobs and now that I’m a chef I’ve moved up to $16.00, which is relatively high for a hospitality worker. The higher pay rate for chefs to a certain degree reflects the higher degree of skill necessary to work in a professional kitchen; however I think it also reflects the fact my employer has had problems maintaining long-term employees in such a brutal environment. A chef who has spent many years mastering their trade may earn around $20 an hour, however the only real long-term pay off for a chef would be if they were to open their own restaurant. It is for this reason that many chefs seem to think of themselves as members of the petit-bourgeoisie, despite the fact that the vast majority of them are proletarians who will spend their entire lives working in kitchens they don’t actually own.
I think that if militancy and self-organisation were to take hold amongst chefs it would most likely begin with those who are most transient and for whom the life of the small business owner is not really a serious option. For example, this would include the many migrant workers whose conditions are even more inhuman than those experienced by a New Zealand citizen like myself. There are also many young people who are not particularly attached to life in the kitchen and are constantly plotting their escape, either by studying or looking for other work. Those higher up in the kitchen hierarchy tend to want to defend their reputations, part of which involves their ability to endure terrible working conditions, so I think it is inevitable that the more senior chefs would drag their feet and perhaps even side with the employers.
I don’t think that a union is likely to come to our aid any time soon as it would be incredibly difficult for one union to organise in such a vast array of small businesses and then negotiate contracts with many different employers. I think this is why unions like Unite have had most of their success organising in larger chains like McDonalds and Starbucks, since it makes the entire organising and negotiating process much more straightforward for them. However, in the short term, I think that hospitality workers who are working for small businesses should support the struggles of unionised workers in larger chains, since a victory for them can set a positive precedent for the rest of us.
What astonishes me about the people I have met and worked with in kitchens is the degree to which many of them maintain a totally genuine passion for their craft despite the brutal conditions in which they are forced to work. Working in a kitchen requires a lot of skill and I am constantly amazed by the abilities of some of my more seasoned co-workers. Nevertheless it remains the case that under capitalism our work is alien to us and comes to dominate us, even when it is work we are passionate about. I hope that, in the short term, hospitality workers will begin looking for ways to defend their human needs, despite the odds which are stacked against us.
When I feel like there’s no escaping the prison of the modern kitchen I remind myself of George Orwell’s observations upon visiting revolutionary Barcelona:
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle… every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle… every church had been gutted… every shop and cafe had an inscription saying it had been collectivised… Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the eye and treated you as an equal. Nobody said ‘Senor’ or ‘Don’; everyone called everyone else ‘comrade’ or ‘thou’…. Almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. Down the Ramblas… the loud speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”
One day, after the exploited of this world have risen against their masters and the great settling of accounts has been finished with, we’ll be able to build a world in which the people who prepare and serve us our food are treated with the respect and solidarity they deserve.