Ten hours each day, six days per week (or more), 48-50 weeks per year, 40 years of a career in the kitchen. Each professional cook or chef will likely spend at least 120,000 hours on his or her feet during the course of his or her career. If you were to spend this much time in your car the odometer would read 4.8 million miles. Ouch!
I didn’t really notice anything until I hit my mid-fifties. As a chef I had always looked at my work week as one continuous day of standing, walking, lifting, bending and turning at odd angles when I would move things in and out of an oven, toss vegetables in a sauté pan or reach to grab a pot from an overhead hanger. No big deal. Then things started to change, time was taking it’s toll. It started with sore feet at the end of a day – I would begin dreaming about that soak in Johnson’s Foot Soap the last two hours at work and would walk through the door at home and head right for the hot water. I tried different shoes: some with heals, some without. Some with steel toes and some with extra cushioned soles. I bought expensive Birkenstocks and shoes designed just for kitchens. I invested heavily in Dr. Sholls inserts, tried clogs and even a pair of Doc Martins. My feet hurt!
The interesting thing about the human anatomy and its interconnectivity is that every part of your body seems to carry on a conversation and at some point all parts agree. The feet are connected to the ankles (my ankles began to hurt), the ankles are connected to the knees (I started to have knee problems), the knees lead into the back (this irritated an old back problem) and the back, knees, ankles and feet had a serious conversation with my head causing frequent headaches. At this point many would simply write it off as “getting old”, but my situation was really not unique at all and not so much related to age as it was the abuse caused by too much hard time on my feet.
Talk with any chef and they will likely complain about the same problems. It is not age specific, in fact many young cooks and chefs suffer from the same physical pain associated with not taking proper care of their feet. There are many aches and pains that human beings endure but issues associated with what keeps us upright can be all consuming and debilitating. At some point all that a cook can think about is how much their entire body cries out for relief. Once the anatomical conversation between your feet and the rest of the body begins it is very difficult to change the topic. A cook or chef begins to lack focus, productivity is impacted and the passion that they had for cooking begins to take a back seat to throbbing nerves and aching joints.
Chefs know that their feet are important. They hear the stories from their colleagues, they see the results of poorly cared for bodies in the actions of their co-workers; yet, far too little attention is paid to the root cause. Taking care of your feet is a science and although the business demands might not change, a cook can delay or diminish the impact of foot abuse.
There are even definitive ailments that have been dedicated to our profession. One is even referred to as “chef’s foot”, or medically called “Hallux Rigidus”. This is an ailment that zeros in on your big toe and can be quite painful with throbbing sparks of pain that can at times bring a cook to his or her knees. The cause is foot abuse.
Here are some things that I have found (far too late in my career) that can help to relieve foot stress:
• BUY GOOD SHOES! Make sure that your shoes fit well, they provide adequate support, they are maintained, and they have that important “give” whether through natural soles or added inserts. If you are at a loss on what to buy then Google: “Top 10 Shoes for Chefs” and you will find details from a variety of shoe companies on eBay. DO NOT WEAR SNEAKERS IN THE KITCHEN – EVER!
• CHANGE YOUR SHOES! If you are going to be on your feet in the kitchen all day then bring an extra pair of GOOD shoes and change them half way through the day.
• USE A STEP: When involved in stationary repetitive prep, lift one leg and place your foot on a step or the bottom shelf of a table to relieve some of the stress on feet, knees and back.
• WEAR WHITE SOCKS! The dye in colored socks will seep into your feet that are receptive since they sweat and the pores are open.
• SIT WHEN YOU EAT! Far too many cooks (myself included) would never sit down for a staff meal while working. Instead they would eat while standing so as not to lose a moment of prep time. Your entire body will welcome a few moments off of your feet.
• WALK WHEN NOT AT WORK! Staying active and changing the motion that your work body has become accustomed to will keep you limber.
• WASH AND SOAK YOUR FEET! This should be part of your daily grooming routine. I do recommend Johnson’s Foot Soap.
• WATCH YOUR POSTURE! Much of the work in a kitchen requires us to bend over ever so slightly to chop, dice and fabricate. This will take a toll on your body. When you walk, force your shoulders back and hold your head high. You might even consider a daily exercise routine or Yoga to keep your body limber.
• MAKE FRIENDS WITH A CHIROPRACTOR OR MASSEUSE: Sometimes your body needs outside help to keep from calcifying and becoming accustomed to pain as a way of life.
• LIFT SMART! Bend at the knees, open your mouth and only lift what you are able to handle. When lifting over your head limit the weight to less than 10 pounds.
• ADJUST TABLE HEIGHT! Depending on the task, different table heights will improve posture and diminish the impact of poor ergonomics on your body. Talk with your HR director about recommended heights.
• MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT! The more weight that you carry; the more stress is placed on your feet, knees and back. Check with your doctor or dietitian for the ideal weigh to match your frame and age.
• KNOW WHEN TO BACK OFF! Chefs subscribe to this silly notion that they can do anything by themselves. That 10-gallon stockpot full of liquid will weigh 100 pounds or more. Your body is not too fond of lifting weight like this especially when the contents are sloshing around when you walk. GET HELP!
• CERTAIN PARTS OF THE JOB OF COOK ARE ONLY FOR THE PHYSICALLY YOUNG. At some point in time your responsibilities need to either evolve with less standing time, or it might be a point in your career when you need to do something different for the sake of your physical health.
Back to the opening line in this article: Your Feet are the Most Important Part of a Chef’s Body. A person comes to the conclusion that there is nothing more important than your health usually when something goes wrong. Preventative maintenance is the pro-active approach. Know this: without preventative foot maintenance every cook or chef will suffer the consequences at some point.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting & Training