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Painted in Waterlogue

Those of us who have held court behind the range know it, our families know it, our peers know it, but the rest of the world has no real idea about the physical and emotional pain that accompanies the job of cook or chef.

“An individual’s tolerance to pain is as unique as the person, and is shaped by some surprising biological factors, as well as some psychological factors that we can actually try to control.”


There are many physical jobs that stretch a person’s physical wellbeing. A percentage of the workforce ends their day in physical pain from pushing the body where it doesn’t want to, or shouldn’t go. Construction workers, factory personnel who suffer from repetitive motion strain, anyone who bends and lifts as part of a job, plumbers and electricians who crawl through places that most of us would avoid, and auto mechanics who contort their bodies to attach a wrench to a bolt, all suffer at the end of the day like a football player who took repetitive hits during a game. This is why painkillers are so often prescribed and over-the counter remedies are purchased at an alarming rate. No pain – no gain may be a catch phrase that is promoted by coaches and work supervisors, but far too often there is little gain from continuous pain.

So why would a cook or chef be different? What makes his or her pain special – noteworthy? I would be foolish to claim that it is different than those listed above, however, when you consider the physical, mental, and emotional abuse in consort, then I think that it might be fair to claim uniqueness.

If we look at the conditions that lead up to physical and emotional injury in the kitchen it is easy to see how the environment has developed a reputation as a macho business. In Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential he refers to a situation where a crusty veteran of the range mocked a young cook who burned himself on a hot pan handle. When the young turk asked for burn cream, the crusty veteran responded with: “Burn? You call that a burn?” He then proceeded to grab a glowing hot sizzle platter from the broiler with his bare hands as a sign that cooks need to tolerate pain and just work through it. Although this may be an extreme example, there is an unwritten rule among cooks that they simply work through most pain.   Whether it involves cuts that warrant stitches burns severe enough to blister, swollen ankles from standing for 10-12 hour shifts, or a pounding headache from relentless stress and forgetting to hydrate – most cooks do simply “work through it”. The thought of leaving your position on the line and hanging your teammates out to dry on a busy night is just not possible. Tough it out.

A nick on your finger from a razor sharp knife that won’t stop bleeding – apply pressure, Band-Aids and a rubber glove – work through it. A dropped 5-gallon stockpot on your foot (even empty) that leaves a cook crippled in pain – take 3 ibuprofen and work through it. Grabbing that sauté pan handle from a 500 degree oven without remembering to use a dry side towel – run it under cold water, have a bucket of ice water at your station for periodic immersion and – work through it. A deep steam burn from opening a convective steamer before it has settled down – follow the same procedure as for a hot pan handle burn. Feeling dizzy from the 120 degree temps on the line and a lack of hydration – pound down a pitcher of ice water, step outside for 5 minutes to catch some fresh air and get back to your station. This is what is expected – this is how a cook deals with pain. If you need a stitch, a visit to the emergency room for a deep steam burn, or an x-ray for that big toe that you dropped the pot on – “can’t you wait till service is over?”

Now some chefs will say- “This is not how it works – I always have my cooks attended to if they hurt themselves or need attention”, but many of us know that this is not always the case. More often than not it is the cook who makes the decision to work through it. “I’m OK, bring it on.”

It is quite easy to point to these “in the moment” accidents that cooks face each and every day. Things happen and when you are stressed for time, and things start to go sideways, then people let their guard down and cause mistakes to occur. I remember my first day back at a property as executive chef after taking a 20 some odd year break to teach. Trimming a strip loin with a 10-inch, sharp cimetar, I found the point buried into my palm. My first reaction was to grab a side towel to wrap it and look around to see if anyone else had noticed. Embarrassment for a dumb mistake was first and foremost on my mind. Finding my way to the men’s room, I washed it, wrapped it and returned to work through the rest of my shift. I took care of the stitches on my own time. How common is this reaction? Look around, it happens all the time. Cooks and chefs are supposed to be tough- right?

What about those incidents of pain that come over time? What about the emotional and mental scaring from years of cumulative stress? How many cooks and chefs suffer from carpel tunnel syndrome from repetitive motion work with knives over time? How many cooks and chefs have back and knee problems from bending, lifting, and stretching in the wrong manner? How many cooks and chefs have agonizing pain in their feet from years of 60-hour workweeks on their feet? I would probably be safe in saying – most.

Cooks and chefs have, what appears to be a high tolerance for pain. Is this true? Does the profession attract people who seem to tolerate what others would not, or is it the peer pressure of the environment that is so dependent on team work and trust in each other to do the job?

What is probably the most distressing part of this pain tolerance environment is how these cooks and chefs deal with it. It appears to me that there is an unusually higher percentage of cooks who still smoke than what is found in the general population – is this a way to cope with the physical and emotional pain and stress? Drinking and pain killer use is problematic in many industries, yet I have not seen an industry more plagued by abuse in these areas than in restaurants.

Cooks, for the most part, don’t take care of themselves. They live in the moment of preparing for and executing a successful service. When the work is done and the subtle or pronounced pain rises to the surface, then they drown themselves in their own special medication. Cooks, ironically don’t eat well. The food might be well prepared (often not), but it is the manner with which they eat – five minutes standing over a garbage can to catch the falling food particles, or while continuing to work at their station. Their pay is meager so they choose not to invest in luxuries like good supportive shoes, annual visits to a family doctor, periodic dental care, and a balanced exercise program. Their leisure time that could be dedicated to family and important things like reading a good book, taking a continuing education class, or going for a hike seem to fall by the wayside. When they get a day off it is time to take care of the basics – washing clothes, banking, some grocery shopping, taking that car in for an overdue inspection, etc.

Yes, cooks appear to have a tolerance for pain, yet their threshold is no different that anyone else’s. Cook’s need to learn how to prevent accidents from happening, but when they do to take care of them before they settle in to long term problems. Learn to lift correctly, forget the machismo and ask for help when something is too heavy to lift, have plenty of dry side towels for handling hot pans, pay attention to those knives when in use and refrain from distractions, let that steamer drain before you open the door, take 20 minutes to sit down and have an honest meal, buy good shoes and change them on a long shift, make sure your operation uses quality rubber mats on the line to remove some of the physical stress on your knees and legs, and by all means – hydrate. Otherwise your time on the line will be over by the time you are in your early thirties.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training




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