I was just listening to some old Beatles tunes and A Hard Day’s Night came up. It sounded like an appropriate title for an article about life in the kitchen. As much as I loved my time in front of the range (more than 50 years) and the monumentally great moments that are burned into my subconscious, there were many, many “hard day’s nights.” Of course, I’m sure many other professionals, in a variety of disciplines, have had their share of those challenging days at work, but I sense not many have worked through the steady flow of consecutive back and mind breaking moments like a chef.
As I watched people riot in France over moving from a retirement age of 62 to 64 and their discontent with the national 34-hour work week and five weeks mandatory vacation time, I can’t help but reflect on what chefs have considered a normal workday, week, and career for generations. Kitchen work ages us even though to many it is a calling, something that we love (most of the time). A 34-hour work week is unthinkable, a 60 – 80-hour workweek is more like it. Five weeks’ vacation might be nice, although chefs probably wouldn’t know what to do with themselves for that long. If a chef can manage a week or two here or there it will be at that rare time when business is off and even then, chefs are checking their email a few times a day to see what crisis is occurring while they try to relax. To a degree, we work those hours because it is our job to do so. It is very rare that any owner/operator demands a chef work that much, we just feel responsible and hate to ask our staff to work as hard as they do and not find the chef present to help, encourage, critique, and celebrate.
The job is, of course, very physical. Some are able to delegate the “heavy lifting”, but most of the chefs I know are quick to jump in and lift those stock pots, cases of rib eyes from their vendor, sacks of onions and potatoes, and stacks of dishes from the pit. We stand on our feet most of the day, twisting, turning, bending over, and stretching to reach something just out of reach. We sweat profusely, and even though a full staff of cooks might be the ones assigned to work in front of a range cranked up as high as the temperature will go, the chef usually finds a way to feel the pain and the steady rush of sweat down his or her back. It is draining, but somehow invigorating at the same time. There is something gratifying about sore muscles, aching backs, and soaked shirt and chef toques from sweat at the end of a busy service. No pain, no gain – right? When you work in a kitchen, you know what it means to be exhausted at the end of a shift – especially when it’s 12 hours or more in length.
What some fail to consider is the mental and emotional drain on the chef. The chef is responsible for hiring, training, coaching, evaluating, and scheduling employees keeping in mind their skill level, personal issues and responsibilities, demands of specific positions in the kitchen (not everyone fits in every role), and an ever-changing influx of customers with their own demands. The chef must be very well-versed in a number of cuisines and able to not only plan menus that fit in with the concept of a restaurant, but also represent the mission of the operation through special menus for various events. The chef is a financial manager of a business and, as such, must be adept at budget projections, management of inventories (highly perishable ones), and control of production waste. He or she must be able to make quick adjustments when costs are not in line and be able to pinpoint where problems may exist. He or she is a negotiator working with vendors for the best product, delivered when needed, at the most appropriate price and monitoring a system of checks and balances to ensure everyone understands this. The chef has ultimate responsibility for the proper handling of ingredients, sanitation of the restaurant kitchen, and consistent implementation of food safety protocols. Finally, the chef signs every plate of food that leaves the kitchen. Even though he or she may not actually cook each dish, it is the chef’s reputation that is presented to each guest. This is mentally and emotionally invigorating and draining, knowing that the buck stops at the chef’s desk.
At the end of the day the chef either leaves bolstered and proud or concerned and deflated. It goes with the turf, but it is not easy. A Hard Day’s Night is the tune that every chef sings – the Beatles got it right – they must have been thinking about work in the kitchen when they wrote the lyrics.
Yet, there are those moments; moments when it all works, when the planets are in line and everyone shows up, does the work they were trained to do, demonstrates passion for cooking, the ingredients are perfect and the vendor shows he cares, the team works in unison, the kitchen is a fine-tuned machine, and guests laugh and give thanks for an extraordinary experience. The chef holds his or her head high, thanks the team of dedicated cooks and servers, and the sky is filled with stars and a full moon. Your muscles still ache, your brain still throbs from overload, and the work of tomorrow still looms, but in that moment it’s all worth it.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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