The Desperate and the Insane: 3 Reasons Why Chefs are a Dying Breed – 1

We live in the age of the Celebrity Chef. Portraits of the crisp white jacket and dental-advertisement smile assail us at every turn. Bookstore shelves heave under the voguish glut of cookbooks, the covers gleaming with photo-shopped images of a foodies wet dream. Sexed-up dishes artfully manipulated by food stylists defy the imperfect genius of nature while the Chef (sometimes dressed down in jeans and a t-shirt so as not to intimidate the home cook) poses self-consciously for the camera like a slogan-chanting, baby-kissing politician on the campaign trail. Notice the healthy glow and clear complexion. Notice the lack of burns on their wrists and cuts on their hands.

There is, of course, a simple explanation for this.

They are not behind their stoves. They are not cooking.

Surely, though, you’d be a bitter naysayer to begrudge any chef’s hard-won success and wealth, if, in fact, they’ve slogged it out in award-winning kitchens for the majority of their adult lives. Writing cookbooks, shooting commercials, hosting television shows and opening restaurants is a far less brutal existence than actually cooking for a living.

Gastronomy is big business, and those who have risen proud and tall from the ramekin like a perfectly executed soufflé have reaped the rewards. Wealth, fame, and social influence await the technically-skilled and the media-savvy. Chefs, despite a reputation for foul mouths, drug habits and poor educations – and, lately, a penchant for hipster beards and forearm tattoos – have become the rock stars, the sex-symbols and cultural purveyors of our time. Once regarded as one of the lowliest of occupations (sweaty hordes of degenerates and dropouts confined to the breathless, hellish bowels of restaurant kitchens while the people with REAL jobs enjoy their nights, weekends and public holidays dining out in relative nirvana), cooking has now entered the polished and portentous realms of 21st-century pop culture.

If wealth is a measure of status, and it most often is, a cursory Google search of the net worth of the world’s top celebrity chefs will prompt even the most ardent, self-proclaimed foodie to spit their vegan quinoa bircher with almond milk across the breakfast table.

Take, for example, Jamie Oliver, the chef/author/restaurateur most often topping the celebrity rich lists. Everyone knows Jamie Oliver. He’s that theatrically chirpy, pukka English lad with the mockney accent slopping his way through an endless stream of TV specials, his crosshairs set squarely on the enthusiastic, if somewhat unskilled, home cook. According to several reputable websites (and, hey, if it’s on the internet, it MUST be true) the darling Mr Oliver is worth 400 million dollars.

Yes, you read that correctly. 400. Million. Dollars.

Why, then, have chefs become an endangered species? Why, according to the persistent wailings of industry folk and a recent smattering of media focus, is there a chronic shortage of skilled and experienced chefs? Shouldn’t they be lining up to be the next culinary god cashing in on the fact that most people these days seem to be bereft of one of the most basic skills essential to survival? Bereft, or simply too busy?

Why, as the curators of sustenance, of life, are chefs abandoning the profession in droves, downing their knives and hanging up their imitation butcher’s aprons in favour of a less glamorous occupation?

  1. Pay/Hours

This may come as a shock to the ignorant and/or the uninitiated, but the vast majority of cooks and chefs are grossly underpaid. The likes of Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Mario Batali are among a select few enjoying the bountiful fruits of their seasoned labour. For every jet-setting, book-flogging, Ferrari-driving, celebrity-schmoozing, camera-crew-toting idol of the culinary arts, there are, perhaps, a quarter of a million anonymous grunts sweating it out on the line, day in, day out, for (and sometimes less than) the minimum wage. According to several online articles and statistical websites, the median full-time Australian wage for 2016 tipped the scales at the 80k mark. Compare this to the national average wage of a chef, which, according to Pay Scale, is $46, 133.

Now, getting excited about statistics is a dangerous business. Interpretations of correlated facts often lead to inaccurate assumptions. Numbers (emphasised and ignored) can be manipulated to sway a predisposed purpose. But, if almost twenty years in the cooking business has taught me anything, it’s that the 46 grand per annum is pretty much bang on. That’s a staggering discrepancy when you consider the intense physical, mental and emotional fortitude required by those who choose to cook for a living.

It’s common for chefs to work 10, 12 or 14 hour days (sometimes more in chef-owned businesses and high-end restaurants) and get paid for 7 or 8. Big deal, I hear you say. Plenty of people work overtime. And, yes, I agree. The 80-grand-Aussie will (and does) bemoan their average lot in life.

Perhaps you have an office job. Perhaps you crunch numbers, write reports, make phone calls, and seal, if you’re lucky, multi-million dollar deals. Think about that job. Then imagine doing that job, on your feet, in 40 to 50 degree heat, day after day, all year round.

Imagine a cramped, suffocating workspace with open flames, 200-degree-oven-blasts, scorching metal, scolding liquids, razor sharp knives, and cleaning products potent enough to blister your skin and vaporise your lungs. Imagine cuts and gashes, stitches and partial amputations. Imagine rashes, boils and festering lesions. Imagine bruises, burns of all degrees, and calluses on which you could extinguish cigarettes. Imagine blood. Imagine intestines, hearts, ears, tongues, livers, kidneys, bones, breasts, fat, tendons, scales, and any other part of a once-living beast staining your work surface, your hands and clothes.

Imagine sweat. Image chafe between your legs to rival that of a marathon runner. Imagine dehydration. Imagine dizziness, cramps and perpetual diarrhoea. Imagine a timeframe of precise and manifold tasks broken down into seconds and minutes rather than hours or days. Imagine noise. Imagine a relentless barrage of scrapping, slamming, shouting, buzzing, crashing and booming, military-chorus-like affirmations of, “Yes, chef!” Imagine an ingrained, foul-mouthed dialect of abuse, intimidation, cruelty, sexual innuendo and harassment shared between co-workers with casual aplomb.

Imagine no lunch breaks. Imagine coffee, sugar and nicotine, hurriedly ingested during rare lulls in the action, as your primary source of fuel and nutrition. Imagine working nights, weekends and public holidays. Imagine no social life, little or no time spent with friends and family. Imagine sick days are reserved only for the hospitalised. (Hungover? Tired? Got the flu? Fuck off. Get your arse to work.) Imagine holidays are when you either quit or get fired.

Sound enticing for 12 hour days at an average of 46 grand a year?

No, I didn’t think so.

Sure, an average is exactly that, an average. An Executive/Head Chef, perched atop the apex of the gastronomic hierarchy, will earn significantly more. But like a General in some faraway war, the Executive/Head will most likely spend more time in the relative comfort and safety of their command centre than they will engaged on the culinary battlefield.

Executives/Heads are the brains of the operation, the strategists and the pen-pushers. They’ll write the menus, the recipes, the rosters, haggle with producers and wrangle the percentages. A day in the life of an Executive/Head will, unavoidably, involve a tedious, mind-scrambling, arse-numbing, belly-swelling succession of meetings, appraisals, costings, maintenance requests, hiring and firings. Time on the ground, so to speak, is largely ceremonial. Maybe, if they’ve got a spare ten minutes between sampling a local supplier’s finger limes and quoting a price for a new Rational combi oven, they’ll emerge from the office in their starched and spotless whites to inspect the troops, taste a sauce, or ravage a trembling apprentice for taking too long to fillet 20kg of snapper. The work is hardly physical, but the pressure is immense. Submit a less than satisfactory monthly stocktake or receive a damning report from the Health Department, and the incensed Owner/General Manager will come looking for their blood. Perhaps financing that new Mitsubishi Triton wasn’t such a good idea, after all.

The sous chef, however, runs the kitchen. As second in command, the sous (meaning “under” in French), is considered to have the toughest, most demanding role in the traditional kitchen hierarchy. When the Executive/Head conceives, say, a seasonal menu or a cleaning roster, it’s up to the sous to make it happen. At once a skilled technician, manager, craftsman, artist, motivator, punisher and prep grunt, the dedicated sous has few equals in any kitchen. The best sous chefs I’ve known are the battle-hardened veterans, the infallible badass warriors with deadly knife skills, infinite culinary knowledge, superhuman stamina, and, more often than not, a hair-trigger temperament. Their mission is to ensure that every chopped onion, every julienne of carrot, every fillet of salmon, every stock, every sauce, every soup and every sprig of chervil is prepared, cooked and plated with precision and consistency. If, say, an irate customer complains that their humble Caesar salad was served without the traditional croutons, therefore ruining their lunch, their week, their life, the sous will take it as a personal insult and kick the sorry arse of the absent-minded larder chef accordingly.

The sous must be all-knowing and all-seeing. They must lead from the front, be able to outcook, outlast and outwit even the most gifted of underlings. They must know every ingredient of every recipe, every portion size and plating technique. They must coordinate prep, cleaning, stock rotation, equipment maintenance, and the gruelling, all-important service. They must teach. They must inspire. They must push. They must punish. Needless to say, they must turn up to work every day. Often working 60-80 hour weeks in top restaurants, on their feet, sweating alongside the chef de partie, commis, apprentice and dishwasher, they’ll be doing well to earn 60k a year.

This, remember, is still some 20 grand short of the median Australian salary.

Okay. Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that preparing, cooking, and plating food for a living is hardly the requisites of, say, a Victoria Cross or a Nobel Prize. Chefs are not saving lives on the operating table. Nor are we risking them on the battle field. There are plenty of tough jobs out there, and people making a true difference in the world. We are not surgeons. We are not soldiers. We are not police officers (or emergency workers), who, rather ironically, are criminally underpaid for their service to a community that far too often exposes them to unimaginable incidences of abuse, scrutiny and violence.

And, no, chefs are not discovering the cure for cancer or the molecular properties of the universe.

Chefs are, despite contemporary illusions of glamour and prestige, the quintessential exponents of the real working-class. Forget about builders, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and most other labour-intensive trades. Compared to the humble chef, those lucky bastards are living like princes. Unless you make it to the bigtime, snare that Corporate Executive gig after 20+ years of torment and squalor, the comfortable, middle-class dream for the average chef is lamentably a pay bracket beyond reach.

While other tradies are buying family homes, putting in swimming pools, driving late model V8s and 4x4s and taking the kiddies for a spin in the tinnie on weekends, the average chef (ranging from the raw apprentice to the experienced sous) will be doing well to keep up the rent of a modest 2 bedroom apartment, eat a couple of nutritious, home-cooked meals a week, afford to get the brake pads replaced on their shit-box 95 Ford Laser, visit the dentist once a decade, pay the electricity bill on time, and maintain, if they’re very lucky, a lasting and intimate relationship – let alone raising children with any semblance of presence and normality.

No, now that I think about it, chefs are not working-class. That’s too generous a categorisation. They are, in many cases, the working-poor.

To put it bluntly (and with a decent measure of hyperbole aside), most chefs work exceptionally hard for shit money. And it’s even tougher in fine dining, the glorified pinnacle of the trade. Many apprentices and cooks working in the nation’s top kitchens couldn’t afford, if they had the time, to eat in their own restaurants. The privilege of their punishment is the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and an impressive name to add to their resume. Money, or the lack of it, is a neglected postscript.

To give you some perspective…

Some years ago, in my early thirties, I was sous chef at the Caxton Hotel, an iconic, family-run Brisbane venue. It was, and I hope, still is, a go-to place for a good steak, some fresh local seafood, and a few cold beers. The food was simple pub grub, granted, but high volume. The owners (two brothers) had a cold-blooded fetish for the number of meals – usually a couple of hundred – served during each dinner service.

On the busiest of nights, the General Manager was ordered to stand at the pass, permanent marker in hand, with the sole mission of tallying up the official count (breads, entrees and desserts excluded) of meals served as hand-written dockets, waiters, garnished dishes and empty plates flew in and out of the kitchen. From memory, a Tuesday night, our record for a single, 3 hour rush was 517 meals. (The reason I remember this number is because each record-breaking service was recorded for posterity in permanent marker on the metal casing of a fuse box positioned opposite one of the walk-in fridges.) Not bad, considering the feat was achieved by a team of 7 chefs. When you break it down by the numbers, that’s 7 chefs pumping out 2.8 main meals (an array of quality steaks, fish, salads and pastas cooked and plated to order) every minute. Or, if you look at it another way, 1 chef contributing 73.8 dishes to the service total.

Not your average weekend dinner party, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The daily challenge of high volume aside, the Caxton was a decent, steady gig for any chef – a place to master the basics while striving for speed, precision and efficiency. We butchered and portioned our own steaks from whole joints of beef (literally tonnes a week). We made our own salad dressings, emulsions, stocks, sauces, compound butters and marinades (none of that prepacked, bought in shit). We sourced fresh fish, bugs, prawns, oysters and scallops from local suppliers (no room for the frozen variety, as our only freezer, reserved for the thick-cut chips and miscellaneous surpluses, was the size of a large broom closet).

In essence, we prepared and cooked a simple, honest, and satisfying menu. As an added bonus, cooks and chefs were paid reasonably well, slightly above the award rate, and except for occasions during peak season, we rarely toiled beyond the 40-hour working week. Well-run, well-organised, we were a tightknit crew that often got together for a beer or six after a particularly brutal service. Put simply, it was everything a chef or cook would hope (and expect) from a casual, inner-city restaurant catering to 1000+ ravenous punters a week.

But, for some ambitious cooks, the pub scene will never be enough. We had one such apprentice (let’s call him Toby), who, at 18, dreamed of white tablecloths and culinary glory. Toby, in all fairness, was a hardworking kid. He turned up every day. He followed directions. He got things done. All, I must say, for his paltry 300-400 dollars a week.

Despite his dedication and loyalty, Toby made it unashamedly known (to me, at least) that he didn’t see a future for himself hurriedly assembling Caesar salads, half-burning Kilpatrick oysters, or slinging 300 steaks a night for a drunken, pre-game rugby crowd. What Toby wanted was precision and finesse. He wanted exceptional flavours and textures. He wanted skills and techniques that would set him apart from the average cowboy. He wanted, as it turned out, a job at Aria. Recently opened at Eagle Street Pier by a certain interstate celebrity chef, the fine dining restaurant with a lush interior and sweeping million-dollar views of the Brisbane River and Story Bridge, was said to set a new standard of elegance and sophistication in a city (and state) much-criticised for its lack of culinary flair.

Toby wanted class. And I knew what he was talking about.

Before the Caxton, in my mid-to-late twenties, I spent a handful of years in the UK and Europe. From London to Paris, Istanbul to Madrid, Florence to San Sebastian, Nice to Santorini – and just about everywhere in between – I worked, travelled, and absorbed as much of the culture and cuisine as I could. During that time, I was fortunate enough to have worked under some experienced, classically-trained chefs, who introduced me to the exotic wonders of foie gras, truffles, venison, turbot, monkfish, pigeon, caviar, and a dizzying array of French, Spanish and Italian dishes I had no clue how to pronounce correctly.

In one particular multiple AA Rosette kitchen (the rough equivalent of Chef Hats in Australia) in a Scottish 5 star hotel, we changed the menu on a daily basis. A meeting was held each morning to discuss the fresh produce we had ordered the night before. With each chef assigned a particular section, amuse-bouches, appetisers, mains, desserts and petits fours were planned for the intimate 40 pax dinner service. Creativity, as you’d imagine, was encouraged. As was the experimentation with traditional flavour combinations and presentations. It was, to say the least, a rewarding and challenging experience, especially for a young Aussie cook a world away from home.

That’s why, years later at the Caxton, I encouraged the ambitious Toby to go for the Aria job, confident that he’d learn more in six months of fine dining than he ever could in five years of pumping out tens of thousands of satisfying but imperfect meals in a casual restaurant. Albeit, I must say, with a solemn warning of immense sacrifice and discipline ahead.

As it turned out, Toby got the Aria gig. We shipped him off one night post-service at the Caxton with handshakes, well-wishes and a belly full of Bundy rum. No one heard from him for six months, until late one Monday night, when he returned for a few catch-up drinks with his former comrades. (Now, to give you the full picture, it’s important to illustrate Toby’s physical appearance. He was tall, about 6’3”, and before he’d left the Caxton, possessed, for his height, the characteristic teenage male physique: thin-limbed, underdeveloped – soft in the belly from a few too many late night munchies and gaming sessions – with shoulder-length dark hair and a plump, rosy-cheeked wholesomeness.)

As he joined our table, slumped into a chair with the weary grunt of a man three times his age, it was obvious that Toby’s six months at Aria had so far proved an ordeal. He was wacked, a late afternoon shadow of his former self. Gone was the pot belly, the shoulder-length locks, the ruddy complexion, and the dreamy glint of a doe-eyed innocent. He was gaunt-faced, head-shaven, sallow-skinned, and his once puppy-fat physique was reduced to that of a decommissioned, malnourished greyhound. Fresh burns bloomed on his arms. His hands were raw, cut and blistered.

As predicted, he had become a high-end culinary slave. Arriving at work at 7 in the morning and leaving well past midnight each day, Toby was now toiling for twice as many hours as he did at the Caxton. That’s 80 hours a week for $300. He was surviving on 2 or 3 hours sleep a night. He was working through his breaks, fuelled by a diet of energy drinks and hastily consumed scraps. He was subject to constant verbal and physical abuse, performing the most intricate and laborious of tasks while expected to produce perfection on every plate. He was threatened with instant dismissal if he turned up late or called in sick. He was, in essence, a lackey, wallowing on the lowest rung of the high-end kitchen ladder. Overworked and underpaid, he was to never question the authority of a senior chef, never offer an opinion or deviate from the status quo. He was to obey, sweat, bleed, burn, and fucking like it.

What, I hear you say, is the point of this little anecdote? A common example – or perhaps a warning – for any wannabe cook chasing the haute cuisine dream because they’ve watched a few episodes of Master Chef, seen a pretty dish on Pinterest, or wreathed their coffee table with the latest celebrity chefs’ cookbooks.

Commercial cooking, if executed with the required sum of dedication and professionalism, is not a hobby or a hyped curiosity. It’s not even a job. It’s a lifestyle. A calling. An obsession. It’s a masochistic willingness to sacrifice one’s health, sanity and relationships for half the median Australian wage so you, the diner, can enjoy your birthday, your anniversary, your business lunch or casual Sunday brunch in contrived comfort. Truth be told, many chefs earning a barely liveable wage will already be in their kitchens when you arrive at your average office job in the morning. They will be working through your lunch break. They will be working when you pick up the kids from school. They will be working during your gym session. They will be working during the 6 o’clock news. They will be working when you sit down to dinner with the family. They will be working during your Netflix chill.

And they will still be working when you retire to bed, flick absentmindedly through the day’s Facebook posts, and eventually nod off to sleep.

Luke Thomas

Luke Thomas

Part 2

Part 3