What is it like to work in a multi-Michelin-starred kitchen in the UK? One chef, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke to The Caterer about his recent experience cooking in one of the country's top kitchens.
It had been a huge aspiration of mine to work under a renowned chef, making some of the best dishes in the world. Unfortunately, the novelty wore off fast and I quit within three weeks of starting my dream job.
Just hours before I quit, I was stood in a line at a Tesco buying a croissant to sustain me through the next 16-hour shift. My hands were trembling and my legs were weak. I walked out of the shop for a cigarette and a sit down. Head in hands, I decided I couldn't keep it up any more. Waking up at 5am to start work at 7am and finishing at 1am is insanity… isn't it?
I recall laughing at myself for thinking I could do it in the first place. Exhausted, I walked to the restaurant to tell them I would be leaving. I then walked out, embarrassed by my short-lived attempt to work at my dream restaurant. I ran out of money quickly and had to leave London.
The current UK living wage is £10.42 per hour for those over 23. The Living Wage Foundation recommends a living wage of £10.90 outside London and £11.95 in the capital. Having been contracted 48 hours a week, I was quite far from being paid minimum wage.
Trying to live near the centre of London cost me about 40% of my take-home pay. Food: 10%; bills: 10%; transport: 10%. It was depressing.
I wouldn't be surprised if on the surface, a large percentage of the cooks working in Michelin-starred restaurants are being paid what seems like a decent salary. The issue is that the number of hours they work can push their hourly wage below the minimum requirement.
My hands were trembling and my legs were weak
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays you start work at 8am and finish at 12:30am the following day, with a 45-minute break. On Thursday it's a 7:30am start and a 1am finish. By Friday you're in the kitchen at 7am and finishing at 1:30am with just a half an hour break. On Saturday, you arrive exhausted at 7am and leave at 3am, following a deep clean of the kitchen – again with just a 30-minute break. So that's some 85 hours.
Working for minimum wage is difficult. Working as a chef is difficult. When you see your take home pay after a challenging month, it's tough to keep going.
Some days it can be hard to remember why you're getting up in the first place. When you've had just four hours of sleep and half the week stretches ahead, your passion can be seriously diminished.
From unpacking vegetable deliveries before the sun rises to scrubbing floors as the last trains are departing, there are many reasons to consider a different career. Yet, so many young chefs keep turning up to work. What is their motivation? For me, I love to cook. I love cooking for friends and family and seeing the (hopefully) happy faces at the end. I love working with my hands to craft a pile of vegetables and proteins into a memorable meal.
I find fulfilment spending hours slaving away at the stove, refining a velouté or grilling a piece of hake to absolute perfection. There is a deep satisfaction at hearing the word "service" and knowing that my work has been good enough to be sent to the customer.
I also get to learn. One of the unfortunate realities about high-level cooking is that tuition at a school such as Le Cordon Bleu can cost upwards of £40,000 for nine months of classes. Essentially reserving it for hobbyists.
I don't have enough friends to justify buying a whole salmon to improve my filleting technique and I can't afford to buy a whole hogget just to learn the anatomy of a sheep. What I can do is work in a place that lets me learn at their cost.
So, while your hourly wage is most likely going to be better outside of Michelin-starred kitchens, you miss out on the pursuit of perfection. In these restaurants you get to use the finest ingredients and that is a thing of beauty.
It's hard to justify this lifestyle to family and friends, particularly those who eat to live and don't live to eat
You make sure everything is flawless, from picking out the perfect thyme leaves to refining a courgette purée if the consistency isn't exactly the same as the day before. If that sounds maddening, it's because it is, but that's how people become the best.
But, the joy of a nod of approval for seasoning your lardo parfait correctly can quickly be swiftly tempered with a barrage of insults if your section is anything less than spotless. Where you place your towel on your apron matters. The direction in which you scrub the hob matters. Being cleanly shaven matters. When your mind is this focused on a task at hand, money is just a figure on your phone. Besides, it's not like you have any time to spend it.
It's hard to justify this lifestyle to family and friends, particularly those who eat to live and don't live to eat. The blood, sweat and tears don't look worth it to them. Especially for the remuneration. Sometimes, I have to agree.
It isn't all doom and gloom, though. You spend the majority of your waking hours with your fellow chefs and the camaraderie is part of the fun. From celebrating a good service together to mutual hatred of various tasks – they become your brothers and sisters.
And there are a growing number of restaurants and groups changing their practices to provide fairer pay, benefits and overtime pay. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most places and the industry needs to recognise that underpaying staff is immoral and the issue should be reported by those who are underpaid.
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