If Robert Unsworth hadn’t been passionate about cooking since childhood, becoming a chef would have immediately killed his pleasure in the job. Standing all day on rock-hard cement floors, often without a single break, strained his back for the eight years he worked as a cook. He tolerated grueling 12-hour days and collapsed after work. The final blow, however, wasn’t the punishing seven-day work week or the low pay, but constant exhaustion and back pain that eventually required surgery. These days, the only cooking Unsworth does is at home.
Unsworth left a thriving profession that boasts over 2 million cooks and chefs in the United States alone. And they all have at least one thing in common: whether they’re short-order cooks at a local greasy spoon or head chefs at five-star restaurants, their jobs are stressful and physically demanding.
“It’s a tough industry,” says Steven Grover, vice president for health and regulatory affairs at the National Restaurant Association. “Everybody at every work site gets the aches and pains….It demands long working hours. And, in many cases, you’re trying to work very quickly, which causes slips and falls.”
Despite the hardships, many chefs love this creative and mentally challenging work. When the job is at its best, chefs are part artist, part athlete, transforming plates of shapeless meats and vegetables into culinary masterpieces. A handful of chefs, such as Wolfgang Puck and Paul Prudhomme, have gone on to become celebrities, although most cooks toil in anonymity over a hot stove. But Grover is quick to point out that that doesn’t deter them from their job. “You might work long hours,” he says, “but people love this industry.”
Professional cooking as we know it evolved long ago from a rigid apprenticeship system in French kitchens. Aspiring chefs learned their trade at the lowest rungs, sleeping on straw in the kitchen, working dawn to dusk, and accepting abuse without complaint.
Today, culinary institutes, industry associations, and union programs train apprentice cooks in a more genteel fashion. But life in a restaurant kitchen still involves military-like discipline, and the day is still long enough to test one’s endurance. Unsworth’s workday, for example, stretched from noon to midnight. “You’re almost an indentured servant,” he says.
Feted and often feared, head chefs are the kitchen’s top brass, creating the menu and running the kitchen. They oversee the prep cooks, who prepare the food before the cooking begins; line cooks, who work on the salad line, grill, or other cooking line; and sous-chefs, second in command to the head chef. Powerful mentors to their apprentices, head chefs often seem much like drill sergeants, barking out orders while sampling your white sauce, Unsworth says.
Many head chefs “want it done their way, and they don’t want to wait. No matter how fast you’re doing it, it’s not fast enough,” recalls Skip Lasky, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan (pictured above with legendary chef Jacques Pepin). Lasky says he has seen angry chefs start throwing things — from pans to chopping boards — around the kitchen. “All you can do,” he quips, “is to hope none of it is aimed at you.”
Such abuse is all too common, if a visit to online sites for chefs is any indication. On several sites, including webfoodpros.com, overworked chefs admit to yelling, screaming, and throwing things in frustration — and losing the respect of their staffs. Other chefs immediately jumped in to the online discussion to chide them for their lack of professionalism, saying they were sick and tired of witnessing members of their profession throwing tantrums.
But flying pots are only one of the reasons Lasky sought another career. What else soured him on the kitchen? Low wages (about $20,000 a year counting unpaid overtime). He spent eight years cooking at California, New York, and Texas restaurants, including some of San Francisco’s poshest dining places. There, customers who were willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a single meal expected food prepared to their precise specifications. They often left generous tips, but those rarely trickled down to the overworked kitchen crew.
“Cooking is not like corporate America or any other industry. It’s more like working in construction, where hammers fly and tempers flare. The job is about speed and pressure,” Lasky says.
None of this stops cooks from approaching their dishes with an almost fanatical dedication. “You’re under pressure to get that food out,” Lasky says. “But you also want to put as much [care] into one dish as you put into the hundred other dishes you prepared that night.”
And ironically, working under difficult conditions can result in a mighty camaraderie. “When you’re working together under so much stress, the bond you forge in the trenches is really strong,” Unsworth says.
A full plate of hazards
That demand for speed is one reason why many chefs have problems with their backs and feet, because their job gives them little time for sitting — especially when preparing meals for up to 500 people at a banquet.
Unsworth remembers one prominent New York chef whose feet were so swollen after a day of cooking, he could no longer walk. He had to be carried out of the restaurant, and the swelling was so severe that his shoes had to be cut off his feet. The next day, he was back on the job.
Besides back and foot pain, the kitchen serves up a full plate of job hazards, including extreme heat. If you work in a hot environment without taking regular breaks, you can experience a drop in mental alertness and physical performance, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health warns. Among kitchen employees, where breaks are often few and far between, this is a definite risk.
Lasky remembers one job where he was sandwiched between a burner stove that could get white hot and four other ovens, including one that reached 500 degrees. “It would get extraordinarily hot, but even if you got dizzy, you couldn’t stop working,” he recalls.
But heat exhaustion may be the least of employees’ worries. In states that allow smoking in restaurants, you may cough your way through clouds of second-hand smoke, which increases the risk of lung cancer. Lifting heavy boxes can strain your back. Slippery floors can lead to nasty spills. You can contract food-borne illnesses such as salmonella, or cut yourself on razor-sharp knives and slicing equipment. (Cuts are so common, Unsworth says, that one common food slicer was referred to in the industry as a finger slicer.) Cuts, burns, and falls are among the most common injuries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, the food service trade reports about 12,000 burns a year — the highest number of work-related burns of any industry, according to the Burn Foundation, a Philadelphia nonprofit organization.
This translates to about one in five restaurant cooks with a burn injury, according to the trade magazine Restaurants and Institutions. Lasky, for one, still carries a scar from the time a sous-chef accidentally knocked his hand down on a saute pan full of hot oil. He watched in dismay as his skin of his finger bubbled and popped, but couldn’t leave the stove, because meals had to be cooked. He pulled a glove over his injured hand and went on working. “I was in pain,” he recalls. “[But] the whole cooking line wasn’t going to be stopped because I had burned my finger.”
A drop in restaurant injuries
Despite such hazards, the National Restaurant Association reports that injuries in restaurants are at an all-time low, due in part, the association says, to its safety posters and employee handouts, general safety audits, workplace safety CD-ROMs, and on-the-job safety cards. Federal statistics show that nonfatal injuries in restaurants dropped 13 percent between 2006 and 2007, below that of food stores, general merchandise stores, and other retailers.
Of course, there’s one hazard that’s not found in federal labor statistics, at least in its pure form: workaholism. Many dedicated chefs report that it’s hard for them to avoid 70- to 80-hour weeks. In one online forum for chefs, a self-proclaimed workaholic reported he routinely put in 70- to 80-hour weeks until he “burned out and self-destructed.” He’s now back on the job after thoroughly rethinking the situation. His solution? Planning ahead, having a small crew arrive several hours early for prep work, pairing up cooks in a “tag team” to tackle difficult tasks, and showing each member of the kitchen exactly how he wanted the job done. By using these methods, he says, “a chef can get his hours down to 40 or 50 tops, as well as [enjoying] a more friendly working environment.”
Meanwhile, cooks and chefs who want to stay sane and healthy on the job may want to sample our tips for working safely in the kitchen, which cover everything from choosing good footwear to preventing back pain and secondhand smoke.
“It’s in your blood”
Anthony Bourdain, a chef who penned the tell-all book Kitchen Confidential, describes the numerous scars on his hands from cooking for 27 years. But he also cherishes the family of workers he’s cultivated over the years. “I don’t know who said that [everyone], at 50, gets the face they deserve. But I certainly got the hands I deserve. And I’ve got a few years to go yet,” he writes. “How much longer am I going to do this? I don’t know. I love it, you see.”
Even Lasky, who left restaurants to work in a white-collar job in the computer industry, dreams of returning to the cooking line someday. “When everything goes right, it’s the most beautiful feeling,” he says. “Putting aside the scars, putting aside the long days, I loved being a part of a team. A restaurant is like a well-oiled machine. If it’s in your blood, it’s there forever.”
The National Restaurant Association produces videos and training materials to promote workplace safety.
800/424-5156 or 202/331-5900
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
The Great Hall, a forum for professional cooks and chefs.
Chefs Head Cooks, and Food Preparation and Serving Supervisors. Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2010.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Chefs, Cooks, and other Kitchen Workers,” http://stats.bls.gov/oco/ocos161.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Chefs, Cooks, and Food Preparation Workers. August 2006. http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos161.htm
National Restaurant Association. Restaurant Industry’s Commitment to Safety Results in Continued Decrease in Workplace Injuries. October 2006. http://www.restaurant.org/pressroom/print/index.cfm?ID=1329
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Case Demographic Characteristics for Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses Involving Days Away from Work. Table R4 (2007 & 2006). http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshcdnew.htm