5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Chef...

There are some things that I wish I had known before joining a career in catering. The purpose of this article is to give some insight into an industry that operates almost entirely behind closed doors.

Image © John Ray Gordon 2018

I started working as a chef in the United Kingdom 5 years ago and have undergone the trials and tribulations necessary in order to become the chef de partie of a large scale commercial kitchen. 

They say that hindsight is 50/50 and there are some positive and negative aspects of being a chef that are seldom discussed with people before they join the industry. I'm not trying to put anyone off from joining a career as a chef but I hope this article helps them to make an informed decision.

1. You work more hours than you get paid for.

Image © John Ray Gordon 2018

I'll be the first to admit that this one should be fairly obvious to anyone who signs a catering contact, there is usually a clause that reads something similar to: 

"You may be required to work additional hours in order to meet the needs of the business."

You could be forgiven for believing that this seemly innocuous little sentence means that if you get busy at the end of your shift, you will be expected to stay back. Even though this a correct assumption this clause is also used to make you work 60+ hours a week and only pay you for your contracted hours (typically 40)

In my first job I was contracted for 40 hours and given a rota that saw me work between 60-70 hours a week; at the time my salary was just £14,000, so when all was said and done I earned only £3.84/hour, which for the time was £2.47 below the national minimum wage.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the accepted norm and chefs simply get the raw end of the stick when it comes to remuneration in order to make restaurants profitable for the owners.

2. You will make friends for life.

Image © John Ray Gordon 2018

I have personally found that hardship creates strong bonds with the people that you endure it with. I believe this is similar to how the army creates camaraderie among its ranks. In fact, there has been some scientific research into this phenomenon and has even been published in the Psychological Sciences Journal:

“Our findings show that pain is a particularly powerful ingredient in producing bonding and cooperation between those who share painful experiences,” - Brock Bastian of the University of New South Wales in Australia.

I have made some strong and lasting bonds with the chefs that I have worked with over the years. This always makes it difficult when it comes time to change kitchens, however this is also one of the few jobs where I have found that a lot of people who become friends initially tend to stay in touch when they change jobs and stop working together.

3. Your personal time will probably suffer.

Image © John Ray Gordon 2018

Given that the average 40 hour week is built on the principle of working an 8 hour day, where you would have 8 hours to sleep, 8 hours for recreation and 8 hours of work, when you add additional working hours to this equation one of the latter two has to suffer.

Seeing as sleep is a necessity (although you can still expect this to be affected) the area that predominantly suffers is recreation; this means your loved ones will be seeing a lot less of you, especially if they keep regular working hours.

It is a given that you can expect your days off to be during the week and you will be lucky if you receive them both at the same time. This can make it very difficult to accept an invitation to a family event simply because you don't know whether or not you can get the time away from work.

Unfortunately for many chefs the busiest and most lucrative days for any restaurant are any kind of public holiday: Mother's day, Valentine's day and Christmas day will just become days of the week to you. This will eventually be met with your noted absence from the important events of family and friends.

4. The industry is short on chefs and this will personally impact you.

Image © John Ray Gordon 2018

Given the long hours, hectic environment, and low pay, there has been a dwindling number of people willing to endure the kitchen environment in recent years.

There is already an acute shortage of chefs in the U.K. and this is set to reach a staggering 11,000 job shortages by 2020. Given that there are approximately 83,000 restaurants in the U.K. this means that 13% of restaurants will be understaffed by at least one chef, with numbers only set to rise.

This is also coupled with the worrying effect that Brexit has already had on the U.K. catering industry: we have already seen a sharp drop off in the number EU workers in U.K kitchens, some stating that they simply do not feel welcome anymore.

I have found that this has led to kitchens that are staffed by the bare minimum of people required to run them, often leading to one person having to adapt to fill the role of two or three people. This is not the same in every kitchen and in fact some kitchens are very well staffed at present, however there is going to be a sharp rise in chronic long term understaffing of kitchens.

5. You are expected to work through sickness and injury.

Image © John Ray Gordon 2018

Kitchens can be very dangerous environments but don't be expecting time off when you are sick; there is an atmosphere of expectation for you to brave out situations that in other industries would have you sent home. 

Baring hospitalization or arrest, you will be expected to be at your station for the start of your shift. I have personally witnessed a chef remove the tip of his finger and be granted enough time to pop to A & E to be bandaged up, only to return for a busy evening service that night.

That being said there is a strange paradoxical nature to this point in that the catering industry is one of the most health and safety conscious industries in the world. This is mainly aimed at smaller restaurants where injury is more likely to be swept under the rug to ensure the running of the kitchen.

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