Life is different here

Being in the boh creates a disconnect from the rest of the world. Lots of us started working in restaurants as soon as we were old enough to work, some went to culinary school first, some have a bit of college, but for the most part, we learned to be adults in the kitchen from other kitchen professionals. Things you learn in the kitchen: how to work hard and fast and not complain. How to deal with pain and not take breaks or sick days or vacations. How to find jobs and then find new jobs, how to live on minimum wage, how to get all of your meals from work, how to drink every night on the small tips you make. What you don’t learn in the kitchen: how to save money and file your taxes. How to get to the doctor or dentist without insurance. How to get yourself insurance. What it takes to build credit or buy a car or buy a house. How to communicate your needs to other people, how to communicate with non industry folks. How to socialize without drugs or alcohol.

After being in the industry for a few years, it’s easy to forget how the rest of the world works. In kitchens, life is fast paced, dangerous, and dirty. It’s boring and exciting and repetitive and creative. It’s cutthroat and fiercely loyal. It has its own language, it’s own set of rules and expectation that are unique to kitchens. You have to know the lingo, you have to be able to keep up, you have to be tough enough to keep going, or else find yourself out of a job within minutes. As common as it is for your new line cook or dishwasher to never show up again after getting a paycheck, it’s just as common for a cook to find themselves out of a job by text message. Or by showing up to work to find the place out of business. As a manager, you never pay your staff on Friday, because you need them to be on top of their game for the busy weekend, not too hungover to move. And on that topic, where else could you show up for work everyday drunk, high, or so hung over that you can hardly see and still put in a 10 hour shift and have no one think twice about it.

The problems we face are unique, and far reaching, but we are used to them, and most restaurant workers will tell you that they far prefer our way of doing things to the way the rest of the world seems to operate, with it’s cubicles and customer interaction and time wasting. We are a different sort, and we fit inside this world that we have created, for better or worse.

More and more, though, people are starting to look at the possibility that things could be better- that we deserve better. It’s hard to look at the way lots of kitchen folk live and not see lack of self care, lack of self respect. Once you take a step back and look in as an outside observer, you see people destroying themselves so that other people will accept them. You see people putting up with treatment that no one should ever have to suffer because they it’s what they have come to expect from their work environment. You see drugs, alcohol, and work as the primary coping mechanisms for stress and unhappiness. And it’s hard not to feel like there is a better way.

Looking at this another way, I firmly believe that the root of the problems we face in the industry is the society at large’s refusal to pay for food what it costs to make. Period. If people would pay what it actually cost, and we all made a decent salary and were provided healthcare and vacation and a stable work environment, we would be free to pursue the creation of our art in a healthy way. When you think about it like that, then you see that all of the drug use, alcoholism, over work, over stress, lack of healthcare, minimum wage salaries, abuse, injury, lack of sleep, lack of self care, lack of education, lack of life outside of work- it’s not all for the love of the work that you do, Chef, it’s all so that rich asshole in the dining room doesn’t have to pay more than 13 bucks for his burger. And that’s some shit right there.

Laura Mcwilliams