Life as a chef!

I am a chef of nearly 20 years experience.

When young kids ask me if they should take up cooking as a profession, I honestly and whole heartedly tell them “don’t do it, there is a better way to earn a living”

Before I go on, I must explain something first.

For me, cooking was and still is a vey strong passion.  I love every thing about my job, about my passion.  It has taken me to so many countries that I would never have thought of visiting.  I have seen places that has opened my eyes and mind.  It has broaden my outlook on life and has strongly moulded me into the person I am today and I am proud of the person I have become because of these experiences, a hard worker, appreciative of the small things and knows the values of opportunities, no matter how minuscule they are.  I have met people who I now call a friend and I have learnt from these people, good and bad and I believe that it is through meeting people in general that life’s mysteries unfolds itself and becomes a little less overwhelming, a little less a mystifying, a little less frightening and becomes a lot more enjoyable and I wake up every day a little more inquisitive about what life lessons I will.

Seriously, thats what cooking has done for me.  I left Australia for my first long stay abroad young and innocent.  I was a little naive and thought England was something out of “a little house on the prairie”, a back yard country with rolling green hills filled with people with funny accents.  When I arrived I was, as you can imagine, in a huge culture shock.  It was the most exciting, fast paced, bright lit city or place I had ever seen.  Sydney was the only other big city I had been to prior to this stage of my young life but this place, England was something else.

Once over the initial shock, it fueled my curiosity on many things and I mean many things, lets face it, I was very young, in a foreign but English speaking country, what would you expect a young man traveling with like minded young mates be doing, especially without adult supervision?

But I digress so back to my point; I have been cooking for almost over 20 years.

In that time, I lived the life of your typical, old fashioned kitchen up bringing.

Manual labour that consisted of fifty plus hours a week (if I was lucky) but usually it would be around sixty plus with most weeks being a six day week.  My days off would be on the opposite sides of those six day weeks meaning, I worked twelve days straight, back to back shifts.  Back then the shifts were called splits, which meant you could have a break in between two shifts in a one day, but there was so much work to do and in the fear of letting any one down and especially your team, you worked through your split, for no extra pay of course.  I did it because of the “passion” and as I have mentioned, because you didn’t want to let the team or the “line” down.  We were “line” chefs, which had many meanings but for me trying to make a mark in my career at the time, I had envisaged the “line” as  a heavy rope which was hot and cumbersome to hold, slippery at times and got heavier as time went on in the shift, with all the chefs holding their part of the rope, keeping it suspend for the whole shift.  No matter how hot, how uncomfortable you get, whether you cut your little pinky nail clean off, didn’t order your foi gras or forgot your sauce and burnt it on the stove, regardless of how bad your day was or if you broke up with your girlfriend or if the chef just gave you an absolute bullocking in front of the other chefs, you still had to be present and hold your end of that heavy rope because you know that if you failed or gave up, that rope would fall to the ground and every one on the line would fail.  You held that line up from seven in the morning when you get in until one in the morning when you just finished scrubbing the burners which cooked over three hundred meals for the day

A French chef shouting French abuse in one ear, another chef calling out orders in the other, docket machines printing out a train of dockets one after the other whilst trying to plate up and look over five or more things cooking away in the oven or the targa top, sweating in fourty plus degree cooking lines, other chefs calling you away on dockets, burning your self everyone time you  open the deck oven whilst trying to nurse the cut that should have been stitched up from the night before.  Kitchen hands not giving you the pans fast enough which causes you to misfire a call away docket, a wait staff dropping the meal or worse yet, sending you the wrong order and not realising it until it was fired, cooked and on the pass.  Your saute section missing a call which makes you re-fire that docket and placing the docket behind it late, putting the grill section out and now chef is red in face shouting French abuse once again in your one ear and grill chef ready to stab you in the face.

You do all this hung over at the beginning of he day because you drank so hard the night before either in celebration of another service survived or to try and forget about all the bad things your body and mind encountered.  You’re light headed all day and caffeined up to stay awake, your back aches so much that parts of your limbs are numb and you have pins and needles on the tips of your fingers all day, every day. Your knees and hips, well by the end of the shift it would feel like how I would imagine a ninety year old, ex grid iron player’s knees would feel like, creaky, crunchy and doesn’t seem to fully straighten up any more for some reason.  Your feet hurt so much that it feels like its burning most of the time and when you peel your socks off at the end of the day, sometimes a nice long strand of moist skin comes off with your socks.  Your arms are full of spot burns that people mistake you for a drug addict and so many cuts up your arms and fingers that strangers ask you if you are ok because they think you’re trying to injure your self.  Alcohol seems to take the edge off and theres not a night when alcohol soon becomes your sleeping pill, an agent that makes you forget and gives you no recollection of the night before and allows you to come back the next day.

At the end of it, I was lucky in many ways, hard work it seems, paid off.  I have been fortunate enough to land a few jobs which taught me more about my field and more about how to run a business.  It has taught me to engage people in a professional manner, and as time has gone by, I believe I have become a good mentor, trainer and manager.  Hard work, dedication, drive, commitment and passion has rewarded me with a good position.

Now come my point to all this ranting and raving.

Then on the other hand, a person goes on a reality cooking show, spend six months on the air after that, the cook book deal, the sponsorship, the TV shows, the restaurants.  Good on them, well done, happy for you, I truly am, if you’re lucky enough to one of those people, take it and run, I would!

What I am worried about is the day and age we are living in.  In this monkey see, monkey do world, young people of today see these things happening before their eyes and think that this is reality.

Cooking is hard enough and I thought my tougher days were over but I find myself working harder.  No chef is worth anything with out a great team behind him or her.  Without a team, that chef’s vision doesn’t hit the plate there fore close your restaurant doors.

Young wanna be chefs coming out of cooking school have now got a notion of “I’ll cook for a little while, then I’ll get my own cooking show, become famous, earn ridiculous amounts of money and retire at twenty five” or  they have a notion that this industry is easy, I mean, look at these house wives, they weren’t even professionally trained and they’re filthy rich!

More and more I see things changing.  People entering the industry don’t have that commitment any more, they don’t want to do the hard yards, the long hours and time away from the social lives.  Shifts are getting shorter and that passion doesn’t seem to exist any more.  I used to be surrounded by curious minds and people who practice religiously to try and perfect their art, but instead, Google is teaching them how to cook and that’s also sad for many reasons because for one, cook books are fast becoming a thing of the past.  I remember waking up with cook books all over my bed, having fallen asleep reading and being taken away by the food photography, feeding my inspiration, fueling my drive to learn and my eagerness to get back into the kitchen.

There is no discipline anymore, you just can’t discipline people these days because you have to be careful in the workplace because there are more rules to protect workers in the workforce now.  Shouting orders at a chef may be interpreted as bullying.  You cut your self not with a knife but a paper cut, you get the rest of the day.  Any more than a certain amount of hours and you must take a break with every shift consisting of eight hours like clock work.  Sickies are easy and there is no ownership any more, “who cares if I let the team down today, I’ll still have a job tomorrow!” and no one pays attention to the people who want to make a mark on their careers and are left holding of that person’s end of the “line” up and their own.

Technology, the age we live in!  People expect to be super chefs now! Today! Right this minute!

People don’t expect to work hard any more and common sense just simply does not exist, it hardly exists and you just have to look at some one for one second to figure that out by one second of observation on how they hold them selves.  Just like Google which gives you the answers instantaneously, people have an expectation that to become a good chef, they truly believe it happens over night, and just like reality cooking shows, you wont need to spend countless hours on a bench or hot cook’s line to become a successful chef

In closing I’ll exemplify my point.

A young student straight out of college successfully applied for eight weeks work experience at one of the kitchen I managed in the past.  After the first week, he came up to me and asked I we could speak in private in which we did and he proceeded to to say that he would like to resign from his work experience and finish early.  When asked why, he simply and calmly said, “because I am going to get job like yours”.  “Like mine I replied?”  I thought he must have meant like a cooking and when I asked for clarification he said “no, like a head chef”.  A kid, straight out of cooking college!

Usually I would let things go, observe and learn but too many times recently I have observed these things far too often.

Is this the trend?  Is this what technology is doing to us, making us lazy? Or is it reality TV shows? or is it something else?

What do you think?  Am I over exaggerating?

I hope that one day I will find a diamond in the rough.  A young kid, eager to learn at no expense and have no expectations, a blank canvass.  Young, enthusiastic people who harness the opportunity to further their learning and to have that genuine passion for cooking.  I hope that these young people still exist.  For these people, I suggest you follow your dreams.  Find some one who will mentor you and teach you and you will do well.

In the mean time, if you ask me “would I become a chef if I had the chance all over again?” I would say no, not in this day and age.

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About dnleslie

Chef and food lover. Passionate about cooking, learning from people and teaching. View all posts by dnleslie

6 responses to “Life as a chef!

  • Jacqui Good

    Oh my Dennis, what an interesting read and written so much from the heart. I couldn’t stop reading! I can’t imagine working the way you guys do. Thanks so much for your honesty. Writing that must have brought up so many memories for you, some good, some terrifying. Thanks again, 99.9 per cent of us have no idea of a busy chefs life.

    • dnleslie

      Thanks Jacqui! It really did bring some great memories! I wonder if the round chefs of today will have the similar experiences and create memories like these??

      • Sharon

        Wonderful heartfelt opinion piece Dennis. Yes these TV cooking programs have made it look easy but surely reality kicks in at some stage. Please don’t give up and become disenchanted. You are doing a great job, and these fly by nighters will never hold a candle to you. They will fall by the wayside because they haven’t got the guts. Cheers, Sharon

      • dnleslie

        Thanks Sharon! The one good thing for me is, like professional sport players who trained hard, played hard, loved their sport and have a natural talent and lucky enough for them they get paid to to play, I too have found some thing I love and is fortunate enough to get paid to do it. Its hard work, but thats what is so additive about what I do, that satisfaction of walking off the line, fulfilling my passion and having done an honest, hard days work!

        Thanks for the comment

  • cjnewsome

    That was raw. I’ve been in the industry for 27 years, and I know exactly were you’re coming from brother. To succeed in this industry, you have to have a very strong work ethic, and at times it does seem like the current batch of culinary youngins really don’t know what they’re getting into.

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