Lessons From Chefs, by Anna Van Dyk

“This can’t be all I do with my life”, Conor told me one evening. 

He is the Head Chef at The Restaurant, and has become a hybrid of a friend/brother/mentor to me since I began working there. He is one of the hardest-working men I know: when the kitchen porter failed to show up for work, he rolled up his sleeves and cleaned the dishes himself. When one of his chefs fell ill, he picked up three double shifts in a row. On top of this all, he is a father and husband. On top of all that, he has a degree from Edinburgh University. Being a chef and creating beautiful food for people is all Conor has ever wanted to do in his life - and he is damn good at it. It is heart-breaking, then, to hear that his calling and great talent might be shelved at some point. 

Frankly speaking, though, I understand why he would choose to leave the industry. The profession has to be the most physically and emotionally demanding one I have ever come across; and yet it is afforded far less respect than, say, the doctors and engineers of the world. Chefs work incredibly long hours, and earn alarmingly little pay. They sacrifice their social lives and, often, mental health too, for close to zero respect from their friends and family. As a result, the industry loses most of its big talents, and no efforts seem to be made to rectify the issues. 

This is a great tragedy to me. Most of the people I respect and admire the most in London are chefs. Thanks to my job at The Restaurant, I found myself sharing a home with two passionate and fearless female chefs. Like Conor, both of them are highly educated, and chose to pursue cooking rather than their subject of study because it was what they were most passionate about. I would hear them crawl in at 2am after a double shift, and subsequently scutter out the door at 7am to begin their day again. Their arms were covered with burn wounds. They never complained about the fact that they barely got paid enough to cover rent every month. And, somehow, they balanced boyfriends and friends and exercise amid it all. I felt deeply privileged to live with these two kind, dedicated, hardworking, talented women.

The longer I was in their world, the more it infuriated me that the injustices they withstood every day had become the norm. They laughed over stories of family members asking: ‘so what are you really going to do with your life?’. But it made my stomach churn with shame. Because, prior to my job at The Restaurant, I was no different to those people. I never once understood the passion and energy that goes into an exceptional plate of food. 

Every single day in a professional kitchen involves hours on one’s feet, doing repetitive prep before braving the constant ambush of a busy lunch or dinner service. Once service was over, the rigorous mechanical clean-down of the kitchen still has to ensue before they are free to go home. And service itself is never simple or straightforward. The diner demands their plate of pasta immediately. Another customer cannot eat wheat and dislikes anchovy, garlic, onions... Every demand is noted and met, even though the customer will never understand or appreciate the sacrifices made for the sake of their happiness, because cheffing is not open-heart surgery, or engineering or a courtroom drama. It is just ‘making food’. 

Cheffing deserves the same praise and awe we afford more traditional, better-paid careers. Chefs deserve respect and recognition for the sacrifices they make in their pursuit of caring for others through their passions of food and cooking. They deserve better pay. Better hours. Better paternal or maternal support. Better mental health attention. If Conor has a calling to change professions, let it be because of an undeniable need in his soul to jump ship, rather than these enduring injustices and pressures. 

If you eat out, it is your duty to educate yourself on what went into the food you enjoyed. The change starts with the diner - that’s you, Dear Reader.  

If you cannot commit to that basic task, why are you eating out at all?

Anna van DykNatalia Ribbe