Kitchen Nightmares and Dreams

Details of the wonderful and woeful lifestyle of working in the Hospitality Industry from a recently departed cook.

MasterChef’s don’t exist in the real world of commercial cookery but the rage of Gordon Ramsey does, and the stress of shift-work is very real. However, within these factors comes a completely different way of life. One that is truly exciting and unique; if you’re up for it.

It all began when I was elbow deep in a wash-sink, constantly getting my hands and fingers covered in grease and bits of discarded food scraps. The Executive Chef asked me if I could cook.

“Only mash-potato and sausages, Chef,” was my reply.

He told me he’d see what he can do about getting me a position as a First-Year apprentice.  That’s when my 10-year run as a chef started. Before I go any further, allow me to explain the hierarchy within a commercial kitchen in Australia.

From top:

  • Executive or Head Chef (The Boss)
  • Sous Chef (The Boss/Second in charge)
  • Chef de Partie (Chef in charge of a section)
  • Commis chef (Newly qualified Chef)
  • Apprentice (first, second, third- or fourth-year chef)
  • Kitchenhand/Dishwasher

In a commercial kitchen everyone reports to the Executive or Head Chef (most kitchens only have Head Chefs). He or she is the boss and that’s final. Everything gets run by them and they run everything. The restaurant I did my apprenticeship at was run under an Executive Chef and a Sous Chef, and man – what a job they had. Writing and costing menus, liaising with front-of-house staff and restaurant managers, making sure the different sections of the kitchen are topped up and ready, and lastly, making sure that us apprentices are kept in line.

The fun begins at service. Service is the time when customers can order food from an open kitchen. 

This is a time where the kitchen comes alive and everyone puts in a level of effort much like that of a pirate crew whilst they seize the prize of a lifetime. Amongst all the chaos of docket machines scratching out orders, waitstaff asking for times on meals and constant bursts of flames coming up from pans on the stove, the Chef in charge barks orders as all of the underlings. We always answer in the affirmative, “Yes, Chef!” Here, is where the true test of your ability to work in a fast-paced kitchen is on display. Abilities and skills of which are to be held in the highest of regards.

Working as a chef is not an easy job. It’s anywhere between 9 -15 hours a day – every day. The pay’s not that good, the treatment is mostly terrible, and your social and love life is nearly non-existent. But for the right people, with the right heads on their shoulders and the right minds inside those heads – the life of a “Hospo-worker” is nothing short of exciting.

It does have its perks. First and foremost is the people you meet working.. You’ll end up sharing every aspect of your life with each other. From the great moments in the kitchen where you’re lightly burning each other with hot pans or playing jokes on the Head Chef. 

GREAT TIP: Whilst wearing a rubber glove, use red food colouring in the place of blood and pretend you’ve cut yourself. Add in the proper acting techniques. For example: “Ohh, fuck!” and “Ahhh shit, I just cut myself really bad.”

This will cause Chef to react and freak out. In which he will frantically run to the medical kit to get supplies, then run back over to you with the intention of helping you – assessing if you’ll need an ambulance or not. By this time, it will become all too funny, and you – along with the rest of the apprentices who were all in on this sinister joke begin to crack up. Causing chef to say something along the lines of “You fuckin’ douchebags,” and with a smile on his face, telling you all to get back to work. These are the sorts of jokes and pranks that get played all the time. But where there is good, there is always bad. And it’s within these bad times that you’ll use one another to complain too.

Expressing your feelings is a must when the stress of the job is getting too much. No matter what you do, you likely get yelled at by the Sous Chef 2 minutes after you get to work (True story). Or when you find out that the waitress you hooked up with the other week turns out to actually have a boyfriend – just when you were beginning to really like her. Constantly – after a while, anyway – tell each other that you’re quitting at the end of the month. Every month. Even though you never do. When working in a kitchen, it’s the people that keep you working for the longest amount of time.

No matter what, when it comes closer and closer to service – the vibe in the kitchen heightens. Even if you’re pissed off, depressed or happy – when it’s time to throw down, there’s no stopping it.

Another important normality of working in hospitality that a new-comer has to be aware of; the daily occurrence of substance abuse. Which, unfortunately, should not come as a surprise to anyone. Within my 10-year span, I only ever knew of 3 chefs and a hand full of front-of-house staff who did not use substances on a daily basis to deal with the high-stress, low pay and quite frankly, shitty conditions that the hospitality industry provides. According to a 2017 assessment from The Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration of Australia,

“The hospitality industry contains the highest number of alcohol and illegal substance users in Australia. And for those in Food Services, such as Chefs, cooks, kitchen-hands, prep chefs and so on, are the highest group of users within the industry as a whole.”

It’s all a part of the lifestyle. Getting a job in the industry may have come easily and it may be convenient to just stick with it for an income. The lifestyle, the substance intake and off-centre way of life is a choice. It doesn’t take long for an individual to figure out if it’s for them or not.

But there are positives. You won’t need to hassle with crowds on the weekends or late-night shopping. You’ll have the run of the grocery store on your days off, which likely falls on a Monday or Thursday. Even though the pay isn’t great, you may find it easier to save if you choose not to spend your money on booze and drugs. You’ll be too damn tired to go out and spend it on miscellaneous items during the day. And, if you’re like me – a creature of the night – the working hours will be something you can really work with and embrace. There’s nothing quite like having your last drink as the sunrises.

A short glimpse into the life of a Hospitality worker from someone who has since left it all behind. I left because I got over it and wanting to oil the gears of Capitalism (I wanted a Monday-Friday job). I felt like my current job wasn’t fulfilling anymore. I didn’t want to picture myself in the same job in 10 years times. I never really had the motivation to climb the ranks in a kitchen and in the end, I felt like I wasn’t giving my all to an industry that requires it. Once I made that decision, a number of people commented on how brave it was for me to do it. People tend to just stick with what they know – even if they hate it. But that’s not me. Ambition dies when you’re too comfortable. 

Lastly, let it be known that to all the people I left behind and to anyone who has worked in the industry their whole lives; I take my hat off to you all. I always felt as though the Hospitality industry in Brisbane City, and more accurately the Food Services industry, the Chefs, Cooks, Kitchen Staff and Waitstaff, never get the full respect due. The pressure, personal sacrifice and preparation to deliver to a customer they have never met. Every person who still continues to work in the industry has the highest calibre of my respect.

My tornado of cookery has ended. The shift-work hours cease to exist and a different sort of pressure has entered my life. But it’s ended with great memories, meeting exceptional people, making extremely poor decisions along the way and learning many life lessons. When I walk past a kitchen and peer in, I still feel like a little part of me is still on that line. Waiting for the next rush and enjoying that fight to get ahead of the next docket.

So, ladies and gentlemen, tip the Waitstaff, thank them wholeheartedly … and if you manage to walk past the kitchen, tell the chefs and cooks, “Thanks!” as you leave.

It’ll be appreciated more than you know.

 

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