Loving the Heat, and Running the Kitchen
I was fifteen years old when I first stepped into a commercial kitchen. I did work experience in a cafe, which turned into holiday shifts and then an apprenticeship. I was so enthusiastic and terribly naive but fortunately I was in an incredibly supportive and positive environment with role models who not only taught me how to cook, but also how to live. Hands down, they were the most formative years of my life. Which is why I am absolutely fucking terrified to discover that I am now on the other side of that equation. Next week I have a young woman from my old college coming in for a week of work experience. I know that the time she spends in my kitchen could make or break a young chef in the making.
I was the rare breed of teenager who actually had an answer to that most annoying adult question of what do you want to be when you grow up? I had not only an answer, but a plan. I'd always loved cooking, even as a child. My earliest memories are of baking with my Mum. My motivations were initially greed-based: the child who helped got to lick the bowl, while the other two only got a beater each. But I quickly came to love it. I have a distinct pre-school memory of wanting to create my own recipe for cupcakes. There may have been some marshmallows involved? Whatever it was, it didn't turn out well, but I was DETERMINED to love these disgusting cupcakes as though they were the finest haute cuisine. Over time my love of creating in the kitchen never left me and I spent a lot of my spare time cooking and baking. I read cookbooks, watching cooking shows, and I LOVED going out for a meal. I had a curious palate; as a 12 year old I went back through all the foods I thought I didn't like and tried them all again. Apricots were still underwhelming but pineapple, as it turns out, is delicious so it was a worthwhile exercise.
I was food obsessed, and hungry (har-de-ha) to learn more.
My first foray into the hospitality world came during that week of work experience. My first task was choosing the flavour and then baking the muffin of the day; this time I wisely avoided marshmallows. Right from the beginning I was being engaged, included, and taught with enthusiasm. My diary from the time is full of now embarrassing anecdotes: They gave me an apron, and a tea towel to tuck into the strings, just like a REAL CHEF! FFS baby Lucy, be chill...
Over the next few years the chefs there moulded me into a half decent chef and a not terrible human. I moved onto other establishments and learnt a lot about the darker side of the hospitality industry: soul crushingly long hours, rampant sexism, alcohol and drug abuse and bullying cultures. For more fun details, read my first long read! It's not always so bad as all that, but in reality, any kitchen environment is hard. The work is physically demanding and requires a lot of energy. You're on your feet all day in extremely hot environments and breaks are rare. There's a stereotype that chefs have terrible eating habits, and it's true. Being around food all day and constantly tasting can suck your appetite. Despite making an effort I frequently get to the end of my shift only to realise I've been burning nothing but coffee and berocca all day. We start work before most people are awake, or we're up past midnight to feel the night owls. Often both.
All these things are manageable for me because 85 percent of the time I love what I do. But the hospitality industry is full of people who don't. Young kids who find a part time job doing dishes, and then fall sideways into a kitchen hand position, and then an apprenticeship. Not because they wanted to, but because there's always a job going in a kitchen somewhere and it's better than doing nothing. I care a lot about my job, but most of the other chefs I've worked with don't. Chop chop chop, sweep sweep sweep, and get out the door as early as you can. It's a nightmare to try and find staff who care even a little about creative cooking.
I'm close to 10 years into my hospitality career (fuuuuck I'm getting old) and I've come out the other side of those darker experiences a wiser and more compassionate adult. Having put in the hard yards I now find myself in the position of head chef. I'm the guy who dictates the hours, the culture and the conditions of my staff. And here I find myself in a position where I can mentor a young person who cares about food and cooking and actively wants to participate in this industry.
So how do I do that? And how, as an industry, do we attract and keep these interested young potential chefs?
I've seen so many young apprentices, of all genders, who begin with high hopes and quickly find themselves disillusioned with the realities of the kitchen. Cultural attitudes, macho-ism and boys clubs are certainly partly to blame. But I've also realised that I don't have good management skills because thats something we don't teach chefs. How to allow people time to develop and learn, while still keeping the overall standards of your kitchen consistent. How to give feedback without being a dick. How to find methods of teaching that speak to a variety of learning styles. Chefs are not famous for their people skills (shout out to Gordon Ramsay) and this can have a devastating impact on someone's willingness to work and participate in a positive kitchen environment.
At my job we had a staff member move interstate for love (disgusting) in the same month that another chef was taking his annual leave. We began the process of hiring new staff and 5 job candidates in a row didn't turn up for their trial shifts. When circumstances conspire there's little choice than to cover the gaps yourself. Oh the joys of being in charge. As a result, I've just finished an eleven day stretch that honestly wrecked me. My feet are swollen, my brain is fried and I've eaten twice as much takeaway as I usually would because the thought of cooking myself dinner is untenable.
This is not an unusual situation. I spoke to another chef friend of mine who has been working six day weeks for the last three months. There simply aren't enough people to fill all the positions. And there's definitely not enough passionate, talented people. I know, I'm looking really hard for them.
It's especially frustrating when I consider all the young chefs I've know who bailed out of the industry through burnout. People who would rather be standing in front of a stove, than sitting behind a desk, but can't muster the energy to deal with all the extra crap that goes along with cheffing.
Realistically I can't do very much about the industry as a whole. But I'm going to commit to making my own tiny kitchen a safe corner of the world. I'm going to try and be a better manager, and a more understanding person. A more patient, supportive and enthusiastic chef. Fuck, it's gonna be hard, but I gotta try. If we want restaurants in Australia to keep growing and challenging the status quo and being creative and even simply making money we need to improve the quality of life of our staff. It's that simple. And next week my staff will include a 16 year old young woman with a long and fulfilling career ahead of her.