The restaurant industry may, on the surface, seem like a glamorous one: elegant venues, fawning clientele, buzzing dining rooms, celebrity chefs. But in the kitchen, the reality is very different.
Chefs are often tired, anxious, frustrated and worked to the bone. At a time when the head chef gets all the attention, what goes on inside the kitchens of Australia’s best restaurants generally goes unmentioned.
A chef’s schedule, which is supposed to average around 43.2 hours a week according to the ABS, looks very different in reality. Several chefs tell Broadsheet they have worked weeks exceeding 70 hours and in some instances worked 10 days in a row. And the environment doesn’t lend itself to voicing concerns. How many times, for instance, have you heard the words, “no chef!” come out of a kitchen?
Hanging up their aprons after a long week, a handful of chefs we spoke with express a military sense of pride in working long hours in high-pressure situations.
It’s a “keep your head down, follow orders, push on and be loyal to your commander” kind of existence, with the possibility of great success, yes, but also burnout.
But things are changing, and in the past year – over beers after work and on social media – chefs and restaurateurs are beginning to ask why cooks must adhere to a different standard than everybody else.
Earlier this month, Attica’s Ben Shewry posted an image of himself on Instagram as a young and noticeably bleary-eyed chef, confessing his success has come at a price.
“2001. 23 years old. Shagged. Occasionally, well-intentioned people will say to me ‘your success must feel amazing’ and I’m grateful for sure, but this year I’ve been reflecting on some facts of my ‘success’. I’m 40, I’ve averaged 75 hours per week in kitchens since the age of 14. I’ve already worked roughly the same amount of hours as a person averaging 40 hours per week throughout their career to retirement age. So no, I don’t feel ‘amazing’. I feel like I’m 65!” he wrote.
Four months ago Shewry revealed he had introduced a 48-hour working week at Attica – Australia’s best restaurant and arguably the country’s most globally renowned. The new schedule is four days on, three days off.
His message to the rest of the industry is clear: chefs deserve to have a life outside their craft. “Are the old ways of flogging yourself and having no life outside of the kitchen right? In my opinion, no,” he posted.
Melbourne’s Andrew McConnell declined to comment on the hours chefs work in Australia, but a spokesperson confirmed that at his fine diner, Cutler and Co’s, hours are interchangeable with no set structure.
In Sydney, Bondi cafe Rocker has begun to offer a four-day work week, from the head chef down to the kitchen hand.
“Our industry traditionally lacks any work-life balance,” says Oter head chef Jordan Clay. The Melbourne restaurant introduced a four-day work week in March this year. “The industry is at breaking point. As leaders like Ben Shewry start to promote a more sustainable model, hopefully this will have a trickle-down effect.
“Chefs are programmed to be competitive, work harder, play harder, be better and faster than the person standing next to you. It’s a bravado culture that was typically the norm. Young chefs are left with very little time to enjoy things in life.”
Clay admits the cost of reducing hours gave him pause. “Look further, however, and these practices will actually save you money long term. If you look after your staff, they look after you.”
The loss of much-loved Sydney chef Jeremy Strode, who took his own life earlier this year – and was himself an ambassador for suicide prevention charity RUOK – shone a light on broader mental health issues affecting Australia’s high-pressure professional kitchens.
Adrian Li, executive chef of Melbourne restaurants Hanoi Hannah and Tokyo Tina, believes these issues stem from “pressure from owners to maximise profits, while keeping labour costs down”, which has led to a “push-on attitude”.
“For every operator doing the right thing, there’s a greedy operator taking advantage of willing chefs,” he says. “Chefs have sacrificed enough over the generations, it’s time for employers to change.
“48-hour work weeks at a top 50 restaurant is amazing – this should be the Australian standard.”
However, not everyone is receptive to a shorter work week – chefs included. Dan Puskas of Sydney restaurant Sixpenny tried to implement a four-day system six months ago, but failed.
“I pitched it to our staff and none of them wanted to do it,” he says. “We’re lucky here because we don’t do Sunday dinner and we close Mondays and Tuesdays so our chefs get Sunday nights off and then two week days.”
“There’s this old idea that if you want to survive in this industry, you have to work these crazy hours. Maybe it’s exaggerated but on the other hand, we couldn’t afford to be open if we worked eight hours a day. We’d need to double the chefs, our prices would go up and we’d have no customers,” says Puskas.
For Antoine Reymond, who owns Melbourne restaurants Bistro Gitane and L’Hotel Gitan, the benefits of shortened weeks are clear – it something he’s offered his chefs for almost four years.
“We’ve seen nothing but positive results,” Reymond says. “Productivity is a lot better, the team gets on better. Everyone knows how hard it is to find good chefs – they’re loving this system.”
With additional reporting by Dimitri Tricolas.