…and like previous issues, it’s pretty awesome. This issue is billed as the Chefs/Cooks issue, so yeah, there’s interviews and conversations with, and good writing* by some pretty serious chefs. I haven’t finished most of these—the interview with the NYC lunch lady and the article on the legendary Lespinasse—are next on my list—but there are three pieces that are kind of hovering around the same issues, and are agreeing and disagreeing in ways that as a sous-chef middle-aged in body but young in this business, I’m still trying to get my head around.
While he never mentioned it in Outliers professional cooking is the perfect example of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule. Talent, inspiration, imagination, creativity and having a discerning palate are all meaningless if you don’t bother to show up early every day, work doubles, offer to stay late if they’ll show you something new, work harder, work smarter, work harder at working smarter, and generally bust your ass while getting yelled at.
If you go into the profession with your eyes open, probably having read anything written by any chef ever—because while we’ll make cooking look glamorous and sexy, we won’t actually lie and tell you they’re handing out pop-up restaurants and TV shows to every culinary school graduate—you know what you’re getting into. If you don’t, either your externship or your first job will shatter your illusions in a hurry**. Your first job will pay you ten dollars an hour, if you’re lucky. Scratch that, you’re never that lucky. You’ll be limited to 40 hours a week, so the owners won’t have to pay you overtime. Your prep work isn’t done when the day’s over? Guess who’s clocking out and staying late. Now, New York City banned shift pay years ago, but while I’m pretty sure there’s a U.S. Department of Labor rule stating that employees can’t be salaried unless they’re actually supervising other employees, I’ve never heard of that being enforced.
I’m okay with this. My first two years in the business, I earned spittle. If I didn’t have my credit rating from my previous career, I wouldn’t have gotten a manageable interest rate on my student loan (not paid off yet), and wouldn’t have been able to live partially off my credit cards (now paid off) for that time. For me, it was worth it. The skills and discipline I learned in those years was just as important as culinary school to my career. And I’m assuming that pretty much every creative field is like this: toil in either an internship or a low-paying entry position while being mentored and making contacts that make you a success later in life.
So I kind of get it when Mario Batali and David Chang lament the mandatory 40-hour work week in France, which was the capitol of restaurants*** until very recently. Chang declares it the death of fine dining. Batali claims that, “…the gastronomy in that country is going to hell.”
Ignoring the fact that the obvious cause is never the real cause, I’m not convinced that Chang and Batali aren’t romanticizing the whole thing way too hard. Dave McMillan of Montreal’s Joe Beef restaurant, has a different take on the whole thing.
I love when I hear people crying into their soup about three-star Michelin places going extinct. Why?
Those restaurants developed all these mannerisms that people think are so amazing. If I had twenty fucking kids to do a job that takes five, I’d probably demand that those idle hands work, too. I’d have all these kids doing mundane shit. Let’s take abort the walk-in at lunch and dinner every day, let’s take apart the stoves with screwdrivers after lunch and after dinner and clean them with toothbrushes.
Georges Blanc used to have four people putting grease on Genoise molds in the basement all the time. It was nonsensical. They had a guy in a room and all he did was tie chickens. That guy, he went to work and just tied chickens. That was his job.
They were just making up work. And then, ten years later, the whole Michelin systems collapsed in France when they started the 35-hour workweek and got rid of the stagiaires. So many restaurants fell apart at that time. All the restaurants had to go from the twenty-five in the kitchen to the real five they were paying.
And those kitchens didn’t make better cooks. Once in a while there’d be that kid who was the one who didn’t collapse, the hardest little worker in the anthill. A kid who’d be there at 5 in the morning and leave at 1 in the morning. If he fucked up the eel, he’d burn his arm with a pan and show it to the chef to prove he was worthy of staying on the hot line. But for every little Lance Armstrong, there were dozens of casualties. It was a system that made broken men who drank too much to cope with it. ****
So, yeah. So much for the death of fine dining. Is it too early for the wake/afterparty?
Because there’s a larger point here. Yes, France’s mandatory 35-40 hour workweek may be weakening their fine dining restaurants, but that’s not the point.
A lot of the people who work in restaurant kitchens are poor. And I don’t mean middle class/student loan/credit card debt poor. I mean, “Shit, I can’t afford a winter coat because I sent most of my paycheck back home this week. I need to put on a jean jacket and four hoodies and look for a second kitchen job,” poor. And the people who slaughter the meat and pick the vegetables that support these restaurants have it even worse. So maybe, just fucking maybe, the needs of fine dining restaurants shouldn’t determine the fair labor practices for the rest of the damn world!
I remember when France instituted the 40-hour work week, and the 60-year retirement age. Two of my friends going back to junior high—one a conservative, and one a libertarian—got all snotty about it, complaining about the “bottomless sense of entitlement” the French had. They way they were snarking, I could tell they were imagining a ridiculous caricature Frenchman, complete with the beret and the Gauloise cigarette. It shouldn’t surprise you that these two both have desk jobs, so I can forgive them for thinking that they could continue their work well into their seventies. What I can’t forgive is their basic ignorance of the fact that most of the world isn’t that privileged, not even in the socialist utopia they imagine Europe to be. A forty hour work week may seem easy for a desk-jockey. A coal miner probably disagrees.
Look, I’d be happy if there was an exception that allowed cooks—and other creatives—to follow the traditional apprenticeship path, but that’s not worth allowing employers to overwork and underpay their employees. (Like we do in the U.S.) Batali and Chang can blame the kind of labor standards that everyone in the world deserves for the death of fine dining in France, but it was already in trouble years ago. It’ll bounce back. Fine dining survived the loss of is original patrons—the crowned heads of Europe—it will survive labor laws like it survived every bump in the road between then and now. But even if it somehow doesn’t, I’m okay with that. I’d rather see fair labor practices put into place.
*In at least one case, I suspect dictation and transcription, but whatever.
**Plenty of earnest culinary school graduates don’t survive their externship. I barely did.
***Those Michelin fuckers still act like it is. Fuckers.
****Personal disclaimer: I’m not Lance Armstrong, but I’m not broken either. I have a solid work ethic, good knife skills, and a decent imagination, and I only believe this because smarter, stronger people than me have told me so.