I’ve heard this message twice in the past month—once at a culinary conference and again in the documentary For Grace. In the film, chef Grant Achatz discusses his professional commitment (and in turn, his expectations for his staff). He tells us that after a 12-hour shift in the restaurant he feels conflicted about whether to go home to his girlfriend or continue to work. We understand that when it comes to love, the restaurant usually wins. He tells potential employees that if they have pets they will need to find someone to care for them because they won’t have time. It’s clear from a video on Alinea’s website that 16-hour days are the norm.
I admire Achatz’s achievements but there’s a small voice inside me insisting that his practice is crazy, beyond the realm of reason. In pushing labour’s limits has he lost a sense of humanity? Is he normalizing working conditions that are socially (and legally) exploitive?
Must cooks be socially and personally deprived in order to create culturally enlightening cuisine? Why can’t a restaurant like Alinea—where the cost to dine is astonishingly high and customer demand never wanes—hire more cooks? Run a second shift? What’s the business case for this? Where does Grant Achatz draw the line?
Partners, lovers, and pets are the things that make us most human. Does doing it for love mean abandoning the ones we love? Missing weddings, funerals, and important events is a badge of honour for most cooks. But what does it say about the sanity of our culture?
The companion issue to long working hours is compensation. There’s an uncomfortable scene in For Grace that takes place on the doorstep of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago. Chef Trotter greets chef Curtis Duffy (who has plans to dine in the restaurant that evening) by ordering him explicitly to get off his property. Duffy had reaped the financial rewards from a class-action lawsuit launched by Beverly Kim, a former Trotter employee, over lost wages due to overtime work.
What’s striking is Trotter’s indignation. He clearly still feels justified in a practice that a court of law found problematic. His sense of what was right for his cooks needs correcting. I think of this abuse of labour (and power) when I hear a chef tell young cooks to do it for love. The perversity of Trotter’s indignation is clear to one writer: “Perfecting your craft is important, and in many professions you have to work your way up through the ranks. But the idea that you don't get paid a fair wage for the hours you actually worked? Maybe if you're an artist or a scholar and your work doesn't produce any revenue, that makes sense. Last time we dined at Trotters, the bill was over $1,000.”
Most restaurants these days deal with the issue of overtime by offering a flat day rate. In Toronto, rates average $140 to $150 a day. A 12-hour shift (not unusual) paid at minimum wage is roughly $143.50 ($10.25 x 8, $15.38 x 4). Because most cooks are doing it for love they don’t do the math and are unaware that they’re working for minimum wage. I sat with a cook recently with two years of culinary school training and five years of the best quality experience in Toronto restaurants. She was surprised by this bottom line. What surprised me was the indifference her employer had for her professional experience. I think of that when I hear chefs telling young cooks not to worry about the money.
Labour issues are like a simmering pot in our kitchens. It’s getting increasingly difficult for chefs to predict when it will boil over. Batali, Boulud, Puck, and Colicchio are just a few of the chefs who have met Trotter’s same fate. Chef Daniel Boulud makes it clear just how pervasive wage theft is: “If I was the only one in New York being into these things, I will be upset…but I’m not the only one.” It’s hard to tell from this statement if the offense—stealing wages and tips from employees—even registers as problematic to him.
It’s ironic that those being force-fed the rhetoric of working for passion must call to account chefs who appear to be doing it for the love of money alone. The interests of a chef or restaurateur can be at sharp odds with those of the cooks they employ.
‘Slim profit margins’ is the standard business response to these thorny matters. There’s no denying that rising costs—not the least of which is real estate—put considerable pressure on a restaurant. But something about this system works for business interests. If it didn’t, many of our most esteemed chefs and restaurateurs wouldn’t lobby governments to cap the minimum wage.
This isn’t limited to Canada. This past week restaurateurs in New York State were warning of job losses if the minimum wage were increased. It’s far easier to squash the financial ambitions of cooks than to ask customers to pay more. Imagine if such talented and esteemed members of the culinary community set their minds and experience to finding a way to adequately compensate the cooks they employ rather than investing so fiercely in the-sky-is-falling narrative.
Who determined that customers weren’t interested enough in the quality of the lives of cooks on-the-line to pay them a decent wage? In the same way we’ve had to teach customers about the value of quality products we will have to teach them that providing legal and humane working conditions may mean that meals cost more.
I don’t want young cooks coming to us without passion. But I do want them to come to the profession expecting a whole lot more. What would the business of cooking look like if we valued balanced lives? If we appropriately reimbursed cooks who contribute to a restaurant’s profits? Do we damage our profession when we expect rising talent to live on passion alone? In light of our recent history, and in the absence of any demonstrated leadership from chefs who matter reimagining the future of professional cooking will likely fall to cooks working on-the-line.
 Anthony Todd. “The Darker Side of Charlie Trotter’s.” Chicagoist. August 2012.
 Robin Kawakami. “Chef Daniel Boulud Responds to Lawsuit Over Employees’ Tips.” Speakeasy Blog. Wall Street Journal. June 17, 2014.