Axing the Grind: The life of a chef is notoriously difficult, but it doesn’t have to be

By Divakar Raju

Food culture is mainstream. Cooking and baking shows are standard television fare, and for better or for worse, Instagram has become the modern pre-meal ritual. People are ambitious and want to make a name for themselves in restaurants, but the reality is, very few people will become a celebrity chef or famous influencer, even if they seek out formal training. Plenty of people who pursue cooking as a career won’t even follow through with it, and who can blame them? As it stands now, the industry doesn’t exactly promote a healthy work-life balance.

A good education in the culinary arts is an important stepping stone in the career of many aspiring chefs, but it’s costly and doesn’t fully prepare students for the long hours, low pay and high stress of working in a restaurant kitchen. The result is predictable: dropouts. The Stratford Chefs School says 10 per cent of its first-year students drop out in the first 10 weeks. The second years sees a second round of dropouts when students must work together in teams.

Still, enrolment is as high as ever. Culinary schools everywhere are turning down prospective students and placing them on wait lists. In 2016 George Brown Community College had a wait list nearing a thousand students for its pastry program alone.

In response, some organizations are creating positive environments for graduates, addressing the main causes of churn in the industry with practical solutions, enabling chefs to enjoy a job that offers a set career path with good growth prospects, flexible hours and much more. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to professional foodservice than downtown restaurants.

Buying In

Students at prominent schools like George Brown College can expect to pay nearly $20,000 in tuition for an 18-month program. Next, they enter the work force with hefty student loans and starting wages that offer little more than minimum wage, even in major cities that come with record-breaking housing costs like in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. According to the job search website Neuvoo, the average salary for an experienced cook in Canada is just under $33,000 — roughly $16.75 per hour — and it’s not unheard of for graduates to earn minimum wage or only slightly more. Those managing an OSAP loan of $20,000 and an interest rate of just six per cent will be required to fork over $260 a month of their after-tax salary towards student debt payments for nearly a decade. Facing down low pay and 10 years of repayment, dropping out starts to make a lot of sense.

This difficult-to-stomach reality is one of the many reasons why people trained in the culinary arts move on to other careers. Many move on to chef-adjacent careers in farming, product development or alternative foodservice-related industries. Despite the initial difficulty, some just skip formal education altogether.

Bill Corbett, dean of the San Francisco Cooking School, took the latter route, jumping into the kitchen in lieu of an education. Still, in a 2013 feature in Eater, he acknowledged the added difficulty of going blind. “It can be incredibly scary to walk off the street and into a kitchen. What culinary school can give you is the knowledge that will make transitioning into a professional kitchen easier: knowing to say ‘behind’ when you’re moving behind another cook, how to use and take care of a knife, and more. Spending two years working in a restaurant might put a cook ahead of a culinary school student, but it makes for a pretty difficult first year if you don’t know how to hold a knife.”

Thankfully, employers are beginning to offer fair pay, work-life balance and other benefits. For example, retirement communities like Delmanor offer scholarships to long-serving team members pursuing studies in the field of senior living. This allows people to learn through formal academic study while getting practical, on-the-job experience. Moreover, Delmanor, which is owned by Tridel, a real estate developer, offers comprehensive benefits to both part and full-time employees.

The Realities of “Yes, Chef” Culture

It’s not unheard of for chefs to clock 12 to 16-hour days in the kitchen. This can add up to 60 or even 90 hours a week on their feet, relegating their time off to sleeping and recuperating from the demands of their job. Jenny McCoy, an instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and former executive pastry chef, wrote an article for Diced outlining some of the culture struggles within the industry, particularly as the Millennial generation demands better working conditions and a departure from the “yes, chef” mentality.

“The ‘yes, chef’ mentality stems from chefs who worked their way up in gruelling environments, once called kitchen brigades,” McCoy explained. “These environments were built for efficiency and excellence: a clear hierarchy, where everyone knew their place. The culture of these kitchens tended towards a sort of masochistic martyrdom where the longer you worked, the better chef you were.”

Unfortunately, this makes work-life balance impossible, particularly for those looking to raise a family, take care of aging relatives or simply maintain a balanced social life. Research from Unilever Food Solutions found that deprivation was constant: lack of sleep, proper nutrition and recognition affects the health and overall well-being of chefs.

More companies, like Delmanor, seek to offer better support for team members. Something as simple as offering free meals for those on duty and sending out annual satisfaction surveys that help establish company priorities. Benefits for those experiencing personal issues, like grieving the loss a loved one, connect employees with counsellors and cover the cost, as well. In some parts of the foodservice industry, martyrdom is going out of fashion.

Advocates like those behind A Fair Kitchen, see the value behind committing to creating positive kitchen environments. Nearly 1,500 chefs from around the world have signed up to change the nature of the industry from the inside out and are advocating for this change. A Fair Kitchen works to provide inspiration, training and tools to enable chefs to create a supportive atmosphere that will allow staff to thrive. They even have a hashtag, #FairKitchens, to help motivate foodservice professionals everywhere.

Workers Wanted

Although there are waiting lists everywhere for culinary programs, the Canadian Tourism Research Institute and the Conference Board of Canada forecast an enormous shortage of skilled workers in the food and beverage industry that will exceed 50,000 jobs by 2025. Even with the influx of enrolments in these schools, we still aren’t going to have enough workers ready to take on positions where they’re needed.

By 2031 the youngest Boomers will turn 65. This means that by 2036, according to Stats Canada, seniors will make up roughly 23 to 25 per cent of Canada’s population. In preparation for this demographic shift, retirement home living is being built and curated to meet the food needs of discerning Boomers. Retirement facilities like Delmanor are expanding each year and promoting from within. Delmanor’s most recently opened Prince Edward community in Etobicoke had 90 per cent of staffing needs met by promoting team members within the company into these new roles. Delmanor Aurora is slated to open in 2021, providing new professional opportunities for recent culinary graduates and experienced chefs with Red Seal Certification. Those with accounting, volume, and people management skills can spread their wings.

Chefs outside of restaurants and hotels are increasingly flexing their culinary muscle, too. Today’s seniors are looking for healthy, nutritious and delicious fare. This is where recruitment of qualified culinary grads comes into play. Eric Wood, a former chef turned hospitality services recruiter, told Maclean’s, “The business is getting way more sophisticated. The calibre of the chef candidates we are being asked to find for these roles has shifted from having institutional backgrounds to being luxury-hotel trained chefs.” The same article suggests better salary options with many salaries ranging from $53,000 to $75,000 for someone running a kitchen within a retirement community, paired with a corporate environment with more modest hours than in a hotel or restaurant.

Working in a high-end hotel or restaurant kitchen or starting a business of your own aren’t the only options in the industry. The visibility of other job placements will help provide graduates with the information they need to make an informed choice on their career, and one they’ll be happy to stick with. More and more chefs are looking beyond traditional posts in favour of corporate jobs at large companies, upscale retirement communities, casinos and catering. These positions offer more traditional 40-hour work weeks, continued education and still allow them to flex their creative flair and passion for good food. Culinary schools are beginning to make students aware of these opportunities as a fruitful career path.

What We Can Do

Those working in #FairKitchens can act as mentors to those starting out in industries, setting the pace, workload and culture for the next generation of chefs. Culinary schools would do well to partner with retirement communities and other leading employment providers of graduates to help set their alumni off on the right foot. The industry is changing. Now is the time to prepare for the bigger, brighter future of foodservice, forging the culture chefs want, for everyone’s benefit.

Divakar Raju is the corporate manager of culinary services at Delmanor.