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What's Killing Young Danish Chefs?

In Denmark, chefs run a high risk of suffering from work-related illnesses. But is it long hours on the line or the fast-paced, chain-smoking lifestyle that's shearing years off of their lives? Turns out, it's a bit of both.
July 31, 2015, 10:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Tony

It's no secret that cooking professionally takes a toll on the body. Long hours in a kitchen that's hotter than hell, repetitive prep work, and sustained stress—followed by heavy after-work drinking—makes cooking one of the most high-risk jobs in Denmark, where a chef's life expectancy is six to seven years less than the national average.

According to a 2009 report from Danmarks Statistik, both male and female chefs run a much higher risk of dying from work-related illness. The report focuses on eight diseases that are linked to work. Worryingly, chefs are overrepresented in all of them.

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According to the survey, a chef is five times more likely to die from lung cancer than a farmer. Chefs are also more at risk of dying of heart and lung diseases, alcohol-induced liver diseases, and workplace accidents.

Henrik Hansen, a consultant at the United Federation of Danish Workers, claims that long hours are contributing factor for chefs who fall into this risk group, but that there are many risks in the industry.

"If there was a single answer to why chefs are dying young, we would have solved this problem a long time ago," Hansen says. "A good guess, though, is that it's the working hours. They're long and varied, so chefs don't get enough sleep or rest—especially if you're not going home straight after work, but get a few beers instead, as is common in the industry."

The carrots still need to be peeled by hand. It's not a very efficient line of business.

According to Hansen, it would go a long way if restaurants were better at planning shorter shifts, but he acknowledges that this probably isn't possible in today's restaurant industry.

"Unfortunately, that's not a popular proposition," he acknowledges. "In fact, it's so unpopular that we've never seen it in action, so we actually don't know if it would work or not."

Lung cancer is an even more complicated problem to tackle. "Historically there's been a predominance of smokers in the restaurant business, so that accounts for some of it," Hansen says. "The other reason is that chefs work in cooking fumes all day long. We can't really do anything about that."

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Victor Wågman, the chef and owner of Restaurant Bror in Copenhagen and a former sous chef at noma, is not too surprised about the numbers.

"Being a chef is hard work and I see a lot of people retiring early," says Wågman. "You're constantly subjected to an environment where you don't eat properly, you don't sleep properly. You do nothing to help your body. You work all the time, you don't exercise and you don't have time to see your friends. If you have a girlfriend, she'll probably leave you because you never see her. A lot of chefs have to quit at certain age. They simply have to change their lifestyle because it's too hard."

Like Hansen, Wågman is not exactly optimistic about changing the culture. "Being a chef is a very practical profession. Technology has changed a lot of other professions," Wågman notes. "But for a chef, things haven't changed much. The carrots still need to be peeled by hand. It's not a very efficient line of business."

Since he opened his own restaurant, Wågman has tried to change some aspects of the chef lifestyle. "I try to get the staff out of the restaurant when we close—to get them to drink in a bar instead. Chefs at top restaurants work at least 70 hours a week, so it's important that they don't spend all their time here."

"Any profession that's so labor intensive is going to be tricky to change. We're not using that many machines, so it's up to the individual to make the sauce taste right or cook the fish perfectly. It has to done by hand," Wågman says.

It's not all doom and gloom, though, as many chefs seem happy to risk their health for their work. "From an outside perspective, people look at the way we do things and think that is pretty outdated," says Wågman. "Being a chef is hard work, but that's just the way it is. Nobody is pressuring us to work these hours. We love it. It's all worth it when I talk to guests who says they loved the food. Then you forget all the long hours, all the shit you clean up, and that your bones are aching."

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on September 8, 2014.