Chefs Are Working Themselves Sick on Christmas

Christmas is hardly the most wonderful time of the year for chefs, who are often compelled to work even crazier hours than usual in order to meet the demand for holiday cheer.

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Dec 15 2016, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user tuscanyevents

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2015.

In these winter evenings, Londoners are out in full force braving the chill. The stores, filled with Christmas shoppers, are open late. The streets are packed with office workers, their faces red and their bellies full, as every business in the capital descends on the bars and restaurants of the West End for their Christmas parties. Spending, drinking, and eating more than any other time of the year, most are in high spirits as they wind down with their coworkers, and reunite with family and old friends. Yet not everyone is feeling the Christmas cheer.

In a restaurant in London's fashionable East End (although it could be anywhere in the city), the reality of the holidays is very different. Throughout November, the words "Christmas is coming" were muttered under the breaths of the chefs in the back kitchen. The large restaurant, bar, and hotel is situated between the city's financial district, a trendy bar scene, and a large residential area, and does a roaring trade for most of the year. During Christmas, the numbers of people can double, and the chefs, already working regular 16-hour-shifts, struggle to manage.

'I was doing two or three grams of cocaine a day just to keep me awake. It was like I was thrown into a cage full of tigers and I just reached around for anything I could find to help.'

Thirty-three year-old JP remembers last Christmas. "I was working 48-hour shifts without a break," he says. The kitchen was heavily understaffed, and it fell on senior sous chef JP to make up the numbers. "We were doing more than ten functions a day, with up to 50 people in each one. I would work all day to get it done, and then stay in the kitchen through the night to complete the prep for the next day. Then I would start again."

As more businesses open up in London, and the expectation to provide Christmas functions for their staff grows, the pressure on chefs is increasing, and people like JP have little choice but to do whatever they can to get by. Unsurprisingly, with the huge amount of pressure put on them, and the extra Christmas money flying around restaurants, many chefs turn to substances to keep them going. "I was doing two or three grams of cocaine a day," says JP, "just to keep me awake. It was like I was thrown into a cage full of tigers and I just reached around for anything I could find to help."

For most Londoners, this kind of lifestyle is unthinkable. Decades of labour reforms should have put an end to working like this—but for many chefs it is getting worse, not better. James Thomson is a 29-year-old sous chef in Central London. "Every kitchen is understaffed," he says, "especially at Christmas. You don't want to hire chefs then. It's the busiest time of year and you won't be able to teach them their section and how to work properly while everything is going on."

During last Christmas, two separate chefs in James' kitchen broke down during service, wrapping up their knives and walking out. Others failed to turn up for work in the morning.

But it's all a part of a wider problem. "People don't want to be chefs anymore," says James. "The pay and the hours are bad; more people are dropping out than going into it." During last Christmas, two separate chefs in James' kitchen broke down during service, wrapping up their knives and walking out. Others failed to turn up for work in the morning. The rest of the team had to manage without them.

With the demand for restaurants increasing in London, and the number of cooks going decreasing, chefs are left trying to make ends meet. The problem becomes a vicious cycle. People do not want to work stressful hours and conditions, but the fact most kitchens are understaffed makes work even more unbearable, putting others off joining the trade.

There is another problem as well. "Chefs don't want to say no," says JP. "If somebody gives me something to do then I want to do it. I will get to the end of the day and say 'I was supposed to do this, and I did that and this.' It's pride."

JP worked 23 hours a day for five days in a row, before the inevitable happened.

After last Christmas, JP decided to wind down. He took a job as a head chef in West London, in what he thought would be a more relaxed position, but then things went wrong. The restaurant turned out to be a money laundering outfit. When the owner and general manager fled, JP was arrested while visiting family in his home country of Malta. He was forced to pawn his gold savings to make bail. Already sending money home to his mother, ex-wife, and daughter, JP returned to London in need of more hours.

"Last year I did it for pride," he says. "This year I need to make money."

He took a head chef position at a restaurant in Clapham but found it was not enough money, so he began working nights at his old job in the East End. "I get to work in Clapham at 8," he says. "Then, when I finish, I go straight to the other place. Then I sleep on hour and go back to Clapham." In the week leading up to this Christmas, JP worked 23 hours a day for five days in a row, before the inevitable happened.

"As I was leaving to change restaurants," he says, "I collapsed outside from exhaustion. The head chef took me to hospital and I had to take a day off." Seriously concerned for his health, the chef told JP he must only work one job for the rest of Christmas. He reluctantly agreed.

But why do chefs like JP do what they do? "I love the kitchen," he says with a smile. "When I wake up I want to be there in the kitchen. I love to cook and I love to feed people. This is where I belong." But with so many chefs willing to make the impossible happen for pride and passion, the pressure for reforming the kitchen workplace lags behind. JP would see his heart shut down before the restaurant does, and the owners know that. As long as chefs like JP continue to push themselves without complaining, they will be expected to perform under any conditions—little wonder then that so many are dropping out of the trade. For the ones who stay, Christmas will not be getting better any time soon.