Chef Life: Obsession, Endurance and a Dangerous Precedent

I’ve met a chef with so many scars up his arms from working a wood fire oven that he’s actually been asked if he’s attending self-harm help groups by a particularly unsubtle person on the tube.
— Tom Gatehouse
 michel roux at le gavroche

michel roux at le gavroche

In 2015, I worked a day at Michel Roux Jr.’s Mayfair restaurant Le Gavroche and it was the toughest kitchen I’ve ever worked in. The orders were endless, the hours were long, and the pace intense. We were always on the go and there was a huge list of things to do even before the first plates for either lunch or dinner were served.

I worked on the larder section (starters) with one other chef who had been there for a few months, and he told me that the rule at Le Gavroche for prep was to always be twenty minutes ahead of schedule.

During service, I was charged with preparing the carpaccio de filet de boeuf- a carpaccio of marinated and seared fillet of beef, horseradish pickled beets and salt beef rye bread toast – for the seasonal ‘Menu Exceptionnel’, as well as shadowing the brigade and helping where needed.

I worked from 8am to 11:30pm, a fifteen and a half hour shift, and felt a huge sense of achievement when I left for home.

Le Gavroche and Michel are both currently in the public eye for underpaying chefs and having them work overly long hours, and while their admission that some of their chefs are currently being paid less than the minimum wage is hard hitting and indefensible, they are perhaps being singled out in terms of how they approach the lifestyles of their chefs.

 le gavroche exterior

le gavroche exterior

One of the eternal bastions of the enduring Roux legacy, Le Gavroche is arguably outdated in terms of what they demand from their chefs in terms of work ethic, and their faults are echoed by the chef industry as a whole.

But this work-till-you-drop culture is largely being indulged by chefs as an entity in the industry, and it has been this way for some time, which makes the sudden outing of the conditions at one of the UK’s most famous restaurants by the chefs so shocking.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve staged in 30 different restaurants across the UK and Europe, with 13 of those restaurants holding Michelin stars. A stage is a training day that chefs use to gain experience in other kitchens, and sometimes as a precursor to being hired. Being a stagiaire is a hugely important facet of the chef profession and should never be outgrown. Stages are also unpaid.

I have worked with the likes of Pierre Gagnaire at his two star London restaurant, Sketch, and with John Williams at the newly one starred mainstay of British cuisine, The Ritz. I’ve worked completely for free, and I’ve never once felt hard done by considering the amount I’ve learnt from every chef in every restaurant.

Stages can range from one day in the kitchen to over three months and beyond, with a number of prestigious competitions offering once in a lifetime opportunities for chefs to work with the best and brightest all over the world. Outside of these competitions, accommodation is not always paid for, and neither is travel.

But chefs do it gladly and it remains a complete necessity in terms of learning and growth. However, it does provide a dangerous precedent, linking in with a larger problem as an example of the culture of payment and working hours in the chef world, something that has been brought to light by the anonymous chefs at Le Gavroche.

 the kitchen at the waterside inn

the kitchen at the waterside inn

In every one of the restaurants I’ve staged in, Michelin star or no, I’ve seen chefs work overly long hours for small salaries. Even in my part time job as a chef in a pub in South West London, I have been known to work over 50 hours in a week, with perhaps a total of three breaks.

This is the chef culture as it is today, and as it has been for almost fifty years. That coupled with the very real potential for screaming, shouting and even hands raised – all in violently high temperatures and the pressure of an entire service teetering on the edge. Messrs White and Ramsey make it fun to watch, but it’s no secret that being a chef is one of the most difficult and stressful professions around.

I’ve met a chef with so many scars up his arms from working a wood fire oven that he’s actually been asked if he’s attending self-harm help groups by a particularly unsubtle person on the tube. I’ve a friend who, so burnt out by the stress and the hours in the kitchen, that after practically ruining his life over drug use has now exiled himself to the Highlands in Scotland in a state of permanent recovery. He worked in a nothing gastropub.

I myself have been screamed at over the quality of my peeled potatoes in a 3 star and had the ends of my fingers fried over and over handling white bait at speed in a 2 star.

It’s a tough life, and it only gets tougher the higher up you climb. But chefs want to work for the best, and will do anything to make it.

 hayden groves, executive chef at baxterstorey, with the stagiaire (right)

hayden groves, executive chef at baxterstorey, with the stagiaire (right)

Along with Le Gavroche, I’ve also worked in the other Roux stronghold, The Waterside Inn, with the two restaurants holding five Michelin stars between them.

When Albert Roux and his brother, Michel Snr., first arrived in the UK in the late 60’s, setting up both aforementioned restaurants over a five year period, they were considered to be the driving force behind the new culinary wave to hit England. They were superstars within the industry and to work for them was a dream.

That dream remains as strong as ever today with both Albert and Michel’s sons, Michel Jr. and Alain respectively, at Le Gavroche and The Waterside Inn. Getting your foot in the door in either one of these two juggernauts is a real challenge. And this is where the culture of outdated working environments for chefs comes in, often willingly indulged by the chefs themselves.

The perception from those within the industry is that, to make it as a chef, you have to go above and beyond the call of duty, especially at a high ranking Michelin starred restaurant. You have to work for a pittance, you have stay after hours, you have to start early, and you have to break your back all day, every day. I could see this first hand every time I set foot in a decent kitchen.

In terms of chefs’ self-imposed work ethic, I saw this in spades in the Le Gavroche kitchen. Breaks were actually turned down so as to clean the floor one more time. Staff food was shovelled down at an incredible pace, despite a beautiful buffet of cheese, bread and different types of pasta being laid out in the staff room for them to enjoy.

It must be said that there is an inordinate amount of work that needs to be done on a daily basis to keep the standards of a Michelin starred kitchen running at top gear, but these chefs didn’t want to sit and take a break. There was an obsession there, almost a fear of falling behind, more so than anywhere else I’ve been before or since.

 plating at the ritz restaurant

plating at the ritz restaurant

There was a similar situation at The Waterside, with the chefs there literally scoffing plates of raw tomatoes down on what was meant to be their hour long lunch break before screaming back to the kitchen to continue working.

In terms of chefs’ ambivalence towards lunch breaks, I’ve seen the same at Simon Rogan’s one starred Fera at Claridge’s and at Claude Bosi’s recently closed two star restaurant, Hibiscus.

When I went to work at Hof Van Cleve in Belgium, Peter Goossens’ three star restaurant outside Ghent, I told the chefs there about the chefs in England’s apparent lack of appetite when at work. We’d all just sat down together to enjoy homemade meatloaf.

“This is the most important meal we make all day,” said one chef, and the break we had was long and fulfilling.

But no chef that I’ve met who cuts short his or her breaks has seemed actually unhappy, either with his or her lot or with their respective restaurant. It seems to be a collective culture of frenzied working, firmly tied in with what is deemed the right way to go about making it in the industry.

And no restaurant owner or chef patron is about to turn round to his work force and insist they stop working so hard and have a sit down. Not if the machine is working so smoothly and apparently without issue. Until they, one day, turn round and object.

Therefore, with the chefs busting a gut day in, day out, the respective restaurants naturally transform into businesses that can only function as normal at that velocity.

It must be a very frightening thought for a 2 star like Le Gavroche who will have to radically change the way they run on a daily basis after the recent scandal. They may have to shorten the menu, and potentially do away with some dishes altogether to fashion a better (and in some areas, more legal) working environment for their chefs.

Other restaurants may also follow suit.

I’ve asked numerous chefs from all over about the stressful working environments, and the overriding feeling was that this environment just wasn’t for some people, and that they even felt proud to be able to handle it.

One Russian chef at Tom Kerridge’s two star pub, The Hand and Flowers, told me that he had chosen a kitchen such as this because he wanted the stress, he wanted the long hours, and all because he believed it would make him a better chef.

What is clear is that chefs have to be paid properly so that the passion and determination, coupled with the intensity and ferocity of working in such a unique environment, is worth it for those willing to do anything to follow their dream. And I mean anything.

 plating at tom's kitchen, chelsea

plating at tom's kitchen, chelsea