Line Cooking & Stress
Maybe you are looking at getting into the culinary arts field and are interested in finding out how much an average cook is paid. If you were like me, you got into cooking because you have a passion for it. So many bright-eyed green cooks entering the industry still have that unfettered enthusiasm that to this day draws out a half-twisted smile when I see one.
Living the dream, living the dream. I recall this one particular phrase because one of the cooks I used to work with would say it quite often whenever something wasn’t quite right. I knew this sarcastic saying of his was at one point something quite funny he used to say when doing some dirty or menial task like shucking oysters or prepping squid. You see, the best and most fun tasks in the kitchen were always reserved for those at the top. The creativity seemed to always be for those who had more skin in the game.
The reality is, cooking is tough. And the way reality TV likes to try emulating it with their over the top theatrics and extremely vulgar and abusive chefs can’t really come close. Sure, there’s that too but there is also the attrition that takes a hefty toll from you. And this would all be fine because this is the thing that we all signed up for. But it seems we got a little less than we anticipated.
Professional cooking teaches you two things very quickly: Time management and stress management. It does not matter if this is something you have zero experience in. Prepare to be introduced. The stress is very real and very palpable. It was something that I rather enjoyed because for me this type of stress tends to end when the kitchen finishes its last chit. But start to fear the dinner service and that’s where the damage hits hardest because that type of anxiety doesn’t end at the end of the night.
The majority of people I worked with had some sort of substance issue. Maybe it is the type of people that cooking attracts. The alcoholism and drug use in a kitchen are astronomical and higher than most workplaces I would imagine. Some places I worked in the head chef could not function properly without his substance of choice.
What most people outside of the industry don’t realize is that the stress creates these dependencies. It is the type of thing that is shared and open which builds a strong camaraderie among industry workers. It is a late night off-hours profession that lives when the regular folk doesn’t.
I admire chefs like Gordon Ramsay because he has completely dedicated himself to his career. I admire him because not only is he an amazing chef, but someone that has staved off drugs and alcohol. In the culinary arts, the demands ask of you can lead you to substance abuse very easily and very quickly. Most cooks in the culinary arts will not make it above your average line cook and this is due for a couple reasons: One, they allow themselves to become distracted and off course by the booze and the drugs. Two, they never consider it a real career until they are the wrong side of 35 and facing an existential crisis.
For those of us fortunate enough to want to be a part of this chaos, navigating the minefield can be just as tough as the job itself. I found myself constantly moving around trying to find a like-minded kitchen who were interested in honing their craft.
The average cook is paid minimum wage + $2 and the top chef position is on average $50,000 salary. This does not include the 80 hour work weeks that come along with it. The incredible amount of work that is required for a professional cook and the incredibly low pay that is dolled out. Professional cook is a trade and is the lowest paid trade alongside hairstylist. Several factors play into this. One reason is that most seasoned cooks have no desire to be officially certified or ticketed, which means that there is no baseline standard for professional cooks. The lack of importance put on this means that everyone is effectively at the same level, wage wise, and no business would pay someone something they can pay someone else to do.
Professional cooks and chefs are some of the hardest workers that I know. They sacrifice a lot and are paid very little. Until the standards change and unions form, it is doubtful that anything will change. If you are still with me and you are still interested in pursuing a career in the culinary arts – do it. It is rewarding and can teach you a lot about yourself. Know the pitfalls, have a goal and go to work every day with the intention of doing the best work you can. Just don’t expect to be paid very much.