Is Cooking a Young Man’s Game?

Karen Stabiner of the NYTimes spins tales of injury and bodily breakdown in the kitchen.

Photo: Zura Mode

Photo: Zura Mode

Ask any cook to show you his arms and he’ll reveal a constellation of burns so thick it rivals the Milky Way, but no one’s complaining. If you’re someone whose livelihood means playing with fire, burning-hot liquids, and searing metal pans—not to mention unfathomably sharp knives, fast-spinning mixers, and mandolines—risk is something you assume along with the rest of your daily business.

A female friend of mine, who owns a French bistro in NYC’s East Village, recalls wearing a skirt to work one day. By the time the shift was over, her legs were pock-marked with burns from hot grease splatters from the deep fryer. “I didn’t think I’d be on the line that day,” she laughs, but when someone didn’t show up, she had to take over the sauté station next to the deep fryer.

Cooking also requires being on your feet for hours on end and lots of heavy lifting. In short: cooking can take a serious physical toll on those who make a career of it, as Karen Stabiner reported in Saturday’s New York Times.

Using Mark Peel, a four-decade veteran chef and owner of LA’s famed Campanile restaurant as an example, Stabiner writes:

“41 years in the kitchen have brought [Peel] considerable fame: Campanile won the James Beard award as outstanding restaurant in the United States in 2001. Those years have also brought him carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists and thoracic outlet syndrome in his shoulders, resulting from repetitive stirring, fine knife movements and heavy lifting. He has a bone spur on one foot and a cyst between toes of the other from constantly standing.”

In what other profession is it normal to work 10-16 hours a day, six or seven days a week, for years on end? What’s more, those 10-16 hours often last long into the night, and don’t include a few hours of wind-down time—often centered around many drinks—after the shift ends at midnight or 1:00 AM, and that’s not even to mention the drugs—stimulants and pain killers—that many cooks lean on to keep them going and kill the aches and pains that come when you spend 16 hours a day on your feet.

Which means cooking is often a young person’s game, Stabiner explains:

“The 16-hour days [Peel] once put in at Spago—seven days a week for seven weeks in a row—are no longer an option for him [at age] 58… He can still work like that, he says—‘just not as often, and not as long.’ Today, he says, he can survive perhaps three days of crazy hours, as long as Day 4 includes sleeping in, to recover.”

And that kind of schedule is not feasible for young cooks, who still have years to prove themselves before being allowed to step into a role that would allow them to work less than five days running. Even older chefs, once they open their own place, need to be there 12+ hours daily, to make sure everything is running up to par while it finds its footing, which can take years.

Since closing his 190-seat flagship restaurant, Peel says he tries to be home two nights a week and “Not to miss special school things, family,”, and that’s after one failed marriage and expressed regret at missing his first family’s childhood. But in most professions in a post-Don Draper-world, two nights at home for Daddy seem like a bare minimum. Perhaps Peel’s newer, smaller, 75-seat Campanile at LAX, set to open this September, will allow him to keep this new, more relaxed schedule.

Stabiner looks to Jonah Miller, a New York chef who plans to open his own place in Brooklyn this winter: “’It’s a pretty hard-and-fast rule,’ [Miller] says, that chefs eventually step away from the action; he aspires to the natural progression from cook to chef to purely a coach and a mentor.’” Indeed, many chefs, when they step to the helm, will focus on menu development, then make sure their cooks are properly versed in the preparations. During service, most executive chefs will expedite, rather than work the line, which still requires an eagle eye for everything that’s happening around them, and long hours on their feet.

And, the ability to dive into any station—salad, grill, sauté—at a moment’s notice when a cook has a meltdown, is an absolute must to maintain respect in the kitchen. Another New York chef I know, in a recent conversation, recounted with amazement, a night when an executive chef he was working under wasn’t happy with the line, kicked everyone out of the kitchen, and had them watch as he took over every station—mid ticket—until he’d pulled the kitchen from the weeds.

[via NYTimes]

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