Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chef Dies After Working 100-Hour Weeks


I’ve blogged a lot about how hard cheffing is and how much respect I’ve got for the poor souls who beaver away doing 18-hour days in Michelin restaurants, often without complaint.

During my stint as a chef, I met a lot of them. Some were so tired at the end of their shift, that not wanting to waste valuable sleeping time getting a night bus home in the six hours they had before the next gruelling shift, they would sometimes bed down on the dry store floor - and then get up with frozen joints and a cricked neck to do it all again.

But if you want an example of the dangers of working these sort of hours, then look no further than the tragic case of Nathan Laity (above), a young man from Cornwall who moved up to London to pursue his dream of making it as a top chef.

Nathan, 23, became so exhausted after working 100 hours a week as sous chef at the Tate Modern, he died after contracting tonsillitis, his distraught family said.

He came down with a sore throat but continued to work 14 hours a day - 98 hours a week - for 27 straight days without any time off, it has emerged.

He died in his sleep, and doctors say his immune system had simply shut down.

His mother Tracey, who discovered he was dead on Mother's Day, told her local paper, The Cornishman: “His body just switched off. He just went to sleep and never woke up.

“He was a lovely boy and just one trip to the doctors would have saved him. But he was ambitious.

“Nathan loved his job. He just kept going and he was working very hard. He was very stubborn about it.

“He was very talented. The head chef at the Tate said Nathan would have gone to the top.”

During his short career, Nathan worked at top restaurants in Portugal and cooked for celebrities including DJ Chris Evans and footballer Alan Shearer, joining the Tate Modern in 2008.

Nathan was buried today. The poor bugger.

:: My book on life as a chef, Down And Out In Padstow And London, is available here on Amazon...

69 comments:

Niamh said...

How very, very, sad. Heartbreaking for his family and friends. A crazy reflection on the profession.

Lennie Nash said...

So true Niamh, and it's so sad how common these sort of hours are. So much for EU working directives. RIP Nathan.

Kavey said...

Very sad.
The EU directives with their "voluntary" opt-outs, are worth less than the paper they are written on.
:(

Alan Randall said...

I feel for the family. As a chef I understand the need to be the best. As an employer, I am disgusted tht anyone could let someone work in this kind of situation. EU time directive to one side, how can you look a guy in the eye and say 27 days is okay to work straight through with those hours. This is 2010 not 1810. The employers should be ashamed. RIP chef.

Alex, G said...

Why does there seem to be no comment anywhere about the head chefs or Food & Beverage directors responsibility. saying his boy would go to the top, the chef has to have some accountability for the welfare of his or her staff, i've been a head chef at 5*/rosettes level for 5 years now and whilst Myself and my team have had some difficult times and some long arduous days, there simply no excuse to allow any of your staff to work 27 days straight. nor should there ever be a need to do that yourself unless you actually own the business.


stand up and be counted, because the family has lost a son to what appears to be managerial neglegence if these stories are indeed true

theundergroundrestaurant said...

There is also a macho culture in kitchens which probably contributed to him working even when ill. How very sad. Awful for his family.
Somebody should have intervened.

Andos said...

What about the employer's duty of care to their employee? Shocking.

This is just as bad as a worker dying in an industrial accident, and the employers should be held responsible.

Brian Campbell said...

I remember when the 'opt out' came into practice, one place practically made us sign it or leave, working 80 plus hours and being paid for 40 hours because your on salary, i can only imagine the earnings we would have if we got paid by the hours we worked, I think i would have enough to retire on by now!!

green drawers said...

So very, very sad. I can only echo the sentiments of others and say that this should not be happening in this day and age. After all, he was cooking dinner, and not re-routing brain circuits.

My heart and best wishes go out to his family and friends.

Douglas Blyde said...

TATE catering were not worthy of such dedication. Cannot believe this was allowed to happen. My God.

neil said...

I've recently been in an employment in a michelin kitchen that worked me 18 hour + days. I did get two days off a week and never really felt it too much apart from a little tiredness on my days off. And I am 33.

My job ended however when I came back of my stag do, totally unprepared for such work after such a big and unhealthy weekend of drink and alsorts. I ended up being ill during service with a stomach virus and was pretty much made to feel guilty for going home, despite being sick every five minutes whilst preparing food.

After a night spent in the bathroom and no sleep, and no food, I came back to work the next day feeling like I would be showing weakness if I stayed off any longer. That night due to dehydration and lack of essential body fluids and salts, my immune system broke down and the virus spread to my heart.
Despite my complaints that I thought i was having a heart attack nobody gave a shit. I ended up driving myself to hospital after service and spending the night in A&E where they discovered the inflamed lining of my heart. I took two days of to recover and then worked out my notice despite the hospitals warnings.

I'm pretty sure they see me as a weak person now, to be honest I don't care very much. I'm just glad I don't work there anymore.

I don't mind working my guts out for someone and I even didn't mind getting shit pay for it. But if you work you bollocks off for no money I do expect them to at least give a shit whether or not I live or die. It's at that point I draw the line, cause nothing is worth dying for. Certainly not some poncy food.

Pete said...

I remember a profile article on Claire Smyth in OFM a few years ago, basically bigging up the fact that she had only taken 1 day off sick in 13 years

"Smyth has taken one half-day off sick in her 13-year career - and that was when Ramsay himself ordered her home because she was 'looking green and throwing up'. At Bibendum, she pierced her hand with an oyster knife and had to be taken to A&E against her will, which hardly counts as a duvet day."

Quite frankly if I'm eating 3* food, I don't really want it to be prepared by someone who has been coughing all over it or bleeding because they have cut themselves badly.

It's a sad story. I bet the poor guy never got a word of thanks for his efforts either.

tomclunie said...

Hope this is a wake up call to all of us out there willing to work long hours, day after day, week after week, sick? I'll be there chef.

Some days I would feel faint half way through service and realise that I hadn't eaten a meal in 3 days! Just coffee, beer and tasting food its crazy business. I make a point of always taking breaks, the team stops cleans up breaks, eats and returns to work. Might be just for 15 mins but you return refreshed. Don't have the time? Organise yourself. Yeah we work long days but always take your days off (2 in a week)If you can't take your time off then someone is not doing their job right, if you are chef then its you. Sure you have exceptional weeks but if they start to turn in to normal weeks then vote with your feet and leave.
Shame on this young fellas supervisors THEY should know better.

gabagool said...

Having been on BOTH sides, as an line cook and an owner, as always there are two sides to every story.

The first, and most important, IS, that IF the owners were aware of this guy working open to close for all those days in a row, they SHOULD be held accountable. But, I really think the chef is more accountable since he KNEW for sure. He may have not told the owners.

An 8 hour day, basically 9 -5 is called a "half day" in the restaurant business. A forty hour week is a no no in the biz IF you wish to advance. And there is a good reason for this.....you CAN'T become great on a 40 hour week, there is just TOO MUCH TO DO, and 40 hours isn't enough.

In the USA you CANNOT LEGALLY be on a salary if you are a hands on cooking chef. Many are on salary and believe that it is legal, or are being told its legal by misleading or uninformed owners. I believe a restaurant SHOULD be able to offer salary to a chef. Its a job, like many others, that require more time as the head of a department. However, many, many owners see salary as a way of taking advantage of someone.

Cheffing is MINIMUM, MINIMUM a 60 hour a week job, so paying by the hour is not a good option for the employer. And if you want to make an hourly rate that is attractive (in my are $15/hour and above) you CAN recieve that, but you will NOT be given more than 40 hours, in order to avoid OT. So, there is the problem. If you get a nice pay rate, you get minimal hours, so most guys who are worth their salt get a second job. (I NEVER had one job while I worked for others. I ALWAYS worked 2 40 hour a week jobs, and for 3 years worked a third job part time!) This business is ONLY meant to feed the OWNER. In a few cases the head chef is also taken care of.(Im talking about cheffing at a restaurant, NOT a food service, which is a vehicle one can take and live nicely on. When you work at a restaurant YOU HAVE to think of it as getting paid to go to school. Learn and start your own.

And to be fair, kitchen help who are genuinely sick are handed a raw deal because SO MANY KITCHEN WORKERS are POS!! The vast majority of kitchen crews, IMO, never CHOOSE to work in a restaurant, they FALL into it because they are failed at EVERYTHING ELSE they have tried. Couple that with poor, poor life choices, addictions of various kind.........calling out sick is something abused big time in this business, and it ruins it for those with legitimate ailments.


Uniions are not the answer, there just isn't enough money to go around in the business. A good, earnest cook that works hard, concentrates, stays out of trouble, doesn't party all night long, plans and saves SHOULD be able to open his or her place. It may be small, but it will be HIS. And BELIEVE me, you will make MORE in 5 years of owning your own place, than you will make in 50 years working for someone els.

Anonymous said...

thank you everyone for your kind words my brother was the best and is missed so much by everyone that knew him, i only hope people learn from this that life is too short and we dont know whats round the corner so enjoy it while your here, Nathan was always looking forward and was working to hit targets never thinking that this could of ever happened and it never would have if he wasnt so tired his body just couldnt fight the infection it seems so absolutly stupid now and the worst thing is that for all of his efforts working so hard he is not here to enjoy the success that he helped to create!!!

sous chef said...

these hours are normal in top london venues. iv spent 6 years woking like this. and im only ever paid for 40 hours per week. it damages you physically and mentally. i love my job but wonder why we should have to make such sacrifices. something needs to change in this part of industry before we lose more talent.

bansko banq hoteli said...

Very nice blog. I like you writing. Well done work.

Anonymous said...

This is scary, the exact same thing also happened to me. I'm a chef in a Michelin restaurant and last December I got tonsillitis but kept going to work every day for 16 hour shifts. I was fortunate enough to get a day off after 17 days of working with a fever and sore throat. I went straight to the doctors surgery at 9am. By 10am I was in hospital, where I would remain for 6 days! I had a Quincy on my tonsils and the doctors said I was days from death as my immune system would have shut down or i would have suffocated as the Quincy in my throat got bigger and bigger. I couldn't even swallow water the day I went to the doctor.
Morale of the story is I'm changing career! The only job that should come with a death warning is one in the armed forces!

Prue said...

If he was unwell, how could he have continued working in that food environment? Such a shame.
His choice I suppose and of course it was the wrong one for him to carry on.

Seth Jemery said...

Very sad and I feel for his family! You have to know when to say no and listen to your body! There is no need to work that much all the time and if the restaraunt or company is asking that of you then you need to evaluate your carreer choice and decide is it really worth going through that?

Deborah Baraocas said...

Horrific! My hearts bleeds for his family and their loss. So unnecessary!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kavey, I agree with you on this i myself was in this position.A '27' day week, no thanks, working in a dangerous environment, knifes and hot oil and water, yet because of the nature of the business and profit margins, chefs should be on a lot higher pay.But to the young man Nathan r.i.p

Anonymous said...

Been there done that now married a farmer and thy hours are worse sometimes he works right through the night 4h with ni break no sleep is mad

jeremy jones said...

Well said
You have just mirrored what I said to my girlfriend
The industry HAS to change and demand that enough staff are supplied to ensure that staff don't need to work any more than 45 pre week

Anonymous said...

I teach chefs in a FE college and I see kids (17-19) working 40+ as well as studying on a full time course..... Some other of these restaurant owners are quite simply heartless bastards who couldn't give a toss about the welfare of others...... The best lesson I hope to teach is that you don't have to be a dick to cook good food....these irresponsible restaurateur's should be prosecuted and imprisoned - its that simple... Professional bullying.!

Stephen Doggart said...

This is a disgrace.Sooner more chefs realise that they are wasting their lives to make an other man rich the better. RIP. I feel for your kin.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to hear about this kind of culture . Frankly it's crap and misplaced macismo . Sadly it also exists in other industries too , like public transport which I am in . . .

Anonymous said...

Haha hotel is different boss go to any Michelin star I am shit breakfast chef I was in gorden restaurants I was on for 27 days 13 hr a day

jose antonio garcia said...

bravo

Jerome Bocquee said...

The hours some chefs (ie.this example) work in this industry for the food we are still trying to achieve every day is based on the way cooks and assistants worked when they were slaves to the monarchy in castles and kingdoms around the globe. While I wasn't around in the 18th and 19th century I can imagine what it would be like. I think this industry is the slowest moving industry 2nd maybe to stonemasonry.
And I agree (some) employers are much like slave drivers these days saying nothing, doing nothing, just wanting their food establishments full and profits made.
The attitude is that if you don't like it leave. SO chefs leave and find the next job the same and again and again. Alot quit completely and find other avenues for money creation.
I believe Chefs need a private union, established by chefs, written by chefs and run by chefs.
Anyway, only my opinion. I have only been cooking just over 20 yrs, did a 4 year apprenticeship, worked in every type of establishment known to mankind almost, from michelin star to mining, boats, hotels, franchises, retirement villages. The fancy food restaurant game is by far the hardest and worst conditions in general (of course there are always exceptions).

J.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid of working my but off now

Doku said...

A lot of times they wont say anything. Esp if they are understaffed. Ive been sick,numerous times and because of my jobs policy i cant take too much sick time off. Even worse when i was schedualed forsurgey and put on medication that would knock me out i was still told i had to come in. its a lack of humanity i tell you. So driven by making money and meetimg deadlines that people are easily replaced.

mathew lambert said...

This story is so said. Been a chef for 11 years I the industry need a massive overhaul this should happen to know one. As I chef u refuse to work anymore then 45 to 50 hours aweek and if anyone has anything to say I'm more then happy to stand my ground. At the end of the day it's only "US" chefs that can make the change in this unrewarding industry.

Anonymous said...

This!!

Anonymous said...

Pretty crazy experience you had...I glad ur okay and that you decided to take care of yourself.

Bharti Patel said...

RIP...........

Anonymous said...

this is why im pulling the plug on my cooking career. this isnt a career its slave labour for an industry so arrogant. any other industry there would be investigations but this just gets swept under the carpet as always

Anonymous said...

My heart goes out to his family I worked 25 years and its wreak my life I loved my job but know suffer from panic attacks and was sucidal

Unknown said...

And this is exactly why i wouldnt let myself be switched to salary . They are less inclined to work you to death if they actually have to pay you for every hour you put in

Borja said...

I work in a cruise ship already for 2 years and I work everyday during 6 months 12 hours a day. If you work this hours is because you want or need the money. You can take a rest or ask the chef for rest at least one day per week. Anyway. Very sad news...

Borja said...

I work in a cruise ship for 2 years already. And I work 12 hours a day for 6 months with no day off. If you work that much is because you want or need the money. If you want to rest the chef will give you at least 1 day off a week. Anyway. Very sad news...

michael schultz said...

so sad! I've been a professional chef for 18+ years and worked at several michelin restaurants in the US including alinea,and le bec fin but never worked my self to exhaustion for this reason. went 47 days straight when i opened my last restaurant but was well rested and nourished. now i over see 5 restaurants with 350 employees many of which work at two or more of them. i make sure to monitor everyones hours as some of these guys really need the money and will work to death. I've made many of them take mandatory days off to find out they picked up shifts at another place anyway. end of day we are all responsible for ourselves. condolences to chef's family.

Anonymous said...

This is in England, and I have been myself a Chef in London. There are no such things are "two side of the stories" over there. There are no possible ways in England to work without the owner not being aware of it, especially knowing that they usually push you harder.

Anonymous said...

My name is tony cook yes i know funny ha ha ive been a chef for 30yrs ive come across money grabing bosses in my time!!!!!! But i find this madness why o why did the head chef give him a day off!!!! He obiously knew about his lack of days off and the hours he was working i find this so disstressing for our trade i know the hours can be hell but there is know excuse for this! But then thats the thing if you work top flight restaurants you should be prepeard to put the hours in BUT TO DIE FOR YOUR JOB is in know way excepteble!!!!! My heart and soul goes out his famaily i dont know them but i will promise them this will not be brushed under the carpet! Ive alot of friends in the trade i will to try to put a stop to this madness i will be writing to the goverment on paper and e mail to explain this shocking loss of a young mans life! I hold the exe chef and the head chef entrielly responasble for this tradic loss of life! Rest in peace

Hippie Chick Bakery said...

I agree with you up to a point, but to say there is not enough money to go around in a 3* michelin restaurant is bullshit. The investors are certainly getting their moneys worth, by treating workers like slaves

archiealvin athanasius said...

RIP CHEF

archiealvin athanasius said...

RIP CHEF

archiealvin athanasius said...

RIP CHEF

archiealvin athanasius said...

RIP CHEF

Anonymous said...

I also work in the f&b industry but not in the kitchen but at the service part. However being a manager on a salary I work minimum 70 hours a week with only 1 day off and getting shit payed for it and as if that isnt enough, I feei guilty if sometimes I only work 10 hours and go home. There were times when this business was the best to get in and advance but now is nothing more than modern slavery. ..Rip

Anonymous said...

tHE HOURS ARE ALL WRONG ..Whether you are a chef or not ..don't thing you are superhuman ..youre just making your bosses rich ...get out and get a life !!!

Mal Barter said...

HR should be more proactive & there should be strict guidelines on shift length and days off... Bad management all round... Typical of the industry.

Anonymous said...

Working around food? Hope he wasn't contagious.
He made the choice to keep working.

Marino said...

I was a Chef for over a decade. I remember working 100 hour weeks. I now look back -- after going back to school and realizing all of the precious time I missed with my friends, family, loved ones, and those who have passed -- and realize it was never worth it. Sure I worked for James Beard Award winners, and cooked top-notch food, but I killed my health, lifestyle, and missed out on too much. At the end of the day, I was cooking food. This is a tragedy and an awful story. My heart goes out to his family. I know what it was like trying to make a name for yourself in your 20s.

But it's simply not worth it.

chef man said...

This is a stupid and ignorant reply a young chef has died and all you can do is talk rubbish you sound greedy and selfish

looser to winner said...

MaY nathan RIP. I agree.

Anonymous said...

We can say all we like about reducing hours in the law, but at the end of the day theres always people the owner can pay off the books who will do the hours.

Anonymous said...

there is no law to prevent modern slavery in hospitality? I never saw hotel office workers doing overtimes,.. I have worked 3 years in hotels in UK but never again, it is a spit to the faces of employees from the owners of the business, in most hotels.

vinay thapliyal said...

very sad to listen that.i m surviving same kind of work nw .i m working 16 hours start before five months to till now. i know its very dangerous for me also .i want some voice come for to change this part of working.plz stop this type of work i request to all chefs .

Anonymous said...

These are about normal hours for surgical residents in the USA. They're working on patients though, not souffle.

Anonymous said...

RIP.My son works 80 hrs/ week. He had chicken pox took sick days off

Charles Short said...

Very very sorry to hear a fellow chef has pass on. I know exactly wat happens in high profile kitchens, having spent almost 20 years doing long days, some just working through the night as it was pointless going home for 5 hours. I know chefs who have gone down the substance abuse road just to keep awake, alcohol can be a real issue to, as some guys turn to drinkin to combat the stress, this industry has never really been regulated, I am now moving out of the whole chef thing, as much as I love it, the people, the laughs, the bad time the stress, is all part of the fun, but enough is enough. it plays real havoc with relationships and most break down.
I think anyone who chose's the Chef career, really really need to think, about the ruin it can bring on your family life and social life.
The longest day I ever did was just over 27 hours, straight!!! we was having to prepare and excite a breakfast buffet for the then leaders of this country, 1997.
killed me, and even after all them hours we all still had to get dinner service ready, I am lucky as I had holiday booked, so thankfully I got some R&R.
Teachers and professional aike need to stop there moaning, they don't get enough time off!! paid enough!!! Rubbish!!!

Anonymous said...

My husband is a very talented chef who in January of this year collapsed in the kitchen while in work, we later found out that the long hours and stress had contributed to him now having a heart problem. Thankfully he has since recovered considerably but will always have issues with his heart, I feel for this poor family, and I am thankful every day I still have my husband.

Chop-s-tick said...

F&B is good and passionate industry to work for.
We all know the current man power crisis, however working long hours on special occasion is ok but not for daily to cover up short of manpower.
Cheers!!

Muhammadzubairi Abduljalil said...

Hi Barti Patel..

Anonymous said...

It is sad that so many people felt they needed to post anonymously as have I. My reason is to protect the identity of my son who works in a very high profile establishment. He sacrificed a level to work for this Chef and establishment thus taking a pay cut. His hours are roughly 16 hours a day (can be 18) but living in London he has to travel an hour each way to get to work because of the affordability of accommodation in Mayfair! Reading this article as a parent makes us worry because when do they get a chance to visit a doctor if they are sick, many London restaurants are less busy at the weekends, doctors are shut. Exhaustion is a way of life, often propped up with Cocaine, and alcohol, burn out inevitable. My son shares with two higher level Chefs both from Michelin restaurants, both hooked on booze and drug users. And what for? Chefs are high profile now at the top, how many though, how many of their lives are shattered in the process, and hearts broken because of their inability to manage. Forget India, Africa, Brazil slave labour. It happens here in London in establishments where the tasting menus are £150, and there is wine on the menu up to £10,000 a bottle! Do they need to do this to these boys/men? As a former restaurateur I say no! An hourly rate would stop it straight away with overtime paid at time and a half! My son is killing himself for less than £4 an hour by the time he works his hours versus salary out. Time to regulate it, a union is the only way forward, and the Chef/Patrons, Need to be accountable, before there are more sad deaths from slavery by those feeding the highest echelons of our society.

Anonymous said...

How long does moderation take, I posted a comment yesterday, still not up

Anonymous said...

It's rare that I bother with commenting on these things but as a chef for a very long time and this is a very sad thing but also a rare death with a few factors that brought it about. I do need to make one point everyone goes on about the chef or owners responsibility but people go into business to make a living and trust me 99% of restaurant don't make millionaires despite what TV shows you with rising food costs and increasing labour costs yet people wanting ever cheaper food; margins are tighter and people work harder as a chef if you don't want the job or the hours walk away its that simple. but we like to give people good food, service and an experience, so how about paying more for it so we can staff more accordingly?

Anonymous said...

I was a chef but switched careers due to the fact that i was so sick as being treat the way chef's are these days. Its work 84 hour+ weeks or 'there's the door' and the job in general changed me as a person. I was grumpy and just generally pissed off at life. Being a women in the industry didn't make things any easier either as you had to prove yourself as being worthy just as much as the males. I never took a sick day and there were times when the head chef would say 'okay we are short so everyone is working the next three weeks solid and if you dont like it there's always someone else waiting at the door for your job'. I never felt valued in the job, it turns you into a robot as you have to shut out every human emotion you have in order to survive. It's weird as well because the love of the cooking and the buzz of being in service hooks you to the job and you are made to feel so low about yourself that if you quit you would be useless at everything else and so would find it hard to get anything else. I truly feel for this young man because of the amount of times i didn't go seek medical advice because frankly i had no time. I hope his family stay strong together and this case may actually do the industry some good if people start to realise what chefs actually go through.