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.

18 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.

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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!