Sunday, February 13, 2011

Jamie Oliver's 'Dream School' Backing Of 18-Hour Days For Chefs Is Modern Day Slavery


I have some sympathy with Jamie Oliver when he talks about Britain’s youngsters being work-shy, "wet" children who get their mothers to stick up for them. But what he says about the need to work 18-hour days cooking in restaurants is frankly mediaeval.

He made the comments in an interview in today’s Observer newspaper to launch yet another TV series, this one with the slightly disturbing title Jamie's Dream School, where he invites celebrities (come on, it wouldn’t be a TV programme without them) and academics to try to help 20 school drop-outs.

Oliver describes the problems of recruiting staff for his restaurants, saying he uses “bulletproof, rock-solid Polish and Lithuanians who are tough and work hard” because British youngsters no longer know the meaning of hard work.

"When you're unleashing students into an economy where there's trouble with jobs, the ones who haven't got academic verve, they need to have a basic approach to physical work. You need to be able to knock out seven 18-hour days in a row... I had that experience. By 13, I'd done 15-hour days in my dad's pub," he adds.

What utter tosh. For a start, there is a huge difference between working in a kitchen when your dad’s the owner to working for some bullying head chef you have no hold over. When will chefs stop promoting this ridiculous idea that 18-hour days in kitchens are acceptable? And it is even harder to stomach when it comes from a celebrity chef who doesn’t actually work in his own kitchens, but instead throws himself in front of every passing TV camera, while getting paid a fortune to promote supermarket products.

It reminds me of when I had an interview for the position of commis chef at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship Royal Hospital Road restaurant in London. I went along to Ramsay’s headquarters near Victoria, and was given some forms while I waited for the human resources manager. They took a photocopy of my passport, and eventually the HR woman arrived. She was short and tough-looking, and immediately made me feel ill at ease.

“You know the chefs work 18 hours a day here?” she said almost immediately.

I shrugged and pretended to let the news flush over me. I said that in the run-up to Christmas I’d done a few 18-hour days.

“Well, it’s 18 hours EVERY day here,” she said, studying my reaction.

She told me to think about it and said they were looking for staff at the Boxwood CafĂ© in Belgravia as well as Royal Hospital Road. I wasn’t in the least bit surprised. Then she phoned the kitchen and said I could do a trial on the Saturday. I shook her hand and walked out. We hadn’t even talked about money.

By the time I’d reached the front door, I’d made my decision. Even at 18 – the generation Oliver hopes to put right in his slightly Orwellian ‘dream academy’ - the hours would have killed me. I’d have to start work at 8am and finish at 2am. In the six hours between shifts, I’d have to get a night bus home, sleep, wash, feed myself, and then get back into work. I’d probably be lucky to get three hours sleep before I had to do it all again.

I knew I wouldn’t even last a day so I emailed Ramsay’s office and cancelled the trial. It wasn’t that I am work-shy, it’s just that I have a brain, and it seems far too much like modern day slavery to me.

Indeed, it is about time restaurants started looking after their staff better, and worrying about their health. We only have to remember the tragic case of Nathan Laity, who moved up to London from Cornwall 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. 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.

He died in his sleep, and doctors say his immune system had simply shut down. Is this really the sort of future for Britain’s youth Oliver is proposing?

It’s true there are many work-shy youngsters out there, but 18-hour days are not the way forward. And giving youngsters the idea that by working them they will one day be as rich as Oliver is appalling. The huge majority will simply get burned out and spat out by the restaurant industry, and be on the scrap heap by 30.

32 comments:

AussieFoodie said...

Oh so true...it wa sthe one thing that put me off wanting to be a chef when I was younger - long long days with no respite.

I love food, but I want to have the energy left at the end of the day to eat the stuff!

Lennie Nash said...

Couldn't agree more. It was those hours that put me off the whole idea of Michelin cooking. It really is a mug's game. So many other ways to follow a passion for food.

Lennie

@NorthernSnippet said...

(Via Twitter)

My sentiments exactly. Wouldn't do the 18hr shifts for anyone else. The fact that Eastern block workers are willing to doesn't help.

Also lots of British workers only aspire to working part-time so there is an element of truth in his sweeping generalisation.

Although I don't agree with the 18 hr day being acceptable. Seems this is the only industry where it's accepted ESP in high places.

TheLittleChef said...

(Via Twitter)

Superb piece.

Some places seem to run a bit like the SAS; outside standard (and legal) practices. Only I worked those hours chez moi.

Lennie Nash said...

Nice one Little Chef. SAS mention is so apt. Some think unless you crawl on your hands and knees across Dartmoor you're not a proper chef.

All best,

Lennie

@zoeadjey said...

(Via Twitter)

Great piece, there is no reason for working an 18 hour day other than an inabliity to retain staff.

@MarkLewis32 said...

(Via Twitter)

Thought provoking!

Lennie Nash said...

Thanks Mark. I'd love to watch a TV programme where Jamie Oliver works 18-hour days for £13k a year!

Lennie

@MarkLewis32 said...

(Via Twitter)

"Jamie's Celebrity Split Shift"?

@nicorilla said...

(Via Twitter)

Spot on!

@OkBayBach said...

(Via Twitter)

WTF? So we treat chickens/fish humanely, but not chefs?

tourismmonkey said...

I know this feeling only too well but from the front of house side.

I managed a restaurant for 8 years, pulling 16 hour shifts, 6 days a week.

What did I get for this dedication? Nothing. Ridiculous pay, no benefits, my wife left me and ZERO social life.

I left to do the same thing somewhere else that was further down the scale in reputation for less pay, more benefits and most importantly less hours. I feel infinitely better now.

Clare said...

Completely agree. 18 hour shifts, in any industry, at any level, is inhumane and simply wrong. Surely in such a dangerous environment, the kitchen, it's essential to have wide awake staff who are on the ball.

As for Jamie's dream school. Jaysus! He needs to stick at what he's good at - cooking - nothing else. And I agree working for your father in a pub is entirely different to working for a c*ck in a top scale restaurant. This guy is so full of himself though!

Da Local Chef said...

Real simple. If you don't like this idea of a workplace, don't go into the chef business. It is what it is.

I've been cooking professionally for over 25 years, and have done more 18 hour days than I'd like to count. But I don't critique lawyers, doctors or ditch diggers for their workplace issues, so butt out of the kitchen unles you've got the stones to work there!

Lennie Nash said...

Hi there Tourismmonkey,

Thanks for your interesting comments. I've heard of a lot of people leaving high-class restaurants and becoming infinitely happier in a simpler place.

There's definitely a work-home balance that you need to get right. Glad it's much better for you now.

Lennie

Lennie Nash said...

Hello Clare,

Too true. When your dad's the boss life in a kitchen can be pretty sweet I imagine!

All best

Lennie

Lennie Nash said...

Dear 'Da' Local Chef,

I'm glad there's someone who seems to support these hours. It would be a pretty boring world if everyone agreed.

But when you say you've worked more 18-hour days "than I'd like to count" perhaps you're not that in favour of them. You're right cheffing is what it is - long hours, hard work, and crap pay.

But there's long hours and long hours. Six hours off between shifts! Come on. Why sleep at all?

All best

Lennie

@bailed said...

(Via Twitter)

Perhaps his next book is Meals in 1,080 minutes...

@PanCanCooks said...

Nailed it!

@SimonMajumdar said...

(Via Twitter)

Only a cretin would promote indentured servitude. I wonder if he also believes all young chefs would benefit from being bullied?

Lennie Nash said...

Hi there Simon,

Absolutely! Presumably he also thinks brandings and terrifying initiation ceremonies are also character building.

All best

Lennie

Lennie Nash said...

Hi Simon,

That really would be a pukka torture device. Waterboarding and white noise. Pah!

Lennie

@MannyAugello said...

(Via Twitter)

Agreed, it is not. But this is the life we chose and we're damn happy with it. The chef is not a victim to the lifestyle.

Lennie Nash said...

You get some great stuff through Twitter. Much obliged to Simon Majumdar for the following...

A great piece that just about sums up Jamie Oliver: http://jamiegohome.wordpress.com/category/jaccuse-jamie-oliver-mbe/

And Oliver not following his true calling:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6tihk3VmYY

europeanchef said...

what hapen to the 40 hour a week a lots a folks work very hard for that to happen. I been in the food business for 35 years and this is ridiculous, lets boicot there tv bologne

Garlic Confit said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIwrV5e6fMY

It is the way he 'saves lives' (his words not mine!) that make me think about working 18hr days.

Lennie Nash said...

Dear European Chef,

Sadly those sort of sensible hours seem to side-skirt the catering industry completely.

Lennie

Lennie Nash said...

Dear Garlic Confit (one of my favourite recipes by the way),

The link appears to be broken on that YouTube clip. Can't believe he said that - Saint Jamie certainly doesn't lack confidence does he. Touch more humility wouldn't go amiss.

All best,

Lennie

@Chef1 said...

(Via Twitter)

Hmm great piece, what a great shame that someone with Jamie's media profile uses comments that will drag our industry backwards.

Garlic Confit said...

http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/765

Lennie try this one.

Anonymous said...

what worries me most is his original line-up : Coleen as Home Economics teacher? Lord save us all
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzs6qUXtKVQ

Anonymous said...

Just finished working an 18 hour slavery shift job. No food or breaks given, these were seen as a weakness. Only after chefs started leaving and complaining that prisoners got treated better, did they allow breaks.

After 12 hours, I would glaze over for an hour whilst chopping and then be back to normal. I was averaging 3-4 hours of sleep a night and felt like a zombie. After looking at the state of the chefs who had done it for years (messed up feet, stress rashes, etc) I decided to leave.