Why do Chefs Have to Work Such Long Hours?
One of the first things every new or aspiring chef hears is how long the work days are. Chefs and cooks are notorious for working between 50 and 70 hours per week, oftentimes on weekends, evenings, and for up to 12 hours per day.
The rate of burnout is high, and many cooks suffer from physical problems that make it difficult to stay in the field for an entire lifetime.
This has long been a standard in the culinary world, and it wasn’t until recently that people began asking why.
Why, in an age when professions are regulated in how well they treat their employees and how often they are given breaks, do cooks and chefs continue to push so hard?
The “Real” Workday
The truth is that few professionals actually work 40 hours per week. Teachers grade homework and papers well into the night, often after putting in 7 hours of class time and 2 hours of coaching.
Lawyers are right up there with chefs when it comes to putting in 80 hours per week. In fact, long hours are fairly typical of anyone who makes a salary (as opposed to an hourly wage) and who isn’t part of a heavily regulated union (think carpenters, nurses, or electricians).
The main reason kitchen works stands out as particularly grueling is that almost all of that time is spent on your feet and moving at a fast pace. A lawyer who works long hours spends considerable time at a desk or even having lunch with clients. A teacher, too, can sit on the couch while grading papers.
This doesn’t make the work they do any less important or time-consuming—it simply means that chefs, by comparison, have a pretty hard route.
So why do they do it?
In many cases, the long hours worked are against the law, damaging to long-term health, and hard on families. Yet people continue to go to culinary school and strive to be the best cooks they can be.
It usually boils down to the question of passion. Just as a teacher teaches because he or she loves it, so too does a cook, spending long hours working in the kitchen because of an inherent love of food and food service.
While there are ways to avoid burnout (including managing your time, delegating where you can, taking your legally required breaks, and developing faster skills), you will probably never get down to a 40-hour work week—at least not at first.
The competition in the culinary field is tough, and most people have to prove their mettle before they can begin enjoying better positions, better pay, and, in most cases, better hours.
Read, Read and Read Some MoreOne of the best suggestions I have for anyone thinking of going to culinary school or just getting into the restaurant industry is to read everything you can get your hands on. Learn from professional chefs who have worked in the industry and those who have taught in culinary schools.
There are many great books available to get you started in your culinary education and I suggest you read as much as possible before making that big decision to make sure this is the right move for you. Below is just a sample of books you might be interested in checking out.
For a much more comprehensive list of books for aspiring culinary, baking and restaurant management students, I suggest checking out my post on books for future culinary students and chefs.
Essentially Chefs only work to A) What they agree to or B) What they can physically manage. In my early years it was nothing for me to work 70hr plus weeks with no breaks during any given shift. Back then I was still earning my stripes and eager to rise through the ranks.....and at the same time unknowingly reinforcing a rather toxic career "standard" that is not only illegal but often unjust. Thesedays I avoid the kitchens that expect you to eat, sleep and breathe work 24/7 and devote more time to my family. Now, well into my 40's, I've come to realise that my body just isn't the same as it was 25 years ago. Despite having a vast skill base the fast paced action is better left to the younger ones coming through. Many "old school" Chefs I know now take positions that employ them for their ability to run a kitchen. They still work bloody hard but the super physical stuff is better left to the younger ones. The life of a Chef is hard....don't be fooled thinking otherwise.......but in all fairness it's provided a reliable and steady income for close to 3 decades. Having said that if my son ever comes up and tells me he wants to be a Chef I'm going to do all I can to convince him otherwise.
G. Stephen Jones
Thanks Chef for your comments about being a chef. I'm sure there are many of you who feel the same way. I would love to interview you and learn more about your career if you are interested. You have a keen knowledge for the industry.
Career Chef, I'm in very much agreement with you. I have just started a new job in which I am now working 50 plus hours a week minimum. I didn't think I would have to ask that question. I work very hard and get amazing results. But I am also now in my 40's and my body makes sure I know it. But, what do I do? I have to work, I have to have a paycheck. But how long will I be able to do it? I already know I'm having trouble with the cleanliness and the methods used (i.e. flour tortillas used for enchiladas. Soggy and gross) but now how do I even approach the subject of hours? I'm guessing I'm going to have to buckle down and face the music and work. Any ideas?
The reality is chefs work along of hours because owners are cheap . Yes many will say working long hours is Industry standard but the reality is just because you're salary doesn't mean unlimited hours of work. My pay check salary says 40hr. That's what they get.
I love how it's meant to be illegal to work those hours but somehow no one will police it. Why is that?
Owners of restuarants squeezes the last juices of ceative minds no matter what. When you are abused because of your passion to cook ..it is wrong. Working 17 hour shifts per day is just wrong. So getting away with it is wrong..but hey who is watching and who cares. The money is rollong in....
It is the environmental Health Agency responsibility to 'Police' it. Someone just needs to report it. There is a dedicated 'Pay and Work Rights Help Line and Complaints' that these things can be reported on.
I’m a line Chef for a large company and I work from 15 hours a day and only get one day off to see the family. I don’t get time to eat, sleep, even look after myself or even my own family. I stopped having a personal life because of work. I don’t have the energy to clean the house let alone the kitchen on a night. They are making me do an apprenticeship because it looks good for the company and I booked a weekend off to spend time with the family but know I had to work. How on Earth am I going to be able to do college course work, look after my family/my self and work at the same time. It is stupid.
People think being a chef is a good thing but it’s not and I don’t recommend it to anyone. I’m planning to change my career soon because I’ve had enough and I would like to see my loved ones. One day.
U r in a tight situation, Chloe, and I really feel bad about it. Like u, even I got into this industry by fluke and after year's of toil, I am still struggling to find a job that pays decent and hrs are nominal. Just imagine working 16 hrs a day for opening a cruise ship. That's what these employer's do.
Esther Lowe Breakfield
I have only worked in food service a few times and then only in fast food so was not aware of such an injustice to chefs in higher end restaurants. I do have a suggestion though. Maybe the most hungry top chefs and top chef wannabes could come together and start a chain of high end restaurants not only designed around perfect food and top notch service but working conditions for all employees tailored to maximize employee and familys health and we'll being therefore increasing production and atmosphere at work which should trickle to every aspect of the business which should naturally promote the proliferation of the restaurant and increase profits. More money to the investors portfolio is what it all basicly boils down to anyway, right? Then top notch people in food service get to enjoy their talents with food and service without sacrificing family or personal health. Just an idea.
And do you really think working less hours will increase productivity ? If you work 60 hours instead of 40 and 20 of those are for free there is no way doing 40 you would improve productivity . Yes you would rest more and have a life and so maybe work harder when you have to , but the problem is companies expect you to work as hard even if you do 60 hours that’s why you gotta stop having a life cause you need to sleep to go work again . Then if you burn out and get tired and work less due to that then you will get fired and someone else will take the position and this way it’s cheaper and more productive for the owners than allowing chefs to actually have a life for a decent salary .