A Living Wage

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For 15 years I sat at a desk. Working hard was nine or ten hours a day because of a work event or donor dinner, and I would come in late the day of or the day after to make up for it. I encouraged my staff to too because, after all, our salaries were paying us only for an eight hour day.

If I needed a mental health day or had a sore throat, I used a sick day. At any given time over those 15 years, I had three to five weeks vacation, and pretty cheap, damn good health, dental and vision care. My employer paid into my retirement account.

At the time I quit my job this past January, I, personally, was making almost three times the median income for a US household.

I’m very proud of how far I got in only 15 years, and while I’d like to take all the credit for my success, I know a lot of it was luck. The luck was being born white in America into a middle class family. Examining that fact from a global perspective, I hit the life jackpot.

I say all this because for the past eight months I’ve been a tourist in this new food world I’ve entered. I have been working once a week at a restaurant making $12 an hour doing pastry. It’s the least stressful BOH (back-of-the-house) job one could have. I don’t need the money. I don’t really need the experience. But one thing I’ve learned besides how to make chocolate ganache is that it’s fucking brutal for the people who do need the money and do need the experience.

It’s summer break right now, and I’ve been working on campus on a video shot for a cooking show. Days start at 7AM and can go 10 to 12 hours. After four days, I counted up more than 40 hours worked. Ten hours per day isn’t too crazy, but standing on your feet for all that time equals exhausted. Everything on my body was achy. I had no time to exercise. I ate whatever was convenient, which usually meant crap. I gained almost five pounds in a week.

And what did I pull down for all this hard work? Maybe I’ll clear $370. That’s less than $1,500 per month take home or about $18,000 per year. Who can live on that? According to the US Census, well a bunch of people do it everyday. In fact, 35% of individuals in the US make less than $25,000 per year.

My $10-12 per hour is below average in a restaurant, but it’s not like full-time line cooks are bringing in the big money. I’ve heard more senior cooks boast about making $18 an hour average with overtime pay. I also read an article recently that put executive chef pay at individually-owned restaurants at about $80,000 per year. These chefs are people with 20-30 years of kitchen experience running multi-million dollar businesses who routinely work 12 hour days. And for 15 years I was a lazy desk job bitch!

Sure, restaurant work is considered a blue collar living, but not only are these people highly skilled (and I’d strongly argue more highly skilled than FOH (front-of-the-house) staff who are making much more than them), but they are feeding us. It reminds me of the movie Fight Club and this line: “Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on: we cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances, we guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us.”

Why don’t we ever want to pay for the things we value most, like eating? I know that’s a can of worms kind of question so I’ll leave it untouched. My point is I feel guilty for being a tourist. This is a little, fun adventure for me. It’s a life experience that I hope will take me some place in food, but it doesn’t matter if it goes nowhere. In short order I could call a head hunter and find a six-figure job again just like that.

I get to leave this behind anytime I want, but the millions of people working 10-14 hours a day in food, teaching, garbage collecting, mail delivery and/or childcare making not much more than minimum wage can’t. They are slaving away sacrificing their own health and well-being to make a better way for themselves, and for a majority of them, their families too.

This all makes me sad because I feel powerless to change it, and when I get sad I cook. This sadness reminds me of New Orleans Red Beans and Rice. When I was there a few years back, a local bar offered it for free on Mondays to locals. Even vegetarian, it’s cheap, easy and packed with protein and fiber.

GET MY NEW ORLEANS RED BEANS AND RICE RECIPE HERE.

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