For 15 years I sat at a desk in an office. Working hard was nine or ten hours a day because of a work event or 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 employers paid into my retirement account.
At the time I quit my job this past January (2014), I, personally, was making almost three times the median income for a US household.
I’m very proud of how far I got in 15 years. Working in the nonprofit sector, I wasn’t making as much as I could if I was working at a for-profit company, but within my chosen field, I felt accomplished financially and intellectually. While I’d like to take all the credit for my successes, I know a lot of it was luck – starting with 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 culinary world I’ve chosen to travel to and explore. 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 have a prep list of things that need to get done during my shift, but I’m not working on the hot line smashed in with the other cooks crazily trying to fulfill orders for a room of hungry diners. I actually don’t think I could survive one hour on the line, which is exactly why I chose pastry even though I have little to no experience or interest in making desserts.
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 shoot 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(er) 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 $12 per hour pastry job is below average in a restaurant (perhaps because the head chef who hired me knew he’d be fixing a lot of shit I would fuck up), 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 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 6-7 days per week. I immediately felt like I had been such a slag all my prior work years with my cushy desk job, health insurance and benefits. I also immediately recognized I was a lucky one.
Sure, restaurant work is considered a blue collar living, but you could never say these positions were for unskilled or low skilled workers. Not only are these people highly trained (and I’d strongly argue more highly skilled than FOH (front-of-the-house) staff who are making much more money than them), but they are feeding us. This immediately reminds me of one of my top five favorite movies, Fight Club, and this line delivered by Brad Pitt:
“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? 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 or wine, 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.
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 sometimes just scrape by with the hopes of making a better way for themselves, and for a majority of them, their families too.
This isn’t some revolutionary notion I’ve just uncovered. We all know these sobering facts, but for a short time I have the privilege to work next to these people everyday – to learn, to appreciate, to really see what it is to work so hard for so little pay and to, in some cases, not have many other options for work.