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Overworked and fragile


Chefs working up to 70 days in a row, turning to drugs

Emily Ireland

Wairarapa chefs are working weeks on end without a day off as they take the brunt of a national skills shortage.

Chefs have been on New Zealand’s Long-Term Skill Shortage list for many years, but for some Wairarapa chefs, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

A Wairarapa chef, who the Midweek has agreed to call Alex to protect his identity, shared the industry pressures he had witnessed while working in Wairarapa.

The pressure had resulted in a chef working up to 70 days in a row, while others battled major depression, and in some instances, turned to drugs to cope, he said.

“The job they do is incredibly difficult and incredibly stressful.

“Most of them do it for a couple of years, realise it’s not what they want to do, and go find something else to do.

“This is why we have this massive shortage, which is then causing people to be overworked, underpaid, and basically it brings on feelings of depression.

“This is why so many of the top chefs recently have gone down bad paths.”

He said this, referring to the recent suicide of American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.

“Cheffing is nothing like what you see on TV.

“What we do is in extreme heat, there’s pressure, and the stress of ensuring everything is of the best of our ability every time.”

Alex said most chefs did not take breaks and that an average work day was about 12 hours.

“The longest day I’ve done would be 16 hours.

“I’ve done horrific days in my career – they’re not that regular, unless you are incredibly low on chefs – in which instance you may have to do breakfast, lunch, and dinner service.

“You go home at the end of the day, get four-five hours sleep, and then you’re back into it the next day.”

In Wairarapa, Alex had witnessed some chefs turning to drugs to “deal with the pressures”.

“Those people never last in the industry because their drug habits burn them out even quicker in the end.”

He said Wairarapa chefs were “overworked, completely stressed out, and feeling under-appreciated”.

“Unfortunately, the people who are most passionate about the industry are the ones who are suffering most because they don’t want to throw the towel in.”

Alex wanted to encourage chefs whose mental health was in decline to “talk to someone about it”.

Marisa Bidois, chief executive officer of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand said mental health issues were not specific to the industry, “but working excessive hours certainly contributes to the matter”.

She said the association was working with the Mental Health Foundation to deliver resources for the industry.

“It’s not only about educating owners and managers, it’s about the whole team, but it needs to start at the top.”

The Restaurant Association helpline is a 24-hour service that members can call to get advice on legal matters.

“But this line is also much more to many of our members – it’s a place to talk through issues.

“What often starts as a call about how to handle a complaint from a diner, or questions about employment agreements, often turns into a place to talk about much more.”

Hospitality New Zealand Wellington branch president Jeremy Smith said the organisation was raising issues that affected the cheffing shortage with the Government.

“Employers and employees should work together on this issue and operate in good faith – this means ensuring any hours worked over and above those set out in an employment agreement are agreed to by both parties, that employers ensure that their staff have appropriate breaks during work, and appropriate breaks from working with some time off.”

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment labour inspectorate hospitality lead David Milne said the onus was on employers to ensure they are “prioritising their workers’ health and well-being, and part of that means ensuring staff do not work for long periods without a break”.

The Labour Inspectorate targets employers in the hospitality industry who deliberately breach employment standards through operating exploitative business models.

“It’s against the law, and gives these businesses an unfair advantage over those employers who follow the law.”

Examples of non-compliance in the hospitality sector are long hours and a lack of accurate time and wage recording, migrant workers working in contravention of their visas, payment of premiums for jobs, underpayment of the minimum wage and a lack of payment for public holidays and alternative leave.

The Labour Inspectorate encourages anyone in this situation, or who knows of people in this situation, to phone the ministry’s service centre on 0800 20 90 20 where concerns are handled in a safe environment.

Entering the cheffing workforce

Ian Drew is the senior lecturer at UCOL and Hospitality/Chef & Programme Leader.

He said the whole chef shortage issue was “quite complex”.

“There’s almost like a vicious cycle because employers want people that are trained, but they’re not giving their current staff the time to do the training.”

He knew of people who had started work washing dishes, then had moved on to making salads, and then cooking.

“You haven’t got any qualifications, but because your employer relies on you to keep the place running, you can’t go out and get the qualifications – it’s a Catch 22.”

Drew said the tertiary sector had been underfunded for years, “which could be part of the issue as well”.

“UCOL used to be funded $59m in 2004, and now the funding is $48m.

“Things are getting cut, and a lot of it relates to government policy.

“If they want people in the industry, they need to put some money towards it.

“The chefs are on the shortage list for immigration and a lot of people from overseas are coming for that.

“But I’m sure there are plenty of people here that can do the job quite efficiently and do the training.”

He said UCOL cheffing and cooking course participant numbers fluctuated, but said there was “plenty of room in Wairarapa to take more people on”.

“We have a Level 4 year-long programme that started in February.

“They started with six people and now there are five people – realistically, we could have taken 18.”

Drew said at an industry level, employers were “trying to do their best in a tough environment and that’s why sometimes they want people to work a bit extra”.

“But then it becomes a norm as well, which is problematic.”

He also said many people had a romanticised idea about the world of cheffing because of programmes like Master Chef and My Kitchen Rules.

“The reality is, it is really hard work.

“Generally, it is long hours – and they are antisocial hours because you are working at a time where everyone else is out enjoying themselves.

“Every meal that goes out has to be perfect, and you are judged on every single meal.

“Not many other jobs are judged on every single plate you put out.”

However, there were many positives working as a chef, Drew said – “if you’ve got a passion for cooking”.

“It’s a really good job for young people because it is sociable – even though your social hours are weird, you’re in a team-oriented environment.

“The skills are transferrable: you learn good communication, organisational skills, creativity, and business skills.”

For information on cheffing or cooking courses offered at UCOL, visit www.ucol.ac.nz

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