No Sick Time for Chefs

A study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine revealed that more than half of resident doctors say they come to work while sick. Is this surprising? I imagine lots of jobs function this way—where it’s nearly impossible to feel comfortable missing work. I know mine does.

While I’ve worked sick when I should have stayed home, I question why chefs and restaurant workers do it, especially when public safety could be compromised.

Germs aside, restaurant work is physical and sometimes dangerous, and workers run the risk of injury and then having to work injured as well as sick—most often with burns and cuts bandaged, covered in latex gloves. Chefs and restaurant workers also have the theatrical nature of the business to contend with—restaurants open for service regardless of somebody calling in sick. That pressure, always present, increases as workers move up the chain of command into the top positions.

In most cases, machismo and a fraternity type of team spirit play a role in the decision to work sick or injured; other times workers come in so that somebody else doesn’t have to work in their stead. Chef owners, in particular, fear restaurant disaster or chaos in their absence. And many workers cannot afford to miss work. Sick pay does not exist for the hourly worker. Likewise, in an industry filled with undocumented workers, the possibility of losing a job or a key spot in the schedule creates an environment of fear, and calling in sick is simply too risky.

Last year, at an unnamed fundraising event with unnamed guests in an unnamed location, I helped prepare and cook with some friends and fellow chefs. As the other cooks and I prepared for the party, somebody from my group cut himself just as hundreds of guests began lining up outside the door. It was a bad cut. He should have left for the emergency room immediately. He didn’t. Here is a photo of that cut. Warning it isn’t pretty. Download at your own risk.

I know it seems dumb, even juvenile to work with a cut hand. While everyone at the event pushed him to go to the hospital, in the end, we all joked with him the next day and gave him crap about how it only turned out to be six stitches. A grudging respect ran through the jokes though, and most of us probably would have been tempted to do the same stupid thing had we cut ourselves.

In the spring issue of uber-hip cooking mag Lucky Peach, chef David McMillan describes a night in the kitchen when the grease trap clogged, spreading sewage across the kitchen. According to the article, he submerged himself, head-first and shirtless, into the grease trap, and removed the clog by hand. He describes himself afterward: “I had to wash down as quick as possible, as best I could, and get back to work because the dining room’s full and that’s my f#$@ing job. You’re thinking about how nice your duck is and I’m thinking about the sh$t that’s still…in my ears.” Later he said, “The one who dives in it head first: he’s the dude. To me it’s about being on the team.”

Two things: McMillian owns and operates Joe Beef, a “hot” restaurant, and is considered to be a generally awesome chef, a “cooks cook,” revered and highly influential to young cooks and chefs. Also, as gross and unacceptable as his story is, I get it. Restaurant work is a team sport. Lots of things can and do go wrong. As a part of that team you want people around you who can and will do anything to make it right. Basically, in the kitchen emergency scenario, you’re either an asset to the team or you’re a liability.

And while this story didn’t involve an injury or sick call, it describes the self-imposed expectations for chefs and restaurant workers. Chefs feel pressure to succeed, to please customers at all costs, and not to disappoint other members of the team.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the culture changing any time soon. If anything, restaurant kitchens seem more intense than ever, as cooking becomes more popular as a career instead of a vocation, and restaurants become a bigger and bigger industry.

As a culinary instructor, I administer tests every so often. One of the questions reads:

True or False: Sickness is not a good excuse to miss work.

In the past, I might have accepted either answer.