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Starting from scratch


Oscar83
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Hello everyone,

I've just started my potentially future cooking career, and I'm seeking some insight into people's experiences when they started up.

My situation is the following:

I've been taken under the wing of a respectable chef that owns his restaurant in the city of Montpellier (Southern France). He was looking for an apprentice, a complete beginner even, to help him in his kitchen. I happened to fill that candidature as I have never been in a kitchen previous to this and my cooking knowledge is quite limited. The kitchen has the Chef himself, a sous-chef and me. The Chef cooks the "important" plates, so to speak, while the sous-chef does all the other preparations and minor plates. I do a bit of everything. Cut, peel, prepare sauces and just recently (after 2 weeks of working) I've been assigned to the desserts section so I can become self-automated (is that a word?). So I get to see a lot, also a lot of hands-on experience, but, it's also an incredible amount of hours.

We start at 9am and stop at 3.30pm (at least, some days we might close later due to customers asking for one last desert), then we begin again at 6pm and close at 11.30pm, usually. So I work at least 11 hours a day, Tuesday to Friday. Saturday we only work in the evening and Sunday noon. So it comes to at least 55 hours per week. Every time we close the kitchen we have to clean it, sous-chef and me, which means clean the cooking spaces, the plates / grills / "plaques", and the floors. Cleaning takes about 10 minutes when you know what you're doing, but it's quite intensive. So, on a double shift day, I get home around midnight or later, and I'm pretty beat, but I have to go to sleep right away because next day I wake up at 7.30.

As I said, I work at least 55 hours a week, but, in France, you only get paid 39. The rest are supplementary and not paid for. I understand starting to cook as an apprentice is a lot of hard work, but it ticks me off a bit that throughout my career I will only be getting paid up to 39, no matter how many hours I work a week. Is this the same system in the US or other countries?

Secondly, the schooling. After the first week the Chef said that I needed schooling simply because I need some general ground bases. So he looked for a school and found one which I only go to once a week. So 1 day school, 4 days work. School starts in late September, so I don't know how that will go, but does it work similarly for culinary schools in the US?

So, have people had similar experiences? Lots and lots of work at the beginning, but later as you gain more skill and experience, it becomes easier and you work less (because you are more valuable) or do you keep working the same hours? My sous-chef has the same age as me (24) and he could basically do all the cooking himself plus everything I do (he was doing it before I was there). He however, still only gets paid 39 hours. Higher rate, but still, 16 hours or more that you work for free? I know it's not all about the money but still, you need some economical motivation and you need to pay rent as well... If you're going to spend that much time working, there should be a reward to balance it, in my opinion. My sous-chef, in his free time parties like mad and I'm almost certain he takes some drug (more than just weed, ecstasy perhaps, amphetamines...). He goes to sleep real late, only gets like 4 to 5 hours of rest and works like crazy in the kitchen. I know some people just function like that and there's nothing wrong with it, but I don't want to end up the same way and I'm wondering if it's been that tough for everyone else.

So it is just me that I've happened to have started up cooking differently, by working experience first and then schooling? Can you just "study" cooking for a few years and then try get a job? Do they always go hand-in-hand, studying and cooking? Am I getting a bit exploited due to the unpaid hours, or is it normal?

I realize it's a lot of questions, and I appreciate everyone's input. Just understand that for me, it's a completely new situation, a completely different method of work (I have a BSc in Electrical Engineering and my previous jobs have been more office-work-oriented) and I have no clue how the "system" works so any views would be good :) Thank you in advance for the people that have taken the time to come this far in my lenghty post.

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Very good post. Kitchen time abuse happens everywhere if they are paying you or not. If you are just starting your cooking career, expect about what you are getting. If I added my pay and divided it by my hours I get paid about 10 bucks an hour - I am a Sous - so the stress of being blamed for everything, listening to the FoH staff complain and then the BoH complain along with all of the trials and tribulations of the industry I chalk it up to a stepping stone that will get me to the next place. I look at a lot of it as a learning experience, but time will push me on when the right time and place becomes available. I cook, wash dishes, scrub flat tops, grills, clean fryers and boards. I have earned the respect of the staff which is the most important thing to me right now and keeps me keeping on. Good luck

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For starters, your english is very good.

Pertaining the culinary school question, most are full-time schools, which they attend class 5-days a week, for x amount of hours (pending on which program).

On the payment issue, generally speaking..after 40hours you get paid Overtime..which is 1.5x your base pay. Now being paid that or not is another issue, often times it depends on where you work and whom the employer is.

The lifestyle your sous lives is quite similar to many I have worked with, primarily in NYC. Work hard, party harder, sleep less and eat sometime in between.

Seems like your kitchen/restaurant is relatively small, only 3-person staffed. 10 minute clean is quite impressive. In any case, the lifestyle you live now is not that far different in America, although economically you may be compensated a bit more.

Jim

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For France (and probably other countries in Europe), this is completely the norm. At least it was in the past. I don't know if it is the same in the bigger cities anymore. Being an apprentice is like indentured servitude. It is like you're working for free in exchange for knowledge which you can then use to get paid...eventually. When you're working in such a small restaurant, this is definitely the case.

In the United States, if you work for a big name chef, they might expect the same sort of long hours for basically no pay. Particularly if the chef came from Europe originally (i.e. Payard, Vongerichten, Kunz, etc.). Even American chefs like Thomas Keller expect this of their inexperienced cooks.

I would say that the big difference is in 'education'. In the United States, culinary school is a luxury. If more than 50% of graduates end up working in the culinary field five years after graduation, I would be completely shocked (I expect the number is much less). In Europe, it is considered more of a trade and schooling goes along with that. So, you are expected to work while you're going to school and it is very grueling. In Switzerland, I know that pastry training is something like a three year apprenticeship while attending school concurrently.

Edited by alanamoana (log)
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You are very lucky to be getting paid at all, plus only working 4 days a week!

Many would think of that as a cream position!!!!

no kidding.

In Europe ( I have been here for 25 years from America) most resto workers do 6 days a week 12 to 13 hours a day, and people look at monthly wages, not hourly per week.

When I worked as a pastry chef in America, it was in a 5 star hotel, union wages and overtime!

Think of it as saving money. you are getting paid and trained.

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Thanks for the responses all. I can see I'm not the only one so it feels better.

For those of you who are have been in the field for some years now, do you still find yourself working the same hours as the beginning or has it relaxed a bit? Is it possible to take shifts and not always have to work noons and evenings?

Edited by Oscar83 (log)
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this is a service industry. therefore, you will always work the shit shifts: nights, weekends, holidays, etc. it doesn't end, even when you get to the top. sure, if you're the boss, you can take more time off...but usually, you're there anyway to either set an example or because you can't trust anyone else to get the job done as well as you'd like.

in the united states, as a manager, you end up working more because they (anyone higher up than you) can exploit the fact that you work for a salary. regardless of how many hours you work, you're earning the same pay. they can't always get away with that with the hourly employees as there is a point where you have to pay them overtime. also, as management, it is your responsibility to have shifts covered when someone calls in sick or doesn't show up for work. if you are short staffed, then it is YOU covering shifts.

fun flies when you're doing time!

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This I suppose is the norm. I think its terrible, but its just the economics of the business. I understand the practice of exploitation though. I am a chef and I have stageries coming in every month. Some of them are completely useless and I'm just happy if they don't mess things up too much. They get their first time kitchen experience and I send them on their way after 30 days and say "good luck." The second kind of apprentices are those diamonds who can come in and make sauces, prepare vegetables and even help hold down a station in my brigade. In this case even is they are there on an unpaid externship I always make sure they revcieve a fair salary. I believe if someone is contributing to the restaurant they deserve financial compensation for their work. I have worked for free for months of my life and I have reaped the benefits of working beside very fine chefs under these circumstances, but I will never ask anyone to work for free for me. My first cook often shows up two hours before his shift and never writes the proper hours down on his sign out sheet. I've told him the restaurant doesn't owe him 12 hours of free labour a week, so I always make sure pay roll has this right hours.

I was talking to one of the finer chefs in my city awhile ago and I asked him how he was able so be so cavalier with Shaved truffles. He told me its because most of his staff is unpaid. That made me pretty angry.

So in regards to your question. Yes you are being exploited, and I don't know that there is any way around it. Just chalk it down to a character building experience.

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We start at 9am and stop at 3.30pm (at least, some days we might close later due to customers asking for one last desert), then we begin again at 6pm and close at 11.30pm, usually. So I work at least 11 hours a day, Tuesday to Friday. Saturday we only work in the evening and Sunday noon. So it comes to at least 55 hours per week. Every time we close the kitchen we have to clean it, sous-chef and me, which means clean the cooking spaces, the plates / grills / "plaques", and the floors. Cleaning takes about 10 minutes when you know what you're doing, but it's quite intensive. So, on a double shift day, I get home around midnight or later, and I'm pretty beat, but I have to go to sleep right away because next day I wake up at 7.30.

As I said, I work at least 55 hours a week, but, in France, you only get paid 39. The rest are supplementary and not paid for. I understand starting to cook as an apprentice is a lot of hard work, but it ticks me off a bit that throughout my career I will only be getting paid up to 39, no matter how many hours I work a week. Is this the same system in the US or other countries?

Secondly, the schooling. After the first week the Chef said that I needed schooling simply because I need some general ground bases. So he looked for a school and found one which I only go to once a week. So 1 day school, 4 days work. School starts in late September, so I don't know how that will go, but does it work similarly for culinary schools in the US?

55 hours a week? 4 days working, 1 day school? Sounds like a pretty good job. When I did my apprenticeship, I was working 70+ hours a week for a weekly rate (which was quite pitiful).

Even now, in what I consider a 'cushy' job, I still put in over 50 hours per week (but make alot of money).

Edited by Mikeb19 (log)
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Ditto.

If 50+ hours a week seems like exploitation, get out now before it's too late!!

I have been cooking professionally for well over a decade, and have worked my way up to sous at a great restaurant under an even better chef. My salary is good, but the workload has only gotten bigger, and will only get bigger as I move forward, as I don't want to end up at a hotel or a hospital.

Keep in mind what professional cooks consider a 'lot of money' is really not very much. Far less than an accountant would make in their first full year after school.

If you are making enough to pay all of your bills on time, be happy! This, and a job you love are more than most people have.

-- Matt.

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These kinds of hours are the norm. When my late son Philip worked in France the talk was "if you want to work 35 hours a week get a job at the post office" Long hours, heat, pressure, low pay -- you have to love it.

Jmahl

The Philip Mahl Community teaching kitchen is now open. Check it out. "Philip Mahl Memorial Kitchen" on Facebook. Website coming soon.

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Sounds like the same hours my friend works at Antica Trattoria Ballota outside Padova, Italy.

10 to 3, 6 to 11, breaking for pausa. But he works 30 minutes from home, so add another hour onto each shift for his drive home. But he loves it.

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