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weinoo

Chefs - As Tough As Elite Athletes

42 posts in this topic

A few days ago, the Times ran an interesting piece about chefs and the toll that a lifetime of cooking takes on one's body. And while that lifetime might indeed be longer than that of, say, a pro football player, you definitely don't see 60-year olds working the line in many places.

The article focuses on Mark Peel, a well-known L.A. chef/restaurateur, who worked in many a great restaurant over his 41 years in the business. The downside:

Those 41 years in the kitchen have brought him considerable fame: Campanile won the James Beard award as outstanding restaurant in the United States in 2001. They have also brought him carpal tunnel syndromein both wrists and thoracic outlet syndrome in his shoulders, resulting from repetitive stirring, fine knife movements and heavy lifting. He has a bone spur on one foot and a cyst between toes of the other from constantly standing. He has had three hernia operations and lives with a chronically sore back.

And:

A chef’s early years are arduous, devoted to working the line — cooking some portion of what lands on the plate, shift after shift. In cities like New York and Los Angeles, where high rents and demanding diners require a chef to “maximize every minute of the day,” according to Mr. Davis, it is even harder.

“Cooking on the line is a sport,” says Mr. Miller, who played basketball and baseball in high school. “It’s regimented and it’s continuous. You’re always pushing, just like an athlete: the highest quality you can manage in a specific time frame, doing it again and again.”

So - I'm wondering if the chefs here agree or disagree. And how far along into your cooking careers are you if you're a chef? Has the thought of being unable to get out of bed in your golden years entered your mind?


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Elite athletes? That must be on a sliding scale. Most manual labor jobs will take a toll on one's body over time.

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Cooking on the line is not a sport.

You bet on sports.

Nobody in their right mind bets on a line cook.

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Elite athletes? That must be on a sliding scale. Most manual labor jobs will take a toll on one's body over time.

I was thinking the same thing....try being a roofer, mason, or framing carpenter in a hot climate. Bricks and boards weigh a helluva lot more than kitchen implements. And I'd rank bakers as more badass, physically speaking, than line cooks: flour is heavy, bread shaping is relentlessly repetitive, and it's all done at seriously antisocial hours.

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Before I started cooking for a living, I worked a very physically demanding outdoor job. If I compared the two, I'd say the old job left me more tired, cooking leaves me more drained. At the end of the day with my old job, my muscles were tired (like after a really good extended training session). At the end of a really busy day now, it's like the energy has been sucked out of me. My muscles aren't saying "okay, that's all we're going to do", it's as much (or more) a mental draining as physical. I can grab my road bike and go for a 20 - 30 km ride and it clears my head and actually kinda energizes me. I wouldn't say either job brings/brought about the conditioning of an elite athlete but I'd say my old job definitely came closer. Although, with the cooking, I have wondered If all that hunching over the plates might be helping me develop a fine Quasimodo physique...


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Elite athletes? I'm gonna say no, primarily because athletes get paid ridiculous money to entertain people, and Chefs don't, no matter how entertaining they may be! Physically, I'll agree to some similarities, especially in the areas of endurance, damage resistance, and complete awareness, but in the end, I'll simply say that Chefs are not athletes, so much as a different species of human altogether...


I'm a lifelong professional chef. If that doesn't explain some of my mental and emotional quirks, maybe you should see a doctor, and have some of yours examined...

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I'm with HungryC - the bakers, particularly the artisans who mass and knead everything by hand (no machines), are probably more athletic than the chefs..... Higher weight (both flour and dough are ridiculously heavy), more reps, in a higher heat environment, and at much more antisocial hours. Add to that that the final product is sold for far less than what comes out of a chef's kitchen....

It's not so much athletics, though. Line cookery/cheffery and bakery are endurance sports, to be sure, and while a day of playing football (soccer to those of you north of Mexico) is physically exhausting, a day on the line or in the bakery making bread is, while equally physical, also intellectually taxing. Tri2 - I've also had physically demanding outdoor jobs (roadie, anyone?) but bakery is a more complete sort of exhaustion than road crewing ever brought me. Although in the bakery I don't seem to accumulate the interesting sorts of bruises I got as a roadie....


Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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I have a fantastic assortment of scars from burning my hands and arms, though Pana.

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Tri2 - I've also had physically demanding outdoor jobs (roadie, anyone?) but bakery is a more complete sort of exhaustion than road crewing ever brought me.

The physically demanding outdoor work I did was also very dangerous work. Powerline right-of-way construction and maintenance. Operating chainsaws in dense brush, trees falling, industrial brush chippers, climbing into trees and operating saws while suspended from a rope, pulling tree growth by hand from live powerlines. Things of that nature. And once I'd worked my way up to a foreman position, I had all that plus worrying about the guys on my crew while they were doing those things. So it was physically and mentally demanding but (once I was used to it) it still wasn't as overall exhausting as some busy days in the kitchen can be. I think the repetitiveness of the kitchen can get into the head and become part of the equation. And I agree the kitchen isn't really like athletics. I used to ride motocross, I was heavily into whitewater kayaking until I moved to a place where it's not really an option, I went through a triathlon phase, I mountain bike and road bike now. All of those things tire me more physically than the kitchen does... but they refresh me mentally. But I'm not, and have never been, an elite athlete so I don't really know what that does to my body or mind.


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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I have a fantastic assortment of scars from burning my hands and arms, though Pana.

Me too!

Tri2 - that's exactly the point I was making. Roadie work is also extremely dangerous, particularly the portion I did which was rigging and electrics for lights and large sound instruments. That's high in the air in a 3-point harness (rarely a 6-point), working with things that weigh a minimum of 50 lbs each (6-par truss) and normally over 200 lbs each (moving head robotic lights, some haze effects, the speakers) and raw 220 current. After a couple of years, I was also a crew head, which is the same creature as a foreman. Exhausting and stressful as this all was, a full day in the bakery takes a far worse toll on my body and my mind.


Edited by Panaderia Canadiense (log)

Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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Tri2 - that's exactly the point I was making.

Yep, I understood. We're saying pretty much the same thing. I was reinforcing, not arguing. :smile:


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Just do not think to include Charlie Trotter in this discussion!

http://wgntv.com/2013/08/29/parents-students-accuse-famous-chicago-chef-of-odd-behavior-shutting-down-art-show/

We never really know how the mighty fall, but Trotter has been sued for selling a phony magnum of 1945 Romanee-Conti for $50,000 and his days as a famous chef may now be behind him...


Edited by Bill Klapp (log)

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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There could be something to this. There are some chefs who keep themselves in top physical shape, perhaps due to the demands of their jobs and perhaps due in part to the fact that the job, unlike most, involves caloric intake. (As I recall, Gilbert Le Coze, the original chef of Le Bernardin, died while working out, and made a point of keeping himself in shape.). On the dark side, there are biographies and other books covering famous chefs and their kitchens that reflect that performance-enhancing drugs (notably cocaine) are part of that often high-stress environment. (Chefs reading this: I point the finger only at the guilty, not at the noble profession, so please take no offense. I simply find that aspect of the sports analogy interesting, and I think that drugs are found in professional kitchens for reasons that must go beyond purely recreational use. And what I know of the guilty comes through their autobiographies in a few cases.)


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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I think the title of this thread is a little misleading. It seems to me that the author of the NY Times article was not trying to argue that chefs are as tough as elite athletes or have the same level of conditioning or fitness. The basis for the comparison is that they are both physically demanding professions that can only be worked at for a limited number of years before wear and tear on the body takes its toll. As Annabelle and Celeste pointed out, this is true for any number of manual labor professions. A good buddy of mine is an arborist on the cusp of 50. His Dr. just told him that he'll need to stop working pronto because of the nerve damage in his hands and arms.

I think there are a number of things about restaurant work though that do make its physical challenges different than other manual labor jobs. I grew up in the restaurant business and cooked professionally for close to 20 years before switching careers. Physical issues were definitely factors that spurred my career change. The hours are the first thing that springs to mind. 10-12 hour shifts (frequently more) were the norm in the kitchens I worked in. 60+ hour weeks are common in the industry. Working 6 days a week, or many days in a row without a day off are also common. I have many friends in the building trades and the vast majority of them work 40 hour weeks. The only time any of these guys work 6 days a week is if they choose to pick up a side job on the weekend. None of them have ever worked 10, 12, 14 days in a row without a day off.

You are generally also spending the entirety of your kitchen shift on your feet, often on a hard tile or concrete floor: not all kitchens provide mats for employees to stand on. Unlike my contractor buddies, kitchen workers generally do not get to sit and take a 1/2 hour lunch break mid shift. Ditto morning and afternoon breaks. Additionally, and this is especially true for line cooks, all of this standing is done in one place. You might need to go to the walk-in or dry storage, but generally you're stuck at your station with little chance to move around other than bending to reach into a low boy and twisting between the range and the pass.

Lifting heavy things is also a daily part of the job. The comparison between cooks and bakers was made upthread. Yes, flour comes in 50lb bags, but so do potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, cabbages, etc. Meat comes in 80lb cases. I worked my way through college and my first year of graduate school in a high volume barbecue restaurant. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday mornings I'd prep 3 cases of pork butt, 4 cases of ribs, 4 cases of brisket and 100 chickens. That's nearly 1,000 lbs of meat that I'd move (by myself) from the walk-in to the kitchen and finally into the pits. The frenetic pace of restaurant work also causes cooks to try to minimize trips, so carrying big loads is the norm. I can't count how many times I have seen line cooks pile a sheet tray with full 1/6 pans of mise en place and hustle it into the walk-in.

Along with the heavy lifting comes constant fine-motor repetitive motions. Celeste made the point that kitchen implements aren't heavy. That's true, but while a pair of tongs may only weigh 6 oz. or so, squeezing them 100s of times a day every day for years on end is a perfect recipe for repetitive motion injuries. Same thing with knife work, or shaping bread and pastry. These tasks may not require brute force, but the constant repetition of specific movements can cause serious and painful injury. I suffered bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome that thankfully improved once I stopped cooking professionally.

To answer your questions Mitch, yes I absolutely agree with the author's premise that cooks have a finite number of years in which they will be physically able to do the job. As I mentioned above, I cooked professionally for a hair under 20 years. To heck with the golden years, it was the thought of not being able to get out of bed in my late 40s that motivated me to get out of the kitchen!

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Good points about fine motor control and standing....two hazards common in hair styling, which also comes with the added relentless chemical exposure of salon work.

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To answer your questions Mitch, yes I absolutely agree with the author's premise that cooks have a finite number of years in which they will be physically able to do the job. As I mentioned above, I cooked professionally for a hair under 20 years. To heck with the golden years, it was the thought of not being able to get out of bed in my late 40s that motivated me to get out of the kitchen!

LOL. Very well put, and indeed the point I was hoping to get across. I am certainly not demeaning or dismissing other back-breaking professions.

But this topic and the OP was about chefs and that's what I was focusing on. Glad you got out and I have no idea what I was thinking going to cooking school at 40!

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Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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.... Yes, flour comes in 50lb bags, but so do potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, cabbages, etc. ....

Those are the small bags of flour. For bakeries, you're talking 100lb bags. Yeast comes in 25-50 lb sacks.


Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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.... Yes, flour comes in 50lb bags, but so do potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, cabbages, etc. ....

Those are the small bags of flour. For bakeries, you're talking 100lb bags. Yeast comes in 25-50 lb sacks.

Some bakeries sure, but certainly not all. A good-sized bakery that I used to do business with (they make 1000 dozen bagels per day) buys flour exclusively in 50lb sacks because that's the only way the mill packages it. This is a trivial point though, and frankly a tad pedantic. I was simply making the point that if you work in the food business, be you a line cook, baker, bartender or dishwasher, you are lifitng heavy things every day. I have no interest in arguing who works hardest or whose job requires supreme physical effort. We'd need to look outside of restaurants and bakeries if we want to argue those points.

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I have no interest in arguing who works hardest or whose job requires supreme physical effort. We'd need to look outside of restaurants and bakeries if we want to argue those points.

Agreed. That's why I thought the premise of the article was a bit silly. Every job takes some sort of toll on the body. If a person were paid to sit in a chair and do nothing for 8 or more hours/day, that would take a toll on the body. The kitchen is hard work but it's not doing anything special for conditioning in and of itself... there are a lot of fat, out-of-shape cooks out there doing just fine in their kitchens. I spend 6 days/week in the kitchen and, without all of the biking and watching what I eat that I do, I'd be one of them.


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Feel free to call me out on this one, but half of the reason that I love being a chef, is the almost superhuman endurance that you fully EARN while doing it. I'll give you the repetitive stress injuries, I'll give you the unhealthy addictions aspect of it. I'll also state that being in this business for almost 20 years, you learn to ignore the pain, under almost any circumstances. I've lost focus, and splashed screaming hot grease all the way up my forearm, and simply gone on to finish the task. I slipped and fell just the other day, not spilling a drop from the 200 pan I was carrying, I just got up, and continued to my buffet line. I don't claim to be any better a chef than any of you, but I don't think that anyone has yet mentioned the few redeeming attributes that this job can teach you...

Its a hard-knock life that people like myself live, but I don't think any of us would trade it for anything...


I'm a lifelong professional chef. If that doesn't explain some of my mental and emotional quirks, maybe you should see a doctor, and have some of yours examined...

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I am by no means a professional chef. In the kitchen, I am an enthusiastic but inept amateur although friends praise my internationally famous duckburgers. They are probably after my money. They will be sorely disappointed!

The hardest paid work I ever did in my life was to stand in front of group of bewildered university freshmen and attempt to convince them grammar was interesting. That is stress.

I am now more of a professional eater, seeking out and documenting the cuisine of a relatively obscure ethnic minority in China. Unfortunately, they tend to live up mountains and I'm not getting any younger.

But I did have one utterly bizarre experience of a commercial kitchen a few years back. My one and only service. Since then, I have had utter respect for the people who do this day after day for years on end. One night nearly killed me!

That said, three of my siblings are in catering. My younger brother is head chef in a hotel restaurant in New York. He is the skinniest 40 + year old chef you are likely to meet - strong as they come. My sister runs a riverside pub/restaurant in London. She probably wouldn't describe herself as a chef but she does all the cooking. Has done for 20 years. She is very unhealthy and has an alcohol problem, but keeps going.. My other brother has a string of restaurants in Spain. He never cooks. He can't. He employs people to do that. But he works extremely hard for long hours. He recently suffered a mild stroke (he is only 58).

I'm not really sure what I am driving at other than that you can't generalize.


Edited by liuzhou (log)

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Feel free to call me out on this one, but half of the reason that I love being a chef, is the almost superhuman endurance that you fully EARN while doing it. I'll give you the repetitive stress injuries, I'll give you the unhealthy addictions aspect of it. I'll also state that being in this business for almost 20 years, you learn to ignore the pain, under almost any circumstances. I've lost focus, and splashed screaming hot grease all the way up my forearm, and simply gone on to finish the task. I slipped and fell just the other day, not spilling a drop from the 200 pan I was carrying, I just got up, and continued to my buffet line. I don't claim to be any better a chef than any of you, but I don't think that anyone has yet mentioned the few redeeming attributes that this job can teach you...

Its a hard-knock life that people like myself live, but I don't think any of us would trade it for anything...

I certainly wouldn't - the point I made about the flour sacks notwithstanding, bakery has given me incredible endurance, intense heat resistance (especially in the arms), interesting scars, and the upper body strength of a man twice my size. Unfortunately, it means I look kind of funny in formal wear, but on the upside nowadays when I attend a wedding I'm in my dress whites anyhow and the big shoulders just fill those out nicely. :raz:

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Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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Feel free to call me out on this one, but half of the reason that I love being a chef, is the almost superhuman endurance that you fully EARN while doing it. I'll give you the repetitive stress injuries, I'll give you the unhealthy addictions aspect of it. I'll also state that being in this business for almost 20 years, you learn to ignore the pain, under almost any circumstances. I've lost focus, and splashed screaming hot grease all the way up my forearm, and simply gone on to finish the task. I slipped and fell just the other day, not spilling a drop from the 200 pan I was carrying, I just got up, and continued to my buffet line. I don't claim to be any better a chef than any of you, but I don't think that anyone has yet mentioned the few redeeming attributes that this job can teach you...

Its a hard-knock life that people like myself live, but I don't think any of us would trade it for anything...

I certainly wouldn't - the point I made about the flour sacks notwithstanding, bakery has given me incredible endurance, intense heat resistance (especially in the arms), interesting scars, and the upper body strength of a man twice my size. Unfortunately, it means I look kind of funny in formal wear, but on the upside nowadays when I attend a wedding I'm in my dress whites anyhow and the big shoulders just fill those out nicely. :raz:

I'll give you that one too! I haven't been able to find a long-sleeve shirt, other than a chef jacket, which will fit my shoulders, and my arms too. I also prefer my good egyptian jacket, for almost every formal occasion. What a life we live, Panaderia!

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I'm a lifelong professional chef. If that doesn't explain some of my mental and emotional quirks, maybe you should see a doctor, and have some of yours examined...

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Feel free to call me out on this one, but half of the reason that I love being a chef, is the almost superhuman endurance that you fully EARN while doing it. I'll give you the repetitive stress injuries, I'll give you the unhealthy addictions aspect of it. I'll also state that being in this business for almost 20 years, you learn to ignore the pain, under almost any circumstances. I've lost focus, and splashed screaming hot grease all the way up my forearm, and simply gone on to finish the task. I slipped and fell just the other day, not spilling a drop from the 200 pan I was carrying, I just got up, and continued to my buffet line. I don't claim to be any better a chef than any of you, but I don't think that anyone has yet mentioned the few redeeming attributes that this job can teach you...

Its a hard-knock life that people like myself live, but I don't think any of us would trade it for anything...

I certainly wouldn't - the point I made about the flour sacks notwithstanding, bakery has given me incredible endurance, intense heat resistance (especially in the arms), interesting scars, and the upper body strength of a man twice my size. Unfortunately, it means I look kind of funny in formal wear, but on the upside nowadays when I attend a wedding I'm in my dress whites anyhow and the big shoulders just fill those out nicely. :raz:

I'll give you that one too! I haven't been able to find a long-sleeve shirt, other than a chef jacket, which will fit my shoulders, and my arms too. I also prefer my good egyptian jacket, for almost every formal occasion. What a life we live, Panaderia!

Yeah, most people think of kitchen professionals as fat (the old stereotype bowling-ball chefs), when some of us are actually large of muscle instead.... My problem, of course, is that nothing for women is tailored with broad shoulders in mind, and the final effect of me in a cocktail dress is that of an well-dressed transvestite wearing cake perfume (being 6' tall in flats doesn't help that either.)

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Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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Any job that requires heavy lifting is going to increase strength/muscle. Any job working in a hot environment is going to increase tolerance to that environment. Any job requiring repetitiveness can lead to repetitive stress problems. Any job requiring being on your feet all of the time can lead to problems related to that. In any job that causes some degree of pain or discomfort, the body (and mind) is going to learn to deal with that pain/discomfort. It's all tied to the work being done, not where it's being done. I'm not saying kitchen/bakery isn't hard work. I know it can be, I do it too. I just think it's a bit over the top to try to make it sound like some kind of special superhuman effort. It's just another work environment that will take some degree of toll on the body over time that you have to adapt to if you want to keep doing it.


Edited by Tri2Cook (log)

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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