The highs and lows of working in the restaurant industry
Whether you’re the chef of a Michelin-starred fine dining establishment or a burger flipper at a fast food joint, it’s not easy working in a kitchen. The pressure can be enormous. The chef at Masa in Manhattan, Masayoshi Takayama, knows that the next customer dining on his astronomically priced sushi (around $650 US) could be a Michelin inspector. Standards need to be kept high. But the employee sweating over a grill at the McDonald’s on the other side of town also know what it means to maintain accepted standards when the demanding dinner crowd starts pouring in. Slackers need not apply.
Anyone seriously thinking about a career in the restaurant industry needs to be aware of some of the key differences (and similarities) between fine dining and fast food restaurants – because not all of them are obvious. Here’s a no-nonsense comparison that will help you find the restaurant job that’s right for you.
Hours and salaries: how long and how much
Working in a fine dining restaurant can mean extremely long hours, especially if you’re a cook. As Corey Mintz writes in The Globe and Mail, “staging” – the restaurant equivalent of an unpaid internship – is a regular practice. This means that a part-time, minimum wage fast food worker can be earning almost the same amount of money as a cook in an upscale restaurant – maybe even more. Yet even with the low wages, many aspiring chefs are willing to put in those long hours. They see it as a sacrifice worth making for future success. That’s why, ironically, if it’s quick money you’re interested in, you might be better off going the fast food route.
Training: which tradition do you prefer?
Michael Ferraro, chef at the restaurant Delicatessen in New York, cautions overly eager apprentices that “It takes a similar amount of time to become a chef as it does to become a doctor.” Many of today’s most famous chefs began working in kitchens as teenagers. When they wanted to continue to develop their abilities, they sought out chefs with great reputations – the way a monk might seek out a guru – and spent years training under these culinary masters in order to learn their secrets. The sense of tradition – of learning being passed on from generation to generation – is strong
Fast food, on the other hand, carries with it the tradition of the assembly line – which was the inspiration for one of the first fast food restaurants designed by the McDonald brothers back in 1948. Whereas the manager of a fine dining restaurant might set aside some time each day for a specialist to teach the staff some new skill, the training of a fast food cook is usually limited to instructions on how to master a few key tasks as quickly as possible. Once you know how to operate the grill and the fryer, you’re basically good to go.
How hard can it be?
This is the way April Bloomfield (winner of the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in New York, 2014) put it in an interview in Fortune magazine: “Listen, it’s not an easy job being in a kitchen. There’s no sugarcoating it. It’s a lot of long hours, it’s a lot of blood, it’s a lot of sweat.” People who want to work in fine dining are generally those who are willing to commit their lives to it. The pressure to perform can be quite suffocating, often resulting in burnout among cooks, as Mintz points out in his article. But if one works for a truly nurturing – and non-exploitative – restaurateur, the experience can be life-changing.
The hours at fast food restaurants are often shorter, since time spent on food preparation is almost non-existent. The potatoes arrive at the restaurant pre-cut, the patties already formed. Nevertheless, the pressure to juggle a flurry of orders while making sure not to burn yourself as a line of restless customers grows longer and longer can be quite intense. Learning to cope with such stressful situations will be an invaluable skill that will help get you through difficult periods, work-related or not, throughout your life – and if you’re lucky enough to work with a great team of people, the friendships you make might last just as long.
Working your way up: realistic outcomes
The ultimate dream of those graduating from culinary school is to open their own restaurants, and to follow the basic trajectory of the world’s great chefs: start at the bottom cutting vegetable and work your way up till you’re running the kitchen. But the competition is strong, and the risks are great. The stats don’t lie: more fail than succeed. But what’s life without a little risk?
As for the fast food industry, we’re all familiar with the narrative about the burger flipper who ends up running the restaurant – but unfortunately there’s a stat for that too. As Michelle Chen points out in a Washington Post article, upward mobility in the fast food industry is rare. Still, for the observant employee with a sponge-like mind, the experience of working in a fast food restaurant will be an invaluable education on how to run a business. And for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit, such an education can’t help but be a springboard to greater opportunity.