I moved to Austin, Texas to strike a balance between cooking in restaurants, having fun in a cool new city, and playing music as a hobby. I thought these were modest aspirations, and I was ecstatic when I landed my first fine-dining job after working my way through sports bars and food trucks. However, I soon realized that my hours in the restaurant kneecapped my ability to pursue my hobbies and explore a social life outside of my coworkers.
Anyone who’s worked in a kitchen knows how punishing the workload can be. In many restaurants, 10-12 hour shifts and six-day weeks are the norm. The backbreaking schedule and stressful work environment are an integral part of kitchen culture, baked into the lore of the industry and treated as the price of entry into the rarefied world of fine dining.
For cooks at upscale, ambitious restaurants, giving all your heart, time, and creative energy to the business is expected and encouraged because chefs have been taught for generations that sacrificing your personal life is the only way to achieve greatness. ~ Crawford Smith, line cook
I thought that my passion for cooking and desire for advancement in the industry could replace my other interests, but my life felt somewhat one-dimensional when I prioritized the restaurant over everything else. I didn’t even have a bad schedule by restaurant standards because I was usually working only five shifts! Although occasionally I’d work six if the restaurant was busy or in a staffing crisis, and my shifts were still 10-12 hours.
It was hard to book shows because five of my nights per week were spent working. I had no time to practice guitar anyway, so I told myself that not getting music gigs didn’t really matter. And, of course, my non-industry friends usually wanted to hang out on the weekends when I was working, so I didn’t really see them much either.
No one else asked to get a lighter workload though, and both of my chefs worked themselves to the bone, so I thought that I would look selfish or weak if I asked for special treatment. ~ Crawford Smith, line cook
So one day, I just showed up to work and quit, even though I still liked the job. I thought that quitting was the only option for me if I wanted to pursue music. Looking back at my experience at that first restaurant, I should have talked to my managers about my work-life balance concerns. I think that the two chefs there would have been understanding and helped me work out a solution.
Now, about a year after I made that decision, I’m again cooking at a high level, learning new things and challenging myself in the kitchen. I’m also back working for the chef I worked under when I quit my first fine-dining job. He always wanted me back in his kitchen, and when he moved to another restaurant that was open for lunch, he reached out to me to dangle the opportunity to work in fine-dining again, during the day.
These days I finally have time to play music, put out records, and do the occasional show. I even get to spend time with my girlfriend and friends who work 9 to 5 jobs! I feel lucky to be in this position, and couldn’t be here without having wonderful chefs who understand my concerns and make an effort to give me a schedule with some lunch shifts and weekend days off. I love the place I work now, and I love the life I’m able to live because I don’t work every night.
Even at the new restaurant, though, I had to fight to get the work-life balance I need and not to accept shifts and hours that didn’t work for me. ~ Crawford Smith, line cook
When a bunch of the dinner cooks at my restaurant quit, I got brought in to “temporarily” cover dinner shifts while they looked for a replacement. As weeks of working nights turned into months, I realized I would need to put my foot down if I wanted to get back to my preferred lifestyle.
I had to sit down and look my chef in the eyes and tell him that although I loved the restaurant, loved the food I was making, and loved my coworkers, I needed to go back to working mostly lunch shifts or I’d quit, because having some nights off was a non-negotiable for me. I got a much better schedule the very next week, and the owner of the restaurant group I work for took me aside to stress to me that as long as I stayed his employee he’d work with me to give me hours that worked for my life.
In order to change the kitchen lifestyle to allow for more work-life balance, more line cooks need to value themselves as employees and learn to have the confidence to ask for what they want. ~ Crawford Smith, line cook
Realistically, though, I know that individual line cooks speaking up for themselves won’t be enough on its own. The only reason my restaurant can afford to give me the situation I’m in is because there are enough other cooks willing to work more traditional hours to cover me. And maybe, if there were enough cooks for a restaurant to juggle around, more of us could get break from the grind.
The real solution seems to be a structural shift in how kitchens operate and how hours can be rotated, and that needs to be implemented by management. I don’t know how to make that happen, so for right now, I would encourage all line cooks to do what I did, speak up for some changes at work to give yourself more personal time. Sometimes, all you need to do to get a better schedule is ask for one! Nobody should accept a life they know isn’t fulfilling them when a simple change could have an immense impact on their happiness.