The Food Industry's Best Kept Secret

The Food Industry's Best Kept Secret



When sitting at a table in an impressively designed and well lit and restaurant, it is easy to take for granted all those working behind the scenes to make our dining experience possible. While we are necessitated to interact with wait staff, we tend to forget about all the busy, toiling hands that slice, chop, bake and fry up the mouth-watering foods we love; we forget that it takes the diligent efforts of an actual flesh-and-blood person - usually working under immense pressure - to prepare the foods that miraculously arrive at our table only moments after they are ordered. It is, after all, only natural to spend more time contemplating that second slice of brownie cake than it is to wonder about what kind of day the person who cooked your dinner is having. What most people don't realize, however, is that behind the restaurant industry's thinly veiled façade of professional courtesy is a seedy underworld of substance abuse and despair.

As someone who has been in the business for the better part of a decade, I have witnessed firsthand the terrible lifestyle choices that can arise from working in such an environment. For many of us "line" or "short order" cooks, as we are called, the rigors of long hours, intense physical exertion, and inadequate compensation (all of which come part and parcel with the job) are often motivating reasons for turning to illicit substance abuse. To be sure, this dark side of the industry is not reflected in the camera ready smiles and immaculately starched uniforms seen on the Food Network, or even in the aggrandizing mythologies promoted by food writers such as Anthony Bordain. Rather, it is an ongoing phenomenon that gets little to no mainstream attention. Considering the immense growth of the industry in past years, with recorded sales upward of $631.8 billion in 2012 alone, and the recent emergence of "foodie" culture, more and more young cooks find themselves in compromising situations as they enter into the work force.

This may all seem sensationalist or even like a rehashing of an old story, and in some ways it is - but only to those outsiders who are unfamiliar with this grim reality. In my own experience working at some of the busiest corporate and independent eateries in Toronto and Montreal, I have not seen any measures taken to alleviate the ongoing problem. Instead, what I have witnessed are supervisors that are willing to sell cocaine and methamphetamines to fatigued employees; coworkers spending almost all of their earnings on alcohol at the bar after work each night; individuals driven to work upwards of seventy-hour weeks just to get by on bare essentials; young men and women seriously injured without compensation or due afterthought. In short, what I have witnessed is a great under appreciation of the people who make it possible for others to go out and enjoy their relaxing dining experience.

To really understand why drug and alcohol abuse is so endemic to this particular industry, it is important to take several factors into account. For starters, a great wage disparity exists between front-of-house staff (servers and bartenders) and back-of-house staff (cooks, chefs and kitchen managers). Whereas cooks are paid a fixed hourly rate, wait staff are paid both an hourly rate and gratuity on food and alcohol sales. Ultimately, this means that regardless of how much work they are expected to do, or the proficiency with which they are required to do it, kitchen workers always walk away with less than everyone else at the end of their shift. In essence, the only way they are able to earn more is by working more.

In trying to correct this injustice, several restaurateurs have implanted compensation systems that are more equitable in profit distribution. However, since the average kitchen position still only pays anywhere from $12-14 an hour, is it clear to see how fulltime workers can spiral into near poverty. To underscore just how great the margins in earnings are, consider that in  2008chef David Chang noted that a server at his Momofuku Ssäm Bar could earn as much as $1,700 in a 32-hour workweek, while a cook working the same number of hours would make $350. To put things in perspective, this means that on average, wait staff are capable of earning up to $43 more an hour than the people responsible for overseeing all stages of food preparation and production. Because kitchen staff are still paid by an hourly rate with virtually no share in the profit from overall sales, they are forced to commit much more of themselves to their work life if they are to support themselves financially. It is not enough, however, that the back-of-house staff are grossly under compensated, but the hours and tasks required of them are immensely difficult.

For this reason, they are more likely to engage in substance abuse as a means of dealing with the pressures associated with their line of work. Of course, not all abuse in the workplace is confined to hard drugs: excessive reliance on nicotine, caffeine, marijuana and alcohol are commonplace and even condoned among certain managers. Some resort to legal substances as a means of coping, while others use heavily addictive controlled narcotics. So prevalent is the problem that combined data from 2002 to 2004 reported the food services industry to have 16.9% of current illicit drug users among full-time workers aged 18 to 64, and ranked highest among all industries. Moreover, it also had a 12% current heavy alcohol use rate and ranked fourth among all industries.

Although there does not seem to be a correlation between low wages and substance abuse, having an individual spend up to 60 hours on their week working under extreme conditions is a sure-fire way to produce negative results. Moreover, because the employee is required to work such long, irregular hours, they inevitably end up associating with those who are in the same position as them. Ask anyone who has worked in the industry for an extended period of time and they will tell you just how easy it is to get involved with the wrong people. If you find yourself slaving away your entire weekend, chances are you will consent to socializing with people and doing things you might otherwise not.

Josh Levitt, an employee at a well-known Montreal steak house, describes his own descent into the world of illicit drugs and alcohol:

I don't think people truly understand how challenging this work is...I mean you have to stand on your feet for hours on end every night unusually until one or two in the morning. And it's not like we stand around just cracking eggs and flipping burgers...this is high volume, fast paced work. After a while in the game, you get burned out and you start looking for ways of making the time pass easier...something to take your mind of the heat and the noise and the chef's voice screaming for you at to move faster. So naturally, in this type of environment, where you also have a lot of cash floating around and people who are desperate to make it through their shift and possibly make a little extra on the side, you are going to find all kinds of bad things going on.

To be sure, the culinary world can be a thankless and brutal one. Some of us choose this path because it is what we love doing, while others do it purely out of necessity. Personally, I have had some of the best times of my life working in kitchens, and I have met some incredible individuals. However, I, like so many others have seen the ugly side of the industry and know the physical and mental toll that it can have. If you are someone who enjoys eating out, just starting out along your journey into the world of cuisine, or an industry veteran who wants to improve the current situation, please remember that it is up to all of us to make a difference in the industry that we love. 

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