As chefs we’ve heard it all... “Oh! You want to be a chef? Don’t go down that road”, “Ah, would you ever give up that job and look for one with normal hours”, “Why would anyone want to work that many hours?”
Long working days and lack of personal time, are two stereotypes often associated with the hospitality industry, giving us a bad reputation. Often the industry gets dragged through the mud over it. We’re not the only ones working long hours and yet it’s our industry that is known for overwork! Doctors, nurses, guards, paramedics, even hairdressers have all had to work hours outside the ‘norm’. Perhaps in the past this was more common, and this is where the stigma came from. However, times have changed, and nowadays there are several different sectors within the hospitality industry. If you want to work a standard 9 to 5 you have that option and for some that option isn’t appealing to them.
My name is Eilis Davenport. I am a pastry chef; dance teacher and I have recently become a mother. I’ve found myself in the past being asked those questions about working hours from my family, friends, strangers and even myself at times. I'm sure I'm not the only chef who has been in this position on more than one occasion.
Like I said, different sectors call for different demands from chefs. Corporate catering is becoming more and more popular amongst chefs, and the companies I have worked with didn’t hold back when it came to ensuring that their staff are provided with every meal, beverage and snack they could imagine. Evenings and weekends off being a huge perk in this sector, especially for those with families or other interests.
Some hospitals rotate rosters, so every second weekend would be free. Cafes and coffee shops may offer early morning shifts with a weekend rotation. Bakeries and production kitchens vary, some have 2 or 3 shifts to choose from along with weekends off or at least a Saturday or Sunday along with a weekday. No matter the sector, there's something for everyone, you just have to be willing to go out there and look for what it is that suits you.
I started out as a commis chef at age 17 after a couple of courses in Fáilte Ireland on Amiens St. in Dublin. I had no idea what the industry was like, and with very little persuasion I started my first chef placement in one of the country's finest Michelin starred restaurants. Truth be told, I hardly knew what a star was, or the work that it took to get and hold onto! I soon learned that there was no 9 to 5 in Michelin land.
I found that getting that experience of working in different sectors helped me in finding the work-life balance I have right now. There is always an opportunity to learn and upskill no matter where you may find yourself. I knew I wanted to teach dance before I ever considered a career in pastry, so at times I felt as though I had missed opportunities on both sides. I remember about 8 years ago; I had a chance to get involved in a dance show. I worked on the choreography, had everything ready for the rehearsal, and the day before we were due to perform a work colleague had a family bereavement, which meant I had to work a split shift on rehearsal day. I couldn’t let the kitchen down. It goes both ways! That was my choice on that day.
Now, I work in a busy pastry unit 5 days a week and teach Irish dancing in the evenings and weekends. I am currently on maternity leave, which I am enjoying, and lockdown has really forced me to slow down. Some of the chefs I work with have children and are involved in football and rugby teams, either coaching or their own kids playing. We all work hard but we leave work in the kitchen as much as we can. It is hard when you are passionate and care about not only your work, but the team in the kitchen as well. We support each other, and if there is a family emergency or someone has to down tools, everyone digs in to make it up.
“It's very important to have something away from the kitchen that you enjoy, to help you wind down after a long day or busy service”
It's very important to have something away from the kitchen that you enjoy, to help you wind down after a long day or busy service. It could be something as simple as listening to a podcast or going for a run. I use an app called headspace once a day to allow my mind to rest for a while. I also enjoy playing football. I would only drink alcohol on occasion. I gave up smoking too, which I would advise everyone to try give up!
After 13 years working in different kitchens, my ‘work-life balance’ needed to be considered. What may suit you when you’re 21 may not be what you are looking for when you’re 31 or 41 etc.
At the beginning of my career, I had no idea about the long hours. Sometimes my dad would pick me up at 1am after a busy service because the last bus was long gone, and I would walk back in the kitchen door at 6am for the next split. I literally fell into life as a young pastry chef that knew no different. Looking back on those first years in the industry now, I wouldn’t trade them for the world, and I am indebted to Stephen Gibson for giving me that start. I love this industry, I still feel like I'm just beginning at times, the learning is unlimited and so are the experiences. You won’t get that in any other industry.
“The learning is unlimited and so are the experiences. You won’t get that in any other industry”
If there was one piece of advice, I could give to any young chef starting out, or anyone struggling with trying to find their balance, it would be don’t let go of the things you enjoy. With the right kitchen and some experience, you will figure out how to get the best of both worlds. Gain as much experience as you can and carry it through until you find your happy medium. For some chefs, they eat sleep and breathe every hour they can get in their kitchens and I have the utmost respect for them. Put in the hard work, but don’t forget to work hard on your own work-life balance!
Has Covid-19 made you think about your work-life balance?
Have you made any changes? I would love to hear other chef’s experiences!