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24 years ago, I have had a dream, this dream nearly killed me

Updated: Jun 16, 2023


I was 19 in 1999, I have to make very important decisions, I have just graduated from high school, also had my summer jobs experience in the kitchen and I loved it! I love the vibe, love to be in the kitchen, work with food and learn from other chefs. My aim was to become great chef, work in best restaurants and finally have my own in the future.


When I finally decided to be a chef, I have shared this news with my parents, straight away my dad said, please do not go that route, it will ruin your life…’ (my dad is also a chef, just retired after over 35 years in the kitchen. He wanted me to go to become a banker (I was really good with math and I was always interested in economy), my mum wanted me to become a journalist. I did not listen and I’ve applied for Hospitality and Management Academy, same time sending my apprentice applications all over the Europe, finally managed to get myself a placement in France - I was in heaven!


December 1999, I have started my first day work at professional kitchen, excitement reached it’s highest but nobody noticed that, everyone was in rush, it was tough to blend in, specially being new and did not speak word of French or English, all new environment.


After two weeks, I have managed to finally get in to it, start learning from language to my duties, I was up 5:30am, 6am espresso, straight away to the kitchen, we had staff lunch together, every day for maximum of 30minutes. My work finished at 1am / 2am, no excuses.


Slowly I was start getting used hard work, constant shouts, head chef was hiding bottles of wine in unused oven, he was constantly drunk, shouting and throwing pans and utensils at all of us, when I have chat with other chefs, they said its a norm and I have to used it or there is no place for me in the kitchen. After three months I have lost 7kg of weight, smoked two packets of cigarettes every day, barely ate anything except quick staff lunch. My time off started every week at around 4pm on Sunday, thats was all time off during the week.


I was working on starters and dessert section, probably most difficult position in the kitchen, you always start first and finish last, head chef was leaving at around 11pm and left all the kitchen for us to clean, top to the bottom, no excuses, if he found piece of the kitchen which was not clean, we had so much shout, it was insane! Restaurant owner, was always eating very late dinner, he got to restaurant around 11pm, shake hand with head chef and sat down, I remember he always ordered salad endive, every evening, his desserts were going out at around 1am!


Once, I have met him, when I was going out with rubbish to the basement car park, he said, be carful on my car, when you scratch it, you will have to work it all back and it will take you years! He had brand new BMW, I think it was X5 - I did not see car like this back home, it was massive - I felt like absolute garbage!


Reminder that my wages will be paid after my contract will end, I was only given cash money every month, but full pay supposed to be paid at end of my contract (it was seasonal 6 months contract). Owner hold my passport, and I was told it will be released on my leave.


I have broke down after four months, I have called home and I said, I will be going back home, then I went to the restaurant owner and told him about everything and my resignation, he was not touched, he said, I have to finish my contract or he will not give me my passport back…I did not know what to do, for everyone else it was a norm, nobody complaint, so I did not want to be snowflake and I have carried on.


Maybe it made me stronger, but also made me person with completely lack of feelings, after many more years, I was becoming exactly the same as all other chefs, alcohol, party, constantly looking to relief my stress level which was up to the roof! I did not know what weekend with family means, I have missed all family gatherings, weddings, birthdays, going out with friends and family did not exist. It was my norm, work, work, work, 7 days per week, non stop, I was like on drugs, when I have finally managed to get day off, I was feeling sick, I could not sit tight in one place, I was always looking for something to do, it was insane!


England


After France, I have job offer in Germany, family run hotel, amazing place, all cooked fresh, fish we were preparing I have never seen in my life! Again, same hours, same system, same behaviour. However, because I was completely different person, I did not see anything wrong with it, I was trained to be tough and to not complaint,


After three years, I have moved to UK, I have worked at Hotel Restaurant, run by award winning chef. I was placed on starters, veg and fish section, commis chef. Different system than in France, start at 9am, and we actually had 2 hours lunch break at around 3pm and back at work from 5pm.


Chef setup routine, we are not allowed to talk during service, if your prep is not done before service starts, you will get abuse, chefs were heating pallet knives over gas fire and burning hands of each other, it was a ‘kitchen game’ a norm, nobody complaint. I have completely different level of abuse there, I was asked if we actually have proper roads in Poland or if we ride on horses? If we have McDonalds etc… usually stuff towards immigrant, I have used it, no dramas, ‘they were joking’. I have spent there nearly year and went to work for family run business restaurant, it was so busy, it was me, head chef (alcoholic) and pot wash, when chef left, new owners came in, lovely people, they really wanted place to become foodies destination. This was probably the best environment I have ever worked, it was mega busy and I still was working 6/7 days per week, I lived upstairs, so even on my day off, I was asked to do ‘things’ but hey, it was my job right?


In 2008 I have received job offer from beautifully restored picturesque hotel, massive investment, we were told head chef used to work with Thomas Keller, when head chef says then this must be true. We became super popular, head chef was literally never there, it was me, and two other chefs, I was sous chef. We were working incredible long hours, never time off, running events, weddings and general service, we were constantly understaffed, so me and two other chefs had to do everything, whatever it takes we were told.


Finally credit crunch kicked in, hotel closed almost immediately, I have lost my job and there were no work in the hospitality at all! I was mentally broken enough to take 18 months break, I was swearing I will never go back to restaurant industry, but its like a drug! In 2011 I have applied for unpaid stage at NOMA, I was accepted, I did my experience in 2012, if you think NOMA is different, think twice, super long hours but two days off! However, being at NOMA, any chef will do everything for the experience, and specially in 2012 when NOMA was Worlds Best Restaurant, we have served VIPs from all over the World, everyone wanted to eat at NOMA! Copenhagen became heaven for foodies, it was incredible!



When I posted my photo with Rene Redzepi on social media and my experience at NOMA, I have received straight away over 50 job offers from all over the world, it was unbelievable, I decided to take head chef position at London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, what else would you chose?


It was THE BIGGEST Food operation I have ever experienced, we had chefs flying over from all over the world, I was catching up train at just around 6am, and finishing very late, sometimes I have missed last train so I have to stay at Kings cross and go back to work straight and do my thing. We have all sorts of dramas, people were complaining about hours at work, some guys wanted to experience Olympics and never worked in hospitality before, it was too hard for many. Again, after all those years, I did not see anything wrong, it was just another day at work, another day without friends, work, work, work.


I was going like lunatic, probably would still go but I have noticed life could be different, could be much better, and you do not have to sacrifice your private time for work place, whatever work place this can be.


Everything have changed during lockdown, I was already running House of Feasts for a few years, I was up 5am every day, no weekends off, always first in, last going home. I just could not leave HOF for one day… it was like drugs, I had this feeling, I have to work, I have to be there, constantly working on new dishes, new recipes, I was creating tasting menus, and I was proud when my guests or journalists wrote review and I was absolutely ballistic when someone wrote something bad about my food, I was obsessed with perfection, it was so bad!


COVID… restaurant have to close, but I could not stop, I was pushing to keep doing food, keep making my dream, online, deliveries, collections, yes it was completely new level but still I was giving my whole life to the kitchen…and I have finally broke down, I just could not do it any more, I have lost all my energy, I have decided I need the break, I went back to Poland and stayed there for couple of months, had a good re-think about restaurant and life in general, took some decisions and went back to UK, I have closed restaurant, I could not do it any more, finances were bad, prices went up dramatically, we were not making any money but I was up 5am eery day, like a robot, in my head it was this saying, ‘I have to work, I have to be up and in the kitchen, no matter what…’


It's done, all have changed, I am still cooking, I have opened new business and do Private Dining and Events, Corporate Catering specially this gives me room to develop new dishes and run culinary consultancy, I help chefs with their time management, help restart owners with running costs and working towards better work environment in the kitchen, it will be always my profession but now, I have my life back, after 24 years, I can finally live! I have time for my family, my friends, BBQ at our home, I can do things, which I have missed since 1999! I am glad, I have made this decision and changed my life, I am not sure what would happen if I would carry on working at restaurant, it probably would not end well, I was on very thin line from a total disaster, I have had all sort of thoughts in my head, not the nicest ones. I am now working on events, I have changed from being in constant stress, I work few days per week, usually finish by 2pm, occasional zoom or face to face meetings with my clients, then I do our garden together with my partner, who I really thank to be so strong to cope with me and stay with me over all those years, it was seconds away from losing her completely, I was in very dark place...


I still love cooking, I couldn’t do it without it, I feel this excitement when I am behind the stoves but its different now, I know I will finish at certain time because we have plans to do something at home or meet friends, walk in the park with dogs.


I have lost nearly everything but I have gained my life back, I even got back to cycling.


I do not hate restaurants, I love them, restaurants made me very strong, very close to unbreakable, the restaurant industry has long been associated with glamour, creativity, and culinary mastery. However, behind the scenes, there lies a darker reality that often remains hidden from the public eye. This blog post aims to shed light on some of the challenges faced by chefs in the industry, including drug and alcohol abuse, strained relationships, low pay, and gruelling work hours. By understanding these issues, we can begin to address and support those who dedicate their lives to creating exceptional dining experiences. Hospitality is beautiful industry but chefs must receive respect they deserve, they can’t carry on working like maniacs, maximum 8 hours, five days per week, also weekends should be given off every two weeks, we need time for families! It is not maybe, it must change or we will completely lose new generation, they will just not want to become chefs, everyone need life after work, even chefs.


1. Drug and Alcohol Abuse: A Silent Epidemic


The demanding and high-pressure nature of the restaurant industry can take its toll on chefs, leading some to turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. The culture of long hours, intense stress, and constant striving for perfection can create an environment that fosters addiction. It's crucial to recognize the signs, provide resources for support, and work towards cultivating a healthier work environment that prioritizes the well-being of chefs.


2. The Toll on Mental Health and Relationships


The relentless pursuit of culinary excellence often comes at a significant personal cost. The long and irregular work hours can strain relationships and lead to isolation. Chefs may find it challenging to maintain a work-life balance, resulting in lost connections with their families, partners, and friends. The toll on mental health can be profound, and it is essential to create spaces that prioritize mental well-being, promote work-life harmony, and offer support networks for chefs.


3. Low Pay and the Wage Gap


Despite the passion and dedication chefs bring to their craft, many face low wages and minimal benefits. This discrepancy often arises from the industry's reliance on unpaid internships, entry-level positions, and a lack of standardized pay scales. Such conditions not only undermine the financial stability of chefs but also perpetuate inequalities and limit the industry's ability to attract and retain talented individuals. Advocating for fair compensation and employment practices is vital for building a sustainable and thriving restaurant industry.


4. The Grind: Endless Hours and Physical Demands


Chefs are notorious for their gruelling work schedules, often working 60 to 80 hours a week. This constant grind can lead to physical exhaustion, burnout, and an increased risk of workplace accidents. The industry must recognise the importance of work-life balance, implement reasonable hours, and promote the well-being of its workers. Prioritising rest, breaks, and time off not only benefits chefs but also enhances their creativity and overall performance in the kitchen.


The restaurant industry, with its rich tapestry of flavours and culinary experiences, is not without its darker side. Chefs face immense pressures that can contribute to drug and alcohol abuse, strained relationships, low wages, and exhausting work hours. By acknowledging these issues, we can begin to reshape the industry, fostering a healthier and more sustainable environment for chefs to thrive in.


Creating support systems, providing resources for mental health and addiction recovery, advocating for fair wages, and promoting work-life balance are crucial steps toward improving the lives of chefs. Together, we can ensure that the restaurant industry becomes a place where culinary talents can flourish, not at the expense of their well-being but in harmony with it.


Would I change any of my decisions ? NO! Restaurants made me man who I am now, but we live in different world and behaviour I have experienced, can not be tolerated now and in nearest future.


Culinary regards,

Damian

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