Occupational Hazards

Chefs are never as clean, healthy or drug free as you would like. From my experience, kitchens are seemingly the only workplaces in the UK that defy all standard health and safety regulations and exist with their own set of rules.

The head chef arrives late, he looks ill and tells me he may have food poisoning after not cooking some sausages properly whilst exhausted and hungry the night before. He farts and stands around while I work and frequently disappears from the kitchen. That is until service starts when he runs the pass; dressing plates and handling food that is then sent directly to the customers. At least he washed his hands.

Sometimes it is hard to believe how differently the world changes simply when you pass through a kitchen swing door. The dining room is pristine, as are the customers and so too is the food they receive. In the kitchen it is an altogether different picture. The floor is flooded due to a leak in the dishwasher, the chefs are burnt and bleeding, their aprons smeared in food, their bodies and mind tired from the nights previous work and the drinks and drugs that help them get to sleep.

Injuries are common place, we do play with fire and knives after all. Basic first aid for a cut is to coat it in flour, wrap it with some blue catering paper and wear a latex glove – a plaster will only fall off. For burns there is less you can do if it happens during service, just put up with it and carry on. That is the fundamental ethos of getting injured in a kitchen – you simply carry on. I once saw our sous-chef, a very talented eastern European who trained in Michelin star restaurants in London, nearly slice through the top of his thumb while deboning a lamb saddle. Despite the blood loss and pain he had it roughly bandaged and taped and carried on throughout the day. It later required a visit to A&E where the top of his thumb was stitched back on.

A list of my current or recent workplace injuries:

  •  Steam burns along both forearms (these appear horizontally and are common features of a chef)
  • Small blister on the thumb of my left hand
  • Large blister on the inside of middle finger that prevents me from making a fist
  • Small cut on the thumb of my right hand caused by a mandolin
  • Small but deep cut on the index finger of my right hand caused by a boning knife
  • Permanently damaged nail on the index finger of my right hand

But no matter what you always carry on. If you just found out that a close relative has been diagnosed with cancer, you carry on – you’re not the one going through chemotherapy. If you’re ill and spent the night vomiting, you better drug yourself up and get to work in the morning. There’s a burden in all this of course. Sometimes you just can’t carry on, no matter what the rule of the kitchen may tell you. To work through ill health or injury and to be in constant fear that you are letting the team down because of it only creates more stress in a job of unrelenting stress. That’s the real burden. The testosterone bullshit of kitchens demands you get on with the job despite how you may be struggling mentally. But hey, just carry on, service is about to start and we’ve got work to do.

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