Sunday, February 13, 2011
Jamie Oliver's 'Dream School' Backing Of 18-Hour Days For Chefs Is Modern Day Slavery
I have some sympathy with Jamie Oliver when he talks about Britain’s youngsters being work-shy, "wet" children who get their mothers to stick up for them. But what he says about the need to work 18-hour days cooking in restaurants is frankly mediaeval.
He made the comments in an interview in today’s Observer newspaper to launch yet another TV series, this one with the slightly disturbing title Jamie's Dream School, where he invites celebrities (come on, it wouldn’t be a TV programme without them) and academics to try to help 20 school drop-outs.
Oliver describes the problems of recruiting staff for his restaurants, saying he uses “bulletproof, rock-solid Polish and Lithuanians who are tough and work hard” because British youngsters no longer know the meaning of hard work.
"When you're unleashing students into an economy where there's trouble with jobs, the ones who haven't got academic verve, they need to have a basic approach to physical work. You need to be able to knock out seven 18-hour days in a row... I had that experience. By 13, I'd done 15-hour days in my dad's pub," he adds.
What utter tosh. For a start, there is a huge difference between working in a kitchen when your dad’s the owner to working for some bullying head chef you have no hold over. When will chefs stop promoting this ridiculous idea that 18-hour days in kitchens are acceptable? And it is even harder to stomach when it comes from a celebrity chef who doesn’t actually work in his own kitchens, but instead throws himself in front of every passing TV camera, while getting paid a fortune to promote supermarket products.
It reminds me of when I had an interview for the position of commis chef at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship Royal Hospital Road restaurant in London. I went along to Ramsay’s headquarters near Victoria, and was given some forms while I waited for the human resources manager. They took a photocopy of my passport, and eventually the HR woman arrived. She was short and tough-looking, and immediately made me feel ill at ease.
“You know the chefs work 18 hours a day here?” she said almost immediately.
I shrugged and pretended to let the news flush over me. I said that in the run-up to Christmas I’d done a few 18-hour days.
“Well, it’s 18 hours EVERY day here,” she said, studying my reaction.
She told me to think about it and said they were looking for staff at the Boxwood Café in Belgravia as well as Royal Hospital Road. I wasn’t in the least bit surprised. Then she phoned the kitchen and said I could do a trial on the Saturday. I shook her hand and walked out. We hadn’t even talked about money.
By the time I’d reached the front door, I’d made my decision. Even at 18 – the generation Oliver hopes to put right in his slightly Orwellian ‘dream academy’ - the hours would have killed me. I’d have to start work at 8am and finish at 2am. In the six hours between shifts, I’d have to get a night bus home, sleep, wash, feed myself, and then get back into work. I’d probably be lucky to get three hours sleep before I had to do it all again.
I knew I wouldn’t even last a day so I emailed Ramsay’s office and cancelled the trial. It wasn’t that I am work-shy, it’s just that I have a brain, and it seems far too much like modern day slavery to me.
Indeed, it is about time restaurants started looking after their staff better, and worrying about their health. We only have to remember the tragic case of Nathan Laity, who moved up to London from Cornwall to pursue his dream of making it as a top chef.
Nathan, 23, became so exhausted after working 100 hours a week as sous chef at the Tate Modern, he died after contracting tonsillitis. He came down with a sore throat but continued to work 14 hours a day - 98 hours a week - for 27 straight days without any time off.
He died in his sleep, and doctors say his immune system had simply shut down. Is this really the sort of future for Britain’s youth Oliver is proposing?
It’s true there are many work-shy youngsters out there, but 18-hour days are not the way forward. And giving youngsters the idea that by working them they will one day be as rich as Oliver is appalling. The huge majority will simply get burned out and spat out by the restaurant industry, and be on the scrap heap by 30.