#WeAreNot9to5 is a campaign to share a series of lived experience stories about mental health and substance use from our Not 9 to 5 community. Our aim is to encourage us to learn from one another.
This story written by an anonymous pastry chef and is about workplace abuse in professional kitchens:
I was an engineer. Well, I technically wasn’t one yet, but I had spent my life training to be one. I was homeschooled my entire life by a mom who wanted better for me than what she had when she was my age, and a dad who was a military veteran and an engineer. I was not as gifted in the math department as my dad was however, so when high school came around and I started feeling the pressure of the SATs and getting into colleges, my mental health took a nosedive. I left home in the middle of the night at 18 and moved in with my partner. I felt like I could not see anything but the path that had been set for me since I was born. This was the path that my entire education had revolved around, but had also sent me to the hospital after several forms of self-harm.
After leaving the hospital, my partner and I got an apartment together, and I took a semester off before starting college. I had not decided if I wanted to stay on the engineering path yet but I needed a job in the meantime, so I got one as a catering waitress. After switching to dishwashing then to Garde Manger for the same restaurant, the Pastry Chef took me under her wing. This is when my love for pastry began. While I had started going to school for mechanical engineering at this point, I dropped out and began going to my local community college for Baking and Pastry Arts Management.
Pastry has not been a smooth road for me. At my first job the pastry chef was battling demons of her own, and abruptly left the restaurant, leaving me (who only had a few months of experience) to run the pastry department on my own. I tried so hard to keep things running smoothly, however I was saddled with far too much responsibility and no healthy outlets. I developed a lot of anger and took it out on everyone around me. I did not respect the owner or the executive chef, and it was not until the chef called me on my B.S. that I realized I was spending all my energy fighting with people. It wasn’t healthy for anybody, me or the people around me. I stepped back and let some of the changes happen that I had fought for so long. Pastry got better, we hired more people, we changed how we took orders. It was better for a while and now I miss that restaurant.
At the time I did not realize that I was only dealing with the tip of the hospitality-abuse iceberg.
After that restaurant I got a job as a sales associate at a mall retail store. It went well until I was no longer getting enough hours to support the cost of the gas to commute there so I left it for a job running Garde Manger at another restaurant. Red flags began to appear quickly, especially around my work hours and wages. The first red flag was when I was hired and I was told I was going to be on a training period. That would have been fine except they didn’t tell me that the training period only paid minimum wage instead of the hourly rate posted for the job.
The second red flag was that the restaurant took a dollar out of every paycheck for “silverware”. When I asked about the fee I was told that it was because the servers kept accidentally throwing out the silverware and this was to recoup the loss (at the time I didn’t know this is illegal in my state).
I asked to have the fee taken off since I was not a server and therefore was not one of the people throwing away the silverware. I was told the fee would come off, but it was never taken off even after I reminded them several times. A dollar may not seem like much but it was still a dollar they were taking unjustly from my cheque. The third red flag was when I was finally taken off the training period, and I was offered two dollars below the hourly rate posted for the job. They originally tried to get me to agree to three dollars below the rate posted for the job, so this was a ‘compromise.’ I stayed anyway, as it was still more money than I had made at any other job. Red flag number four came when I realized they were not cooking their crème brûlée properly, and were basically serving raw egg to their customers. As someone who loves crème brûlée, this was not only a safety hazard, but also just disrespectful to crème brûlée as a dessert. The fifth red flag, the one that finally made me leave, was that they had hired me full-time just before the busy season, but they only gave me part-time hours. On top of that, they frequently changed my schedule at the last minute, so I could never plan ahead for anything.
After two months of that, I left for my current job as a Pastry Cook 1 at a high-end hotel. I was ecstatic to be back to doing pastry full-time, and this job paid me two dollars more an hour than the last job and also looked great on my resume, so I was thrilled to be hired. For the first six months everything was great, it seemed like I had finally found my career position. Just before Thanksgiving, the Pastry Chef announced that she was quitting and my other pastry coworker announced they were moving to a different department. Neither of them had talked to the other, so that left me with two weeks to mentally prepare to be the only person in the pastry department for the second time in my career. I worked 12 hours a day, six days a week the entire month of December to keep the department running. Meanwhile I began talking with my boss and his boss about a promotion. After surviving December alone, I found out that I was never getting promoted because they didn’t want to invest in pastry. I worked so hard with the thought of a promotion at the end of the tunnel, and was told they were “on board” to appease me for their own benefit. They cut my hours back to the point where I couldn’t fulfill the bare necessities to keep the department running within the allotted time frame. Once I realized I was never getting promoted, and I was not going to be given any more resources, I stopped taking any initiative or doing any extra work. This has led me to getting repeatedly written up for things that other people do consistently yet they never get in trouble for.
If I have to call in sick for mental or physical health reasons I will only be scheduled for two or three days the next week as punishment, despite being a full-time employee.
Lastly, although I am supposedly higher in rank than a lot of the other savory cooks and the only one in the pastry department, I am still paid less than anybody else in the kitchen.
After a year, I have begun actively searching for a new job. I write this to share three things:
1. You can always change what you do with your life, though it will be scary and suck at times, you can do it.
2. Advocate for yourself and ask for better. Don‘t make the mistakes that I did. Talk to your coworkers about your pay, and do not do more work than what you are responsible for without the adequate compensation.
3. Leave. Do not be afraid to leave. Even if they pay you well, do not sacrifice your mental and physical health for a job. You are worth more than that. Don’t let them make you feel otherwise.
I found my passion in life through pastry, and even though I’ve had issues, I refuse to give up on my career. It will take time, but if we all refuse to be treated horribly by our employers, then we can change the workplace to be a healthier space. Not just for us, but for the people who come after.
Talk to the folks that are new to the industry, the newbies who are green; show them how to be more in tune with their mental health and how they can help those around them with theirs. We can make the workplace better for everyone.
To read the other #wearenot9to5 stories, please visit https://www.not9to5.org/blog