Not calling out sick always been a badge of honor for chefs, but post-COVID, what's the cure?

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Maya Erickson wasn't feeling well. She was run down and tired, but tried to push through the fatigue. The Portland chef had to get ready for a pricey, sold-out charity dinner that evening featuring multiple courses and a growing prep list. Pushing up against her exhaustion brought on an almost manic, hollow feeling. I know this because I was cooking with her—and I was sick too.

"I remember sitting on the floor half laughing, half crying," Erickson told me recently. "And we were having fun, but I had to ask myself if I wanted to tough it out or take care of myself. You deal with the consequences later." 

We prepped and joked, the DayQuil jolting through me like I had drunk too much coffee. Then in 2015, there were no masks, no social distancing, and definitely no talk of canceling the dinner. We drank some Emergen-C and got to work. By the end of it we sat together, exhausted.

Cooking while sick was not new to either of us and pre-COVID, working in a kitchen with a cold was commonplace. A cook calling out sick was always met with skepticism and anger, because kitchen culture—for better or worse—dictated that calling out sick was one of the worst ways to let the team down. In our pre-mask, pre-COVID reality, concerns about spreading germs to co-workers and guests was an afterthought. Is that still going to be the standard once we're back to work and serving diners in person?

"Early in my career, there was a cook that sliced himself on the meat slicer and he had to leave," Erickson recalled. "He was working garde manger and I was on pastry, and by the end of the night I wound up working pastry, garde manger and saute. It was crazy. And eventually he came to work." 

That's a familiar scenario to chef Preeti Mistry. "There are so many kitchen culture relics where I'm like, fuck that shit, burn it all down," they me. "But then as a manager and an owner, and as a person that wants to not let the team down and set an example as a leader, you want to be there. You cook. You work with a burnt hand, with a cut, with a twisted ankle. This is a job where you get hurt. You get stitched up and finish your shift."

If you were to ask a chef publicly about their policy on employees taking sick days, they would tell you that they strictly follow the guidelines laid out by their local health department. That employees never work sick, and are allowed as much time as needed to get back on their feet. In practice, all of this is turned on its head. Questions like, "How sick are you really?" followed by, "We just really need you to come in, and I'll try to get you out of there first!" are the norm.

"The thing is, if you call out sick somebody else gets called in," says Mistri. "It means the a.m. sous chef has to stay and work dinner, or somebody gets called in on their day off. There is no safety net. And really, the culture dictated that a cook should feel proud to push through their discomfort. When you call in a cook on their day off, they're making overtime and it really throws this delicate system into chaos."

Scott Vivian, a chef based in Ontario, backed that up, saying, "My staff didn't want to let me down, because they knew that if they didn't come to work, then I would have to work for them, and that became a part of the work ethic in the restaurant. That's the whole point of the brigade system is making things as efficient as possible and make everything work as best it can. Restaurants are unique like that. If you don't go to your office job you just make up work the next day. Restaurants don't work like that," he explained. "Margins are too tight. There are no 'extra' employees in a restaurant."

Beyond working sick or injured, working while dealing with a mental health crisis can be the hardest thing to get through. If you break your arm or have a violent flu, then sure, stay home. But a cook with an overdrawn bank account and going through a bad break up can, at best, try to seek counsel from their boss. And even though prioritizing mental health has been given more importance in the restaurant industry, it still is often the exception rather than the rule.

"I remember when my eating disorder was really bad. I would eat a quart of undressed salad and that was it," Erickson told me. "I was so weak I could barely walk. And I just powered through it. My vision would start to black out. And there was never a question of not finishing a shift. You just pushed through." 

She continued, "But I'll never forget when my dad died. Earl (Ninsom) gave me a check and told me to take as much time off as I needed. I had never been through that. So there are ways to not do this, to make this all better. I'm just not exactly sure how."

So what's the solution here? Do we normalize calling out sick?

"The pandemic has brought into focus everything that was broken in the restaurant industry, and it's given us all a chance to look at what's not working. So how do we change this?" wondered Vivian. "Any restaurant that makes it through this pandemic is going to be in a worse financial situation than they were before." 

Smaller staffs, smaller menus, and a structure where everyone—regardless of front or back of house—contributes wherever they are needed is the future Vivian sees. "The normal restaurant model will have to fundamentally change for better or worse. There are ways to have it so your staff works less and makes more money, people just have to be creative about it."

Mistry believes the power needs to be in the hands of the people. "We can't go back to the way things were," they told me. "I think a worker owned model might be the answer. You have to have a business that is transparent and builds trust in its employees in its staff so that you can display care and compassion. That's really the only way."