The latest dose of Lucky Peach, the newish quarterly journal of food and writing, is the Cooks and Chefs issue. With their characteristic blend of smart, irreverent writing and terrific illustration and design, the Lucky Peach team spends the issue riffing on celebrity chefs, cooking shows, old masters, lunch ladies, and the changing world of the culinary arts. A common thread running through the issue is a collective sense of loss over the ways in which the forty hour work week has changed both the education of cooks and the workings of restaurants.
In a piece titled “I See a Darkness,” Lucky Peach co-creator and chef/owner of Momofuku David Chang issues his own lament in pink type on black pages beneath a stark opening line: “I am convinced that cooking is dying.” From his piece:
(I)n the past, at almost all high-end restaurants, you just worked. One of the fundamental changes to the profession is the elimination of “shiftpay”—i.e. you make $80 for the period of time known as “Monday” regardless of how many hours you’re there. That’s been replaced by the forty-hour work week. You just can’t learn to cook in forty hours a week.
“There is a whole style of restaurant that has evolved from that restriction,” (Andrew) Carmellini explained. “You basically come in at four in the afternoon and just go shopping, because everything is ready for you. Get your fish, chives, shallots, or whatever, and then you’re just waiting for the cream and whatever to come down the conveyor belt. Unfortunately, it does affect the process. No one was paid to teach me how to make pasta, but the Italian guy downstairs would put in the extra hours to do that, and I’d put in the time to learn. It’s hard to do that now. Even if cooks wanted to stay late or work from start to finish, they are legally not allowed to.”
The response of the restaurant world—and I’m as guilty as anyone—has been to systematize and streamline the way food is prepared. You either have to do that or break the law. The best restaurants used to have minimal staff; they’d have a couple of prep cooks, but everyone was responsible for their own station and partner. Time was relative to the work that needed to be done. Now many restaurants operate with multiple crews—one team preps, and then, as Carmelini put it, the next shift “shops” for their mise en place.
Now, despite there being foodies among us, we’ve published too many books on labor history to sit here and worry much about what worker protections have done to the state of pasta-making. That said, the general concern for the ways that new restrictions can impede the training of current and future generations has put us in mind of a book on a different sort of knife skills, Dr. Nicolas Tilney’s Invasion of the Body: Revolutions in Surgery. Forgive the implications of the comparison, but, hey, chefs and surgeons DO both wear white coats, get their hands bloody, and surround themselves with stainless steel. And Tilney’s explanation of what’s lost when budding surgeons have their work weeks restricted has a number of parallels with Chang on cooks.
In Invasion of the Body, Tilney details a watershed moment in the mid-1980s, when the death of Libby Zion, a young woman with an influential father, brought intense public scrutiny to medical training. A grand jury condemned graduate medical education, and professional organizations began formulating new rules limiting the number of hours that residents could work each week. Tilney recounts the backlash from within the medical establishment:
The contrary opinion of a high official in the American College of Surgeons that “constrained work hours do not prepare residents for the real world of surgical practice” garnered little sympathy. Senior surgical educators, however, quickly echoed these sentiments, while attendees at the subsequent annual meeting of program directors described the atmosphere as “funereal.” One surgeon was quoted: “We have to act as cops and chase [trainees] out of the hospital. It is antithetical to everything being a doctor is about.” A distinguished professor summarized the general feeling of those in teaching hospitals. “The [limited] work week is seen as damaging to the essence of surgery’s being. It is the denial of the foundation of continuity of care.”
In the United States, the current rules limit periods spent in hospital by the house staff, at least during their first four years, to eighty hours per week, plus eight additional hours for education. They are scheduled on a twelve-hour “shift” system, with at least ten hours off between sessions. During their time on duty, they are involved with about fifty patients on two or even three services, but inevitably on a fragmented basis. Communication is stressed by necessity. The residents obtain current patient information through the ubiquitous hospital computers and write orders electronically. Email and text messages flood the ether.
Like the high official of the American College of Surgeons, many program directors are concerned that the residents may not assimilate an adequate repository of experience, information, and participation in clinical decision making, and that the new shift system may both diminish continuity of patient care and increase the number of mistakes and near misses.
So, shift work: not so good for either chefs or surgeons.
In both Lucky Peach and Invasions of the Body the concern over new trends in training leads to discourse on new shortages of skilled and dedicated workers. The chefs and writers in the magazine wonder whether their new systems can possibly produce enough talented cooks, and whether the newly-available fame will undercut devotion. Mario Batali, for example, writes that “there is more demand now than ever for committed cooks, and the commitment is the part that most cooks are lacking.” Tilney, for his part, notes that the subject of medical manpower has become an urgent issue, citing a 2004 study’s conclusion that a deficit of 200,000 physicians, about 20 percent of the needed workforce, would arise by 2025. He also notes that a desire on the part of young residents to balance work and life—unheard of when Tilney himself trained—means that, as with cooks, it’s not just legal changes that prevent young surgeons from developing in the manner traditional for their field.