Confessions of a Teenage Chef

When the country first went into lockdown Emily was seventeen years old, working part-time at a popular chain restaurant whilst also attending college full-time. Like most people, when lockdown hit, her life was frozen in time.

Being a chef is a job that many people overlook and underestimate. Behind the scenes, chefs are out of sight and consequently out of mind for many of those who dine out.

In the past year and a half, those working in the hospitality industry have had to cope with a lot of uncertainty and unknown challenges and nothing is getting any easier.

Looking back at the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, many have fond memories of using that time to reconnect with friends and family. But for those providing the services, their memory was a lot different.

The appeal of the scheme was almost too much. And for Emily it was.

When lockdown first hit and initially enjoying the break from reality, Emily felt she could relax but as the hospitality industry was one of the last to return, she became restless and “hated not having any routine to life.”

Before, Emily worked alongside college but when finally returning to work in July, Emily found herself in a full-time role. “I cannot put into words how massive the customer demand was.” Emily remembered her time at work during the Eat Out to Help Out scheme as overwhelming. “I was doing 14 hour shifts with no breaks, five days per week.”

After months of people being deprived of dining out and the additional appeal of meals at half price, it was no surprise that restaurants were consistently filled with customers. But being thrown in at the deep end was a shock to the system and left Emily struggling more than ever.

From working to the extreme, Emily’s low-point hit in August after working a 15-hour shift with no break. “I woke up and felt physically sick from being overworked and couldn’t even face getting up to go back in.”

In September, Emily decided to leave for another job and the scheme was a massive factor why. “I felt the restaurant was in no way prepared for the demand and the staff were overworked as a result.” And to top it off, management decided during the scheme to take away staff drinks. “When you’re on 15 hour shifts with no break, the least you think work could do is provide a drink.”

After starting a new job as a pastry chef, Emily felt she definitely went through a honeymoon period, but the two further lockdowns in November and December left her feeling unsettled in her role. She remembers the hardest return going back to work was in April 2021 after being furloughed since boxing day. “Just being in and out of work really made me lose motivation and not knowing what was going on did take a toll on my mental health.”

Luckily for Emily, she could not fault the support she received from her job and found comfort that everyone was in the same position. A vital part of being a chef is teamwork and sometimes the only thing getting Emily through the stressful hours were the people she worked with.

The hospitality industry is known for having a quick turnaround of staff and Emily believes it comes down to dedication. “I’ve always been told that being a chef is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle choice and now I’ve been in this job a year I do genuinely believe that”, she said. “It is a mentally draining job and if your heart is not in it you won’t survive.”

Unfortunately, this quick turnaround has left her job becoming very understaffed with Emily regularly putting in an additional 20 hours per week on top of her full-time hours. This has even led her to work in different roles. “On my only night off, I was asked to come in and waitress.” Although her day off was needed, Emily had decided to come in. “At the end of the day we are one team.”

Behind the scenes, Emily said she is known for sleeping on her breaks when working split shifts just to gain some energy and has also found herself resorting to taking up smoking. “It’s not right, but if you smoke you get more breaks. I feel it is a way to get five minutes to myself.”

Even still Emily has a love hate relationship with her job. She admitted thinking about quitting whenever things get rough and the pressure piles on, but ultimately, she cannot imagine herself doing anything else. “I come home most nights smelling of sweat, sticky from sugar and chocolate and utterly exhausted! I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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