Line cook and entrepreneur Zaria Stott Credit: Megan Won

The restaurant industry has changed dramatically since the start of the pandemic. Peer through dusty windows at shuttered businesses or pause to notice how many restaurants have cut back their operating hours to see the impact the virus had on the food world. The harsh realities of working through the pandemic helped shed some light on the challenges that many foodservice workers face.

Securing a job was a near impossible feat in the early months of the pandemic. Fast forward to 2021 and find restaurants desperate for staff. The same workers who were out of work are now potentially overworked. But a bulk of the issues that employees face in the hospitality industry existed long before March 2020.

Expectations of what a food career can be is changing. From the days of “Kitchen Confidential,” when Anthony Bourdain exposed what it’s like to work on the line, to today. The evolution of restaurant culture reveals both employees and managers expect more. Cooks are starting to advocate for themselves to improve their working conditions. 

In an industry that has often equated overworking with the inherent value of a person, some employees are realizing just how broken the system is. Turnover, substance abuse, mental health, and other challenges are among the many roadblocks to living a balanced life. The expectation that you give up your personal life for a job is no longer a badge of honor.

“There are other ways to be in this industry without slinging food behind a line 14 hours a day,” says CHIKO’s Jonathan Irizarry. He’s poised to become the executive chef of the Shirlington location of the fast-casual restaurant once it opens. 

Enter a wave of kitchen workers and leaders pushing for better lifestyles in the industry, not out of laziness or lack of care. Those in food expect to have an actual career where they can grow as professionals in the culinary world instead of being run into the ground. Local chefs and cooks reveal how they’re working together to alleviate burnout and work toward career progression instead. 

Feeling empowered to request or demand more money, a safer work environment, more training, career development opportunities, paid time off, and health insurance is rare in the industry. Historically, asking for more than a wage and a spot in the brigade was frowned upon. 

“I’ve worked at places, at plenty of places myself, where I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable to ask for anything,” says Bammy’s co-chef and co-owner Gerald Addison. “You know, it’s so different than an office job where you need somebody in the space…to keep something functioning. That’s why [burnout] culture exists.”

Addison shares how working in a kitchen that is not sustainable affects not only the cook, but the entire operation. “You just sort of sit there and dwell, and I think it breeds a certain amount of hostility,” he says. Managers, he feels, should observe their employees closely and notice when they’re looking drained or seem uncomfortable speaking up.

Burnout can occur at any point, but the pressure that opening a new restaurant brings is tough on everyone. “Being the part of an opening team was a lot,” says Irizarry, referring to a job before he started at CHIKO. When working from open to close became the norm, he left. “I kind of realized the show still goes on whether you are there 16, 17 hours a day or not.”

In his new role, Irizarry says he feels fulfilled in part because he has work-life balance and a path forward to pursue his career goals. He shares several reasons for joining the Fried Rice Collective restaurant group, which includes CHIKO: a focus on mental health, two guaranteed days off, a schedule of no more than eight hours per day, and a leadership team that fosters dialogue around work-life balance.

Chris Spear, the creator of Chefs Without Restaurants, is a personal chef in the greater D.C. region. He’s dedicated his free time to creating content, like a podcast, for those with unorthodox paths in food. Holding strong to your own passions helps you balance the feeling of work taking over your life, according to Spear. “A lot of people get too consumed by work,” he says. “I personally never let the restaurant industry be all consuming for me. So then I never expected that from my staff.” 

Spear and other chefs share strategies for creating better work environments. “For me it’s really important for everybody to have something other than work in their life,” Spear says. His work on his podcast and media brand gives him agency outside of the kitchen. “If you can find a way to encourage [work-life balance] as a mentor, I think it’s important you have those conversations with your staff.”

Addison stresses creating a nurturing work culture where cooks feel acknowledged and heard. “I am not going to say I am perfect at this,” he says. “It has been a learning experience my entire career managing kitchens. On a very human level I want anyone who works for me to feel good, feel happy, and feel fulfilled.” He realizes that not everyone who works in restaurants wants to be in food their entire lives. His goal is to help them realize their dreams instead of pressuring them down a path that is not their own. Investing in employees and being realistic fosters loyalty.

Zaria Stott works both as line cook at a restaurant in Falls Church and an entrepreneur who founded Food by Zaria. She sells jams, baked goods, and soups with vegan and gluten-free options. As Stott juggles a full-time food business and a full-time line cook job, burnout is an ever present risk. “There are definitely times it can be overwhelming with my own small business,” she says. “To eliminate my burnout, organization is a really huge plus in this industry.”

The path for a cook looking to move into a leadership position is not an easy one. George Hawkins was recently promoted to executive sous chef at Republic in Takoma Park. He says he was able to move up the ladder, rung by rung, because of the relationship he fostered with his head chef. Hawkins also says kitchen higher-ups noticed whenever he was feeling burnt out and reached out to have a conversation.

“I would tell my chef, I need a self care day to get myself together, to get myself organized,” Hawkins explains. “Or if I feel I am too consumed with work, I try to divide time for myself and time for the restaurant.” 

He started as a cook before his promotion. “I try my best to be open with my chef when talking about my self growth,” he says. Talking openly about burnout allowed him to progress into a leadership role, he adds.

Stott also found a position in a supportive kitchen. “I am working with a chef who is totally on board with my development,” she says. “He knows I have my own little side business.” Stott shares that her mentor provides guidance on hurdles she faces as a new small business owner, such as appropriately pricing items on a catering menu. She “feels blessed” to work for a leader who acts selflessly.

Spear talks about the importance of not being caught off guard by a cook’s potential goal. “You have to be pre-emptive, to watch your staff,” he advises. He considers what tasks they may have to do in a new role and tries to prepare them for it by giving them practice. “I would have them do something like the bread order or Sysco order because those are things they will have to do.” 

But like most workers, cooks can sometimes feel like they’ve maxed when it comes to growth potential. “There are only so many spaces in a given restaurant or a given restaurant group,” Addison says. “You need to acknowledge what you have available. I would love it if all of my line cooks worked with me for 10 years. A lot of young cooks want to keep learning and want to experience different things.”

Spear echoes that holding onto a cook can slow their progress. “It’s also a responsibility to get people ready to leave,” he says. “I still think it is my responsibility to help those people move on and take those positions elsewhere if you don’t have room for them.” 

Ray Delucci is the founder of Line Cook Thoughts, a website, social media brand, and podcast that shares the stories of cooks and other food service workers.