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Sick, Bro! Why cooks at your favourite restaurants work when they shouldn’t

Sick, Bro! Why cooks at your favourite restaurants work when they shouldn't
(Illustration: Brett Lamb)

When I cooked for a living, we were expected to show up, ready to work, unless a limb had been severed or liquid was oozing out of us. No one ever said we had to work sick; that’d be an obvious violation of labour laws and consideration for the public, exposing diners to our cold germs. But the first time you try staying home because you have a runny nose, sore throat and mild fever, you get a clear message the next day. No one cares that you were ill or asks if you’re feeling better. They only ask about the work you didn’t get done.

“Unless they’re deathly bedridden, my guys would show up to work under any circumstance,” David Haman, the co-owner of Woodlot, told me recently.

Cooking sick might sound gross to the average, germaphobic diner, but it’s a point of pride with cooks. When your colleague or boss, so woozy they can barely stand, works the grill for ten hours, the message is that you’re weak or lazy for calling in sick. One time, ten years ago, when I had a job working at a vegetarian restaurant on Bloor West, I woke up vomiting. When it didn’t stop, I called and told a manager that I couldn’t come in. Later, I got a call from the chef asking me to describe my symptoms. The next day, everyone snickered about my day off, a moral lapse as clear to them and embarrassing for me as being caught red-handed stealing from a collection plate.

“It’s an unwritten rule,” says Amanda Ray, the head chef at Oliver & Bonacini’s bistro Biff’s. “Personally, I think it’s a stupid rule. If someone’s sneezing and coughing and blowing their nose, I don’t want them touching food. It’s gross.” During Winterlicious, Ray was fighting a cold, so she took it easy. That didn’t mean taking any days off—she just worked a couple short days, 8 hours instead of 15. “If somebody calls in sick, who’s going to work their station?” says Ray. “The show has to go on no matter what.”

Restaurant profit margins are slim. It takes a small number of people working extremely hard, and extremely fast, to make any money, and if there aren’t enough bodies to pump out food, everyone loses out. The larger an operation grows, the harder it is to plug all the holes. These days, I hear chefs complaining louder than ever that good labour is hard to find. Calling in sick means your boss calls someone else on one of their rare days off. Unless it’s their wedding day, they have to come in. And now they hate you for it.

“The show must go on” is how Stuart Cameron puts it, too. “You can’t shut the carnival down just because a few people are sick.” The executive chef of Patria, Weslodge and Byblos, Cameron insists he doesn’t want anyone working sick. But last month, in Miami, he had the flu and cooked through a pop-up event anyway. He just didn’t feel like there was another option.

“I did call in sick once, when I was a kid,” Cameron remembers. “I was at a walk-in clinic and I rang my chef. He was like, ‘Get in here now.’ I went in. I had a fever. And I didn’t say good morning to him. He picked me up by the throat, held me against the wall and said, ‘Have some respect and say good morning.’ And then after lunch he said, ‘You look horrible. You should go home.’”

Every chef I spoke to for this story told me that they don’t want their cooks working sick, out of concern for both their employees and their customers. But they all still have a story of working sick and all accept it as part of the culture.

“Coming from a kitchen restaurant background, you don’t call in sick,” says Peter Sanagan, an ex-chef whose 40-plus employees at the Kensington Market butcher shop Sanagan’s Meat Locker are mostly ex-cooks. “I’ve always been the kind of manager to say that if you call in sick, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. If you do it too often, I’m going to get suspicious.”

“It’s this whole idea that the world will end if you’re not there, which is absolutely untrue,” he adds. “I probably feel I’m irreplaceable and if I’m not there, everything shuts down. Even when I was just on garde manger, I’d think, ‘Oh my god, if I’m not there, who’s going to work garde?’”

I’ve had that job: the guy who makes garnishes and plates the food. And I remember that feeling—bones aching, pockets stuffed with snotty tissues—that if I wasn’t there the white balsamic vinaigrette would have gone unwhisked, that the plates would have left the kitchen unadorned by three drips of sauce, that my colleagues would think less of me. You don’t show up because someone told you that you have to. Or for the hot toddy and pat on the back you’ll get at the end of your shift when your buddies commend you for being a trooper. You show up because you feel an obligation to not let down the team or because you remember what happened the first time you were sick on the job.

“There’s this underlying, judgmental thought that unless you’re dying or barfing, you stay on. You show up and maybe, if you look terrible, you get sent home. Otherwise people just soldier through it,” says Sanagan. “If someone has a communicable virus they shouldn’t be working with food. But at the same time, I’ve been the guy working when I have a fever of 105. I don’t have the good common sense to send myself home sometimes.”

In an ideal world, cooks wouldn’t work when they had a cold. But in that alternate reality, they’d get dental coverage and overtime pay too.

The truth is that cooks work sick. Flu-panicked Torontonians can take that as another sign to freak out, wear a Hazmat suit and eat out of cans. Or we can surrender to the inescapability of germs and accept that we live in a giant, unregulated petri dish, that we are soggy, shuffling masses of disease, waging a constant, unconscious, invisible campaign to infect each other.

“We wash our hands a shit-ton,” says Woodlot’s David Haman. “We seem to do ok.”

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