Thursday, January 27, 2011

You're welcome to hang out here....

The few words that make you feel worthy but also drop in your stomach. You don't get paid for “hanging out.” What a strange standard in the industry – I thought – when I first heard from a friend that working for free is normal. Since that day I've asked several culinary professionals, whom I admire, what experiences they had that made them better cooks. “Well I worked for free a lot,” says the man working the wood fire oven serving me up probably the best octopus I'll have in my life. Well damn. How do these floaters pay their bills? Don't they have responsibilities? Where are their mothers?

Of course not everybody works for free. I'm sure plenty of people, some of them my friends and family, could read this and think that I'm being taken advantage of. But the operative point is that the people I admire in the industry – who make great food that I want to make – worked for free. And just to further clarify – this is not the sort of thing you do at your local cafe or neighborhood chinese restaurant – you work for free at nice places. Places where the chef is really a master.  Where there is something great to be gained from exposure to this person that would otherwise remain a mystery because you're not experienced enough to get paid to be near him/her.

So what does “hang out” mean anyway? I think it means they like me. I think. It's definitely at least a cross between they like me and they don't want me. I'm sure they like the free labor. But how coincidental that all the chefs/cooks have used the same words. It's like I'm responding to code. What are they trying to convey to me?  What is the proper response?  It's as if we're pals and pretending that this is what I do for fun...for eight hours consecutively.

The whole idea makes a lot of sense once you realize how much exploitation goes on in the food industry. Exploitation: when there is a differential between what you are worth/the amount of work you do and your compensation. The two should be equal. I don't have a lot of experience but what I know after checking craigslist ads is that the lady at the newsstand who reads magazines for a living earned $2 more per hour than me. Not to mention the loads of free labor I saw the sous chef put in where I was working. He was on salary so he often picked up the slack, working extra days, extra shifts, extra hours, doubles, without a dime of overtime. There was certainly an inequality there.

Half the people tell me that I'm just paying my dues. You have to earn every bit of extra money, responsibility, and glory. You have to endure and keep your eyes and ears open, using every moment as a learning opportunity, trying to make each day better than the last. The other half tell me that work deserves compensation. Period. Don't settle for less. It's like I have good and bad jiminy crickets on either shoulder, except I'm having a hard time telling who's who. What uncertainty. At least for now, I'm putting a whole lot of faith in the fact that working for free is better than paying to learn. I don't believe I am wasting my time.

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