Opinion: Underappreciated and overworked in Okanagan kitchens

Farewell to the kitchen

I am a chef in the Okanagan and I have been hearing/reading a lot about the lack of employees in the Okanagan. I keep hearing from owners and heads of businesses complaining about lack of staff. I would like to respond to these people but was unsure where to begin so I wrote something that hopefully can help explain what, and why, and hopefully we can get some forward movement in the industry.

My name is Roger (it isn't but names have been changed to protect the innocent) and I have been in the restaurant industry for the majority of my life. I started working at a local restaurants when I was 15 years old. Since then I have worked for many prominent restaurants. Some still in operation, other closing for a variety of reasons.

I wanted to share my experience because I represent the other side of this story, the line cook side. The narrative that many employees have disappeared due to unemployment is partly true, however is not the cause.

It is the symptom of a much deeper issue. It is my opinion that many have become burnt and therefore jaded to the current state of our food service industry.

I have held a variety of positions from line cook in chain restaurants to kitchen manager for local small businesses and I personally have watched the industry I love torn apart from the inside out. I do believe that Covid-19 has had a huge impact on sales, however this pandemic has only served to open the eyes of those who have been left behind by greed, mismanagement and failed ownership.

As restaurant employees we have sacrificed our bodies and minds, going underpaid and underappreciated. I have seen friends succumb to addictions far beyond cigarettes and alcohol. I have experienced relationship failures because of the amount of time and mental capacity that are required of me for a job that could close it's doors at any moment and has in fact done so with little to no notice.

I think Covid has awoken the next generation to the duplicitous behavior of owners and GM's telling staff that employees are their most valuable asset as they stand aside and watch the workforce binge on illicit activities and self harm. "Our company believes in promotion from within," is probably the most egregious lie that has been told to so many people. We struggle to survive hoping to rise to the top, but there is no top. Only a great reset as businesses routinely close and neglectful ownership drives us to pursue other opportunities to only start the cycle anew.

This is not an indictment of all business owners, as I will never name those who have scorned me and my small circle of friends. Friends whom I would go to war for. Friends forgotten by the world. Lost to suicide, drug and alcohol dependence, and jail when failing to overcome the burden of mental health collapse.

There have been great ones in the past. Owners like the (redacted) family who gave me a purpose, they saw within me a potential to lead that few others had nurtured. They brought me in as family. Or (redacted) from the local food truck who literally gave me a place to call home when I was ready to become homeless. But these are the exceptions, and frankly the kindness that they showed with liveable wages and a less than militaristic approach to staffing and performance was a weakness. Not a flaw in their personalities, but a weakness in a savage, cutthroat competitive industry.

I wanted to write this as a sort of homage and farewell to the industry I chose to pursue for over 20 years of my life. I, like many others, have decided to have one last reset. A reset to leave the industry I loved and steer my destiny toward something more meaningful where I am no longer overlooked. If you walk into any kitchen in the Okanagan, you will meet some of the toughest men and women. Resilience that will serve them well elsewhere. I started a new journey. I hope that many others follow suit.

I do not know who, if anyone, will ever see this or care to share. I do not expect some great journalist to run with a story that will shift the industry toward normality, because what is normal? I believe that myself and many others I have worked with have the capacity to bring greatness to the world, but it will never be behind a hot stove, dishwasher, or black apron ever again. Those are the tools of the forgotten, and I want to be remembered.

Roger, a pseudonym, is leaving the kitchen after spending decades in the restaurant industry in the Okanagan

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