For the month of February, Metro’s Workology section will be focusing on some delicious food-related careers. Check back every Wednesday for a new feature.
The best part of cooking for a living is the thrill of a busy kitchen and a restaurant full of customers. It’s also the worst part, if you’re at the end of a 108-hour week.
Jimmy Dao, chef at the popular Talay Thai restaurant in downtown Halifax, cranks out 18-hour days, six days a week in peak times, but if he wants to complain to the boss, he has to find a mirror: He owns the business with his family.
“It’s very stressful and very busy. Never ending,” he says. “When it’s busy, it’s a good sign and you’re happy, but tired. You feel excited when everything is moving around — it’s like exercise.”
Dao trained on the job, working in restaurants in Moncton, Montreal and Toronto before opening Talay Thai five years ago. The long and unsociable hours mean he doesn’t see his two-year-old son as much as he’d like, but it’s the price he pays for doing a job he loves.
“I hope I can continue another 20 years,” he says.
John Higgins, director of the Chef School at George Brown College in Toronto, agrees that killer hours are one of the big downsides to cooking for a living.
“Cooking is a tough job. You’re on your feet all day, there’s pressures, deadlines, customers,” he says. “You get 40 customers and you’ve got 40 different taste palates and you’re only as good as your last meal.”
The good news is the industry is expanding, meaning jobs at not just hotels and restaurants, but also golf courses, casinos, catering firms and venues like the Air Canada Centre. Companies like Unilever also hire chefs, offering the elusive nine-to-five cooking job.
George Brown College offers a one-year chef training certificate or a two-year culinary management diploma. Year one covers the basic skills needed to work in the food-service industry, like hygiene, tool use and cooking styles. Year two takes those skills deeper. The training is half hands-on, half theory. Theory covers the science of cooking. A lamb chop, for example, can be cooked with radiated heat on a grill, but ox tail has to be cooked much longer because the connective tissue of the collagen takes a few hours to break down.
The hands-on side lets the budding chefs loose in the school’s 14 state-of-the-art kitchens, where recipes take a back seat to skills.