Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, often cited for his callous televised persona, did a really nice thing on Sunday. During Ramsay's first ever Reddit Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) question and answer session, a young struggling chef, worn by the rigors of crippling and relentless kitchen work, turned to the seasoned vet for career advice. "How did you deal with it?" the cook asked, citing nagging physical ailments, nasty bosses, and a general lack of recognition. But instead of offering only empathy, Ramsay responded by giving the young man an opportunity.
"Listen—if you send me your resume, I could look at putting you into one of the restaurants as a work experience, if you want to see something different, in order to make sure you don't come off the rails, to see something different, to create that level of interest," Ramsay said.
The gesture was a gracious one. Some 11,000 comments were written as part of thread, meaning that hundreds if not thousands of people tuned in to talk with Ramsay. Many of them would have likely been thrilled to find themselves on the receiving end of such an offer. And Ramsay could have just as easily spewed a few words of encouragement and gone about his day.
But Ramsay's willingness to extend a hand is also a testament to the grueling and unforgiving trajectory of an ambitious cook.
For most, the path begins with a weighty decision: Is culinary school worth the time and money? The answer is less obvious than it might seem. Some chefs, like Daniel Boulud, are vocal proponents of the schooling, while others question the payoff.
For those who attend culinary school, debt is almost certainly to follow. Top schools cost lots of money: they can run anywhere between $35,000 and over $100,000, depending on the degree. There are entire forums centered around overcoming culinary school debt.
But for those who opt to skip the schooling—like Ramsay, who forewent formal training, and instead earned his chops under the tutelage of chefs like the famously temperamental Marco Pierre White, among others—there's a greater likelihood of a lower starting salary.
Starting salaries, with or without a culinary degree, are extremely low for young cooks. Executive chef salaries approach the realm of six figures, according to the most recent salary report form StarChefs.com. But chef de cuisines and sous chefs make a good deal less, and virtually everyone has to pay their dues earning paltry hourly wages as a line cook—for years. For that reason, in 2012, the median salary for restaurant cooks was less than $23,000 in the United States, considerably less than that for other service industry jobs.
Entry-level jobs in the cooking world are grueling, something that aspiring cooks often don't fully understand, especially if they've watched too many competitive cooking shows that make the profession look like it's filled with glory. "They get into the real world and realize, wait, what do you mean I have to work the pantry station for six months, and what do you mean it pays $11 an hour, and what do you mean I have to work Saturday and Sunday?" Suzanne Goin, a chef and restaurateur in Los Angeles, told Eater in 2013.
Working the kitchen is physically taxing. Shifts that last as long as 15 hours and expose cooks to intense doses of heat, frantic service cycles, and all the resultant stress take their tole over time. "Bad back? Flat feet? Respiratory problems? Eczema? Old knee injury from high school? It sure isn’t going to get any better in the kitchen," Anthony Bourdain warns for these very reasons in his 2010 book Medium Raw.
The struggle is all too real for one commenter on Reddit. "My body is calling for maintenance nightly when I hit the sack," he or she laments. "Sometimes I look out the tiny window and I can see people walking around the streets, enjoying the sunlight, while I'm here, questioning my dedication to this art."