Le Torture Chambre

Daniel Kramer

Think American kitchens have it bad? Think again. The French, granddaddies of fine cuisine they are, invented mistreatment. Stories abound about chefs being made to drink gallons of butter sauce that fell below the most rigorous of standards and being belted over the head with ladles when their consommés weren't as clear as a bottle of Evian.

In his memoir, The Apprentice, French legend Jacques Pépin recalls working 15-hour days in the kitchen at the age of 13, sleeping a few hours on a cot and getting up the next morning to do it all again.

Bistro Moderne's Philippe Schmit remembers the French apprentice system of his youth, living with other cooks in a one-room apartment and seldom seeing the sun. "We worked 80-hour weeks," he says. "It was very tough." For those keeping score, that's two workweeks for the price of none (pay was minimal at best; they were "working for the room, board and the résumé").

Schmit is happy to report that things in his home country have improved considerably since his days as a 14-year-old terrine-making tyke. "The mentality of the new generation wouldn't allow what we allowed back then. It was too hard. No one wanted to become chefs." To entice youngsters back into the kitchen, the French government took a stance, lest the quality of the cuisine head downhill. "They made it illegal to work more than 40 hours a week in kitchens." Surprisingly not bitter, Schmit is thrilled for the new crop, saying things always needed to change and he's glad they finally have.

So, now that he's a big-time chef operating a top-notch joint of his own, what's he working? About 35 hours a week?

"I'm generally at the restaurant from 11 a.m. to midnight six days a week…and I work a half-day for brunch on Sunday."

Wow, taking it easy there, eh, chef?

"Yeah, I guess I haven't learned anything."

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