Friday, March 25, 2011

Steer Boot Camp - Day 5 "Cabin Fever"

This post is about my fifth day at "Boot Camp" at Steer Bar and Grill in South Yarra. You can read more about how I got the opportunity to work in a commercial kitchen for a week and also about my previous days in the links below.

How I got to work at Steer
Steer Boot Camp - Day 1 "It's All New To Me"
Steer Boot Camp - Day 2 "Food, Lots of Food"
Steer Boot Camp - Day 3 "So That's How You Do It"
Steer Boot Camp - Day 4 "Show Time"

After the hugely successful dinner party for my friends the previous night, I was surprised how deflated I felt the next day. The long hours and tiredness was catching up to me. The long hours confined to the kitchen and seeing the same people was also starting to play with my mind. I could feel myself slipping slightly from about day 3 onwards, but now it was in full force. I instantly recognised what I was experiencing, cabin fever. I had seen the episode of Mythbusters when Jamie and Adam were isolated in a real cabin and they very quickly started to exhibit all the traits of cabin fever. Here I was in the kitchen for extremely long hours, interacting with the same group of people, with little stimulus to the brain during some repetitive tasks.

I was starting to act like the other chefs, feeling restless a lot. The irritability was also growing, getting angry when I couldn't find something. Whereas I was calm and would look for the item on the first day, I started to act like the chefs and give an outburst when I couldn't find a pen for instance. I was becoming so forgetful too. Seriously, I have been addicted to Words with Friends lately and knew all the two letter words, but I couldn't recall what letter followed Q or Z, which everyone playing Words with Friends know off by heart. It's I and A respectively, which I can remember again now. I lost some Word games for the first time ever to opponents I would normally beat easily, which further added to my frustration. The laughter aspect was also definitely apparent. I would randomly burst out into song like the chefs had been doing the whole time I was there, then laugh about it. I would also play little games and start play fighting with the male chefs. It was getting to a point where I felt so irritated that it led me to feel quite sad quite often. That whole day was particularly bad as some late cancellations meant a quieter restaurant with not a lot to do during service.

Below are some photos I took of us mucking around. We even went as far as plating up a dish to photograph.

The kitchen environment can be stressful, but at times of quiet, those are equally frustrating. The extremely long hours and constant confinement to the same location with the same people can really play with your mind. My life had been turned upside down in that week. I didn't read the newspaper anymore, didn't watch TV, didn't blog, didn't listen to music, didn't socialise with my friends, basically didn't do anything. I didn't know what was happening in the real world. If it wasn't for Twitter and Facebook (luckily I could use those whereas the chefs couldn't) during the day, I would have gone more insane.

Even with the distractions of Twitter and Facebook, I still wasn't comfortable in the kitchen anymore and asked to do front of house the next day. I thought I was getting along with the chefs but we all began to grate on each other and burst out in attacks on each other. The attacks weren't anything bad or lasting, as two minutes later we were all ok again, but something in the mind was making us do it and I didn't like that lost sense of control over my mental capacities. It was very scary indeed. I'm not saying chefs do it, but I can see why you may turn to drugs or other outlets that may be unhealthy for you. I think it was summed up best by Lexie when she said that most chefs don't start off in the industry as smokers, but they become smokers because for that 5 minutes when they're outside having a smoke, they can sit down, relax and just remove themselves from that environment for a short period to regain their sanity.

The restaurant industry is very tough, the long hours definitely being an issue, but also the confinement of the location can really play with your mind. I respect chefs and hospitality staff who can do that long term and still produce a high level of food and service. I am passionate about food, but not to that level that I would want to subject myself to such a harsh environment. I asked every chef in the restaurant why they were in the industry. They really did want to cook and the excitement they got from serving customers great food was a massive reward and partially kept them going. Ultimately, all wanted to own their own restaurant so they could control the style and quality of food produced and make a living from something they loved but admitted was extremely hard work. I'm unsure what changes can be made to the industry to change the pay and hours, because if chefs were paid a decent wage for every hour they worked, there wouldn't be a hospitality industry.

Why do chefs continue to do what they do when there is so much stress?
What can be changed in the industry yet still keep dining affordable?

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook and view the Flickr stream for more photos.


  1. Cabin fever indeed. Not to mention the constant heat in the kitchen will drive you nuts. And the place is all white and silver.

  2. Oh yes, I have such respect for chefs. It is a TOUGH life. I suppose the passion for food and creating a really special dining experience for patrons is what keeps them going. Respect ;)
    Heidi xo

  3. I know I should be drooling over food but... MANU!!!!!

    Anway... hope I have a photo taken with a celebrity chef too :P

  4. Interesting.. Is it the heat in the kitchen that pushes people to react a certain way? Or did they have a hangover from the night before...

  5. Looking very smart in your chef's uniform! :) But it really is such a tough environment for them to be in, and I suppose it doesn't help that there's a new breed of critique's to satisfy as well as your standard customer....I was talking to a chef the other day and he was saying how hard it is to have consistency through the kitchen, to get the apprentices to plate exactly the way you expect etc. etc.

  6. Michelle, it was extremely bad after a few days and I felt very irratible.

    Heidi, I respect the chefs greatly and they really have to love cooking to keep going.

    Penny, I'm sure you'll meet a celebrity chef during your stint.

    I don't think it's a hangover. The heat plays a factor, but it's just the long hours and intense stress the whole day, everyday.

    Ashley, it's an extremely tough environment, and yes, now they have to deal with pesky bloggers as well haha.

    Consistency is the key. As one chef told me, it doesn't mean anything if you do a brilliant service one night only to stuff it up the next night.

  7. Hello. And Bye.