Editor’s note: Managing Chef Work Stress was originally published in July 2017 and most recently updated in May 2022.
There’s no point denying it. As a professional chef your work environment can often be stressful.
For the restaurant chef it is the grind of meeting that 15 minute ticket time over and over again for hundreds of customers in a shift. For the banquet chef it’s delivering multiple food events often scheduled closely together. And for the catering chef it’s the ability to prepare fantastic food off-site without famine or fail.
Whatever your focus, the daily routine is to meet deadlines and deliver perfectly prepared and presented cuisine. This is either praised or criticised by every dining guest every hour of every service until finish …over and over again. Add to this the stress factors of managing budgets, staffing and business administration if you’re a manager, and – well – it’s easy to see how stress levels can climb swiftly.
Managing chef work stress
So how do you take your chef stress down to a manageable level? What are some great safeguards to stop you losing it in a kitchen full of tired team members? Let’s take a look at managing stress as a working chef.
Mise en place is everything
Proper mise en place is the foundation of success in the kitchen. The better your mise en place is organised the better your day will be. Poorly organized mise can turn a hard day into a living hell. Think beyond just the food prep. Include utensils, plates, towels, pans, platters, and the team’s ‘during service’ frame of mind.
Training teams to be properly prepped increases speed during service, decreases stress and results in consistently more successful service periods.
Seconds save minutes
This is related to mise en place, yet different in that it helps define some things which should be part of your mise en place.
If you can shave five seconds off the service time of every dish on your menu your speed of service increases while the stress level on the line decreases. Saving five seconds on 300 covers eliminates 25 minutes of time during service.
That’s 25 minutes less work that your crew needs to do in order to produce the same number of covers. Seconds save minutes.
For instance, a burger restaurant can do this by simply pre-making all their burger sets. By pre-assembling the lettuce, onion, tomato, and pickle into one unit the line saves a few seconds on every single order during service because they only have to touch the plate once instead of 4 times.
Managing chef work stress – Hope for the best, plan for the worst
A typical plan of action covers what needs to be done on a normal day…here’s my menu, here’s my prep list, and this is who’s responsible for each station. But having a Plan B that can be followed when things go wrong like ovens going down, guests arriving late/early, being short staffed etc. is always going to be helpful for everyone in that circumstance. Especially if you’re delivering banquets, catering and off-site events. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
Manage them up or out
The single most important ingredient for managing chef stress is knowing you work with well-trained, reliable and consistent kitchen team members who pull their weight and can deliver 99% of the time. This is even more important if you are managing the team.
If a team member does not prepare food according to your standards, first train and educate them how to do it correctly. If they don’t step-up then you should avoid the stress, resentment and potentially apathy that could manifest among the rest of your team, and manage them out of your kitchen.
The same applies to those good cooks who don’t show up for work. They should also go. Making tough decisions isn’t easy but a necessity when you’re the leader.
Deal with problems in a constructive way
Likewise don’t ignore problems… they rarely go away and usually only get bigger. Every chef has their own challenges based upon their own unique personality and operation.
If you see a problem, deal with it immediately.
Work for management you respect
If you are unhappy in your current position because of those in authority over you then it’s time to move on. If you can, complete a year for CV purposes, do your job to the best of your ability, don’t burn bridges and then get out.
Managing chef work stress – And finally, outside of work hours
Everyone – especially chefs – need a way to decompress outside of stressful work hours. Scheduling time to relax is just as important as scheduling time to do your inventory. It’s a necessity for managing stress as a working chef.
Enjoying activities that take your mind off work are great stress relievers. And – sure – alcohol may help us all to unwind, but it shouldn’t be your only outside-of-work pastime!