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Cutting through the smoke

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by Andree Lau, CBCnews.ca

I've never worked in a restaurant or a professional kitchen, so I'm fascinated by the barrage of reality food shows on TV, especially the pressure-filled, expletive-laden Hell's Kitchen.

As I dutifully watched this season's finale this week, one question still bothered me: why do these aspiring chefs smoke so much?

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Contestants on Hell's Kitchen vie to run one of chef Gordon Ramsay's restaurants. (Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

A few times every episode, the contestants who were vying to run one of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's restaurants would be shown puffing away while scheming during breaks, crafting a menu, or unwinding after service.

I know smoking is supposed to help with stress, but doesn't it also dull your taste buds?

I took the question to Kevin Kent. He's spent almost 20 years cooking his way through professional kitchens including River Café in Calgary and St. John in London.

Stress was his first explanation for the smoking.

"It also has something to do with the chef lifestyle which is akin to the pirate lifestyle," said Kent. "I think chefs see themselves outside the norms of society, kind of like rock and roll for people who can't play guitar."

Eloquent food blogger and chef Barbara Fisher goes further, writing about kitchen workers: "They don’t get enough sleep, they often eat too little, and they cannot relax in any normal way, so they turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, and yes, foul language, to make it through the days and nights of their existence, all so they can turn out endless plates of gorgeous food for people who have the money and leisure time to spend on it."

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Kevin Kent shows one of his knives to customers in his store. (Andree Lau/CBC)

Kent used to smoke, but quit when he realized it was hurting not only his health but also his sense of smell and taste. He doesn't miss the smoking, but does miss the rush and the camaraderie in a kitchen.

"People on your crew are your family," says Kent, re-living some fond memories over the phone. But it's also why he had to leave to nurture his own family, including 8-month-old Elliot, at home.

"I knew if I was working noon to midnight every day, that it wouldn't be conducive to seeing him. He's going to grow up quickly and I don't want to miss it," he says.

That's why Kent turned his passion for sharp blades into a specialty store called Knifewear in Calgary this March. It's got fire-red walls and beautiful handmade Japanese blades. Kent offers a sharpening service and tons of knowledge about all the glistening knives in his glass cases.

But he definitely plans on getting back into a kitchen and opening his own restaurant one day: "I miss the creativity. I miss writing menus. I miss creating specials," he admits.

What was working in a restaurant like for you?

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Comments

Robert M.

It's a high pressure industry and smoking can help take the edge off. Not that there ever is a good reason to smoke. Apart from the obvious health concerns, the junk in the smoke can coat the tongue and diminsih the sensitivty of tastebuds. Let's hope the chef preparing your meal doesn't overcompensate by over salting.

Posted July 18, 2008 09:55 AM

Aaron Vincent

I'm telling you, if that chef Gordon Ramsay talked to me the way he talks to the contestants on Hell's Kitchen, he'd have two black eyes in a hurry. Wow, you can prepare food...big deal.

Posted July 18, 2008 03:59 PM

MJ

Ottawa

The natural rhythm of a working kitchen is go, go, go. As long as one is there, one is expected to be preparing food. Obviously, nobody wants folks smoking in the middle of a kitchen, so workers who smoke are sent elsewhere to get their fix. Ergo, one way to take a break and not be pressed back into service is to be conveniently outside the building having a cough.

Another reason may be a bit of peer pressure (It is not just for schoolkids, after all). If all or most of one's coworkers smoke on their breaks, it may be more comfortable (If incredibly less healthy) to join in.

Posted July 18, 2008 05:55 PM

Clories

Two words: absolute hell.

Posted July 18, 2008 07:34 PM

Peter

This Ramsay is a case for a Doctor.
I have never seen a more rude and unprofessional Chef. He actually create all this chaos by screaming names and using this language. It is not normal. I know it is only a show.
He don't make a good example for the industry and young people must think this stupid behavior happens in every kitchen.
It is not. And he is NOT a good Chef. Hygiene is not his strongest subject. Going true his hair all the time and preparing plates right after. He is a pig.

Posted July 18, 2008 10:41 PM

Ann

Edmonton

I used to work as a waitress, and I, along with almost all other servers I knew, smoked. In the restaurant business, employees don't get to take regular breaks. It's not like working in an office or a retail outlet where employees can make sure that they get a 15 minute break every two hours or something. The only way anyone could ever justify taking five or ten minutes to themselves was if they could argue that they needed a cigarette. Otherwise, in the down time when there weren't many customers, you were always expected to set tables or polish wine glasses or something.

The same goes for chefs, I think. Although part of it might be the stress, part of it is that it's the only way to get out of the kitchen for a few minutes to pull yourself together again without having someone yelling at you to look busy.

Posted July 19, 2008 04:43 PM

Evan Watson

Calgary

As someone who's worked in a kitchen many times, I can appreciate what Gordon Ramsey brings to the table, while he may have a brash and loud way in the kitchen, but he gets things done, you don't own that many restaurants without being good at what you do. I did not smoke while I worked in the kitchen, but i can understand why some do, its a release for some, cause during some of the dinner rushes, your required to do multiple tasks at once for an extended period of time, and afterwards its all about relaxing and preparing for the next round.

Posted July 19, 2008 05:51 PM

Me

Toronto

If some posters had been exposed to Ramsay's UK programming, specifically Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and The F Word, they'd realize that the chef depicted on Hell's Kitchen is a caricature of his real body of work.

And FYI, Ramsay is not a smoker himself. He's actually a fitness freak, running the London Marathon annually, while advocating that the 21st chef needs to be "fit, clean, and well-spoken".

Posted July 20, 2008 05:11 PM

Brett Rode

Calgary

Everyone hates Chef Ramsay's attitude and language...get over it! He is renowned as a tough, vocal chef, and is very successful. People who offer to engage in these shows know this and shouldn't be surprised when he lashes out. Check out his Kichen Nightmare's show, these restaurants bring him in to help and fix...and he definitely does!!!! Brilliance!!!!

Posted July 21, 2008 09:52 AM

M

Wpg

Working as a cook for many years in different restaurants, I can tell you that, a) smoking is a way to take breaks. You'll be lucky if your cook is only smoking cigarettes, and b) Ramsey's attitude is very commonplace. When someone leads a team like that, you're much more productive. He may swear a lot, but he still has respect for his workers and gives praise when it's due.

Posted July 21, 2008 10:56 AM

BRIAN

CALGARY

I have worked Kitchens before I used to hate it. However now I am thinking about going to get my Ex Chefs ticket. I would love to work for RAMSEY I feel his attatuide in the way of nothing but the best leaves this kitchen is th way it should always be. Demand profection and you will get it. if you can't handle bad words then maybe you need to go work in an office where people are all to worried about being P.C. Me I much rather have fun

Posted July 21, 2008 05:02 PM

Michael

I agree with another poster - if this Gordon Ramsay moron talked to me in his arrogant offensive way, he'd be drinking his food through a straw in short order. The man is a jerk - reminds me of those restaurants where people pay for poor service, on purpose. What a world.

Posted July 22, 2008 01:55 PM

john

surrey

When i was working at Toulouse Latrec At EXPO 86 we all agreed to 7 minute breaks simply because thats how long it takes to smoke a cigarette.

Posted July 22, 2008 03:34 PM

john

surrey

When i was working at Toulouse Latrec At EXPO 86 we all agreed to 7 minute breaks simply because thats how long it takes to smoke a cigarette.

Posted July 22, 2008 04:04 PM

Jeff J

Calgary

I think many of the experts have overlooked the very simple explaination that it is cultural. I've seen many young chefs start smoking because they continually go on a 15 min break with other chefs who smoke. What else are you going to do on the short breaks that are necessary in a busy kitchen? Smoking aslo provieds cessation from hunger and I have to say most (not all) chefs will agree that the last thing they want to do after cooking for others all day, is cook for themselves. A cigarette is a much easier alternative.

As for all the comments about Ramsey, it is well known in the industry that while very tough on people he is a phenominal trainer. And in his real life he backs up his words with genuine compassion and a desire to see people succeed. All you have to do is watch the original "Kitchen Nightmares" filmed in England to see this. The american versions of his shows are editted to make him look like an asshole because that is what North Americans want to see on TV.

Posted July 23, 2008 01:14 PM

h-j

Saskatchewan

Having worked in the industry for over 40 years Gordon bring back good old memories from way back when it used to be more commen to speak up instead being a hypocrite.
Today everyone si crying fool about the simplest thing...as for many who write comment have never worked is such a hard environment. YES kitchens have become hell for most of us who been exposed top lousy, arrogant and incompetent business Owners/Managers in the food industry. Taking Food Service workers for granted for cheap labour Making a little over minimum wages for years. Working in the hospitality industry isn't a place for making good income.
To bad we are facing a crisis... Actually it is only showing the need for respect and value of those who work daily at there jobs.

Posted July 27, 2008 04:57 PM

Ross

Quebec

The smoking scenes wouldn't be because cigarette manufacturers are subversively promoting their products would it?

Posted July 29, 2008 11:13 AM

djcloutier

bc

I have worked in the industry for 24 years. Having a smoke was a way to take a break. There is never enough time to sit down. I stopped smoking when my son was born 14 years ago. Now I just don't stop.

Posted July 29, 2008 08:23 PM

smokie

Has to be planted. I've worked in the industry and sure plenty people smoke but on HK I think everyone smokes, even people that don't look like smokers. I don't buy it. Plus most of these halfwits aren't real industry people anyways.

I think the producers think it's funny and clever way for product placement: Ooooo Gordon Ramsey is soooooo scary - he's driving all these nice kids to smoke.

Posted February 28, 2009 12:15 PM

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Amber Hildebrandt Amber Hildebrandt writes for CBCNews.ca in Toronto. Growing up on a farm in Manitoba, she acquired an insatiable appetite, but it was during a stint in Japan that she developed her discerning tastebuds and "foodie" ways.

Andrea Chiu Andrea Chiu is an associate producer at CBC Radio Digital. Though she loves to eat, cook and discuss food, don't ask her to bake. It never turns out well. She tweets as @TOfoodie on Twitter and organizes food and wine events in Toronto called FoodieMeet.

Tara Kimura Tara Kimura is the consumer life reporter for CBCNews.ca, covering a wide range of issues that range from rising food costs and the growing organic movement, to new trends in the marketplace.

Andree Lau Andree Lau is a CBC web reporter in Calgary. Her journalism career includes seven years as a CBC-TV reporter. Her own blog called "are you gonna eat that?" chronicles her eating adventures (including sampling snake and camel hoof tendon).

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Kevin Yarr Kevin Yarr, CBCNews.ca's writer in Prince Edward Island, wrote about food and beer for national and regional magazines before joining the CBC. He acquired a desire for new tastes on his first trip to Europe, and an appreciation of eating locally and in season when he finally settled down on P.E.I.

Elizabeth Bridge Elizabeth Bridge is a writer with the CBC Digital Archives in Toronto. She first ventured into the kitchen as a child to indulge a sweet tooth by baking cookies and making fudge. A student budget compelled her to be a vegetarian (for a while) and instilled in her an ongoing curiosity about food and cooking.

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