Our friend Fritz shares a personal anecdote on his experiences as a chef in Denmark trying to navigate the new economic reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. We thank him for this raw and honest contribution.
As with many other people, post-high school life for me was a long exercise in grasping at straws and figuring out what my future would be based around. I tried to study law and failed miserably, I tried to get into a course on journalism and failed miserably. I knew from even before my high school days that an academic environment was not one where I would be able to contribute with much. Yet I felt it was something that was expected of me, because all of my closest friends had gone on to some form of higher education.
While I was studying law I was also doing part time work in restaurants including waiting tables, and working in the dishroom. When I dropped out of law school the logical conclusion for me at the time was just to take a full dive into the restaurant industry – and that is what I’ve been doing for the last 3-4 years, even working as a sous chef in the past.
With that in mind it should also be said that my mental health has been in a much better place outside of law school. Working in restaurants can either help or destroy the remainder of your self-esteem and your drive to accomplish your goals, and for me it works.
In a capitalist environment, most of the time this is affected by the work you put in, and so I started to connect my mental health to the value I held for my boss and my coworkers, or just generally being able to say I work in a good restaurant and know for a fact that I am doing my best. Because of this I didn’t need to be worried about getting fired from a position because I was always working as much as my body would let me, because just having a good day at work was its own reward, and being allowed to just focus on cooking for a solid twelve-hour block helped distract me from my depression.
I always thought that in the age where society will soon see more and more jobs become automated that chefs, waiters, bartenders and many parts of the restaurant industry would be irreplaceable because people notice when a restaurant lacks a “soul” especially when there is no care or love coming from the staff. That concept, however, is irrelevant in the face of the global pandemic that is COVID-19.
However, back in May me and my whole team were let go from our jobs at a restaurant called Øl & Brød (Beer & Bread). Unfortunately, Danish beer giant Mikkeller hadn’t seen enough profit from the restaurant during the months leading up to lockdown that started towards the end of March and went onto the beginning of May. The bosses talked about how they had failed us, as it was really their fault since they hadn’t done anything to help the restaurant while it was struggling, always distracted by the bigger project, internationally or domestically. Unfortunately, that apology didn’t pay the bills.
Since my mental health has been so dependent on me getting to work in a field that I love, when that was suddenly ripped away from me, I felt completely lost. I thought to myself “What the fuck am I going to do now?”
Thankfully, Mikkeller was able to find me another job at one of their other locations, but it would only be for the summer, and the pay was very much irregular. It also came with a looming sense of dread that they might have to shut down this place as well, so I never felt like I had a safe and stable employment there.
Three weeks ago I got an email from the head chef at a restaurant I had never heard about. I had recently sent out some applications to a bunch of restaurants and this one was the sister-restaurant of one of the other places I had applied to. I went in for a trial shift, got the job on the spot, and things started to seem like they were looking up again. There was a massive staff party two weeks ago, all the new employees were invited as well and we had a great time drinking beers in the 31 degrees (Celsius) Danish summer. Everything seemed to be going fine, I was getting along with my coworkers, service was going smoothly, however, what did cause some concern was that three weeks into working there I still hadn’t been given an employment contract to sign.
Three days ago I asked my head chef if he could get in touch with the owner of the conglomerate that contained my restaurant and three others, including a newly opened wine bar. So he did, and as I was cleaning down the kitchen after another smooth service, my boss, with tears in his eyes, had to tell me that I and everyone else that was recently hired was being let go. This because the whole conglomerate had seen a significant decrease in bookings for the coming weeks, thanks to COVID-19 flaring back up in Denmark and the people growing increasingly paranoid, as if the Danes had maintained any social distancing rules whatsoever post-lockdown. All I could think about was how I turned down another job in Malmö for this job, and that my own decisions had once again taken me from a place of economic safety. Now I will likely have to hang up my chef’s jacket and work in another field until it feels safe enough to return to working in a restaurant, as much as that breaks my heart. I feel at home in those kitchens, I live for the guests and their odd requests, but in the face of the pandemic it is just not reasonable for me to be stubborn about this anymore.
The reason that this is having such a severe effect on my mental health is that losing my job in a struggling industry where I might not be able to return to the job that has become a big part of my life for a long time. It’s not the first time this year that I feel that I have lost a part of myself.. Giving up on becoming the chef I want to be is tempting, but I can’t let go of the hope that I will be back, more motivated than ever, and really appreciate the wonderful moments with my lovely coworkers.
With new restaurants still opening up and some closing down temporarily to change their entire structure. When COVID-19 first came to Scandinavia I felt a sense of dread, I thought that this disease would make people afraid to enjoy themselves. Fatalistic as it was, the thought turned into an anxiety, as the possibility of the industry never being able to recover became a reality in my mind. Three big institutions in Copenhagen’s culinary world have already shut their doors for the foreseeable future.
The wonderful thing is that many of the staff members at a restaurant have their ambition, their own drive to create a great dining experience, reflective of them and their knowledge. As I also hope to do one day, but until then I will learn from many other great chefs. In the future, I will see this pandemic and the following unemployment as a test of my willpower, because being a chef is what I really want to do.
The journey is not over.
Thanks very much for reading.
P.S. The article cover image is South Korean mung bean noodle called liangfen. Ingredients are liangfen with peanut sauce, blanched bean sprouts, cilantro, soft boiled soy marinated egg, curry pickled daikon, crushed radishes, black sesame seeds and chili oil. It is great for warm summer days.