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You're Taking Away My Right To Be Excellent

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In 1991 I was 22, living in Los Angeles, going to guitar school at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, and trying to get a job at the most important restaurant in Malibu without any credentials whatsoever.

I had no chance for a paid position, so I hung out on the back porch of Wolfgang Puck's Granita like a dog begging for food. Daily, I pleaded with the chef and asked if I could just come in and watch, do whatever he needed me to do. Eventually, my persistence paid off. Someone didn't show up for work one day and they needed a cook ASAP. I jumped at the chance. At the end of the night, the chef asked me to come back the next day. I did. For the next couple weeks, I proved my eagerness to learn, until I was finally offered a paid position. I had worked at The White Dog Café in Philly most of my undergraduate years at Drexel University, and I spent summers at the Jersey shore grilling rib steaks and frying lobster tails at a joint called Maloney's Pub, but until talking my way into Granita, that was the extent of my training.

I never went to culinary school. Some people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to do that, and I'm not claiming it isn't worthwhile, but I paid nothing for my training. I did it by "staging" in restaurants. I learned how to cook for nothing and I loved it. I was taught at a very young age that success requires hard work, sacrifice and little bit of luck, so that was the path I took.

Among other things, staging showed me not only that cooking could become a career, but also that I was crazier about it than I'd ever dreamed possible. That internship in LA led me to Italy, where I "worked" in restaurants for almost two years. I had $1500 in my pocket when I arrived and I never got paid anything else other than room and board. Instead, I had the priceless luxury of absorbing everything I could about a culture and a cuisine.

The culinary path I took is now illegal. As an American citizen, you have many rights and freedoms, but one thing you do not have the right to do is "work" or even "apprentice" for free. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law that requires all employers to pay at least the federal minimum wage to workers. Period. You cannot do a stage, you cannot come in early to learn, you cannot hang out in someone else's kitchen to better yourself and further your education. In other words, you are prohibited from becoming excellent at your craft unless the person you're learning from is paying you. Sure, there are documents you can sign declaring your time in the kitchen to be a non-paid, purely educational visit--but the hours and duration of such an arrangement are strictly limited.

Are labor regulations a bad idea? Not at all. The FLSA was created to prevent employers from taking advantage of their employees. And it's true that in any restaurant kitchen there are hours and hours of menial, repetitive chores that don't involve learning much of anything. In such a case, any expectation of attaining new skills is false and apprenticing becomes a negative experience.

Still, in my view, the law is too harsh. It makes showing up early, staying late, and learning everything you can--even when you're not "on the clock"--illegal.

Cooking is no different from any other craft. Connor Barwin, a defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles told me that if you're not out seeking knowledge on your own to improve your game, you're simply not going to make it in the National Football League. He told me he used to sneak into his high school gym after hours to practice: "I found a way to get that extra experience."
Beau Allen, a defensive tackle for the Eagles agrees: "As a rookie I would just pick the brains of the more experienced players and put in extra time."

You'll never see anyone telling an NFL player not to put in more practice on their own time, not to work harder, or not to go the extra mile. A cook, on the other hand, is now supposed to become great by working 40 hours a week and not seeking out extra experiences to deepen their learning. That hardly seems fair. Cooks love their profession every bit as much as football players love theirs

One could make the same argument about other professions. Angela Duckworth, a friend and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently told me that she received a memo stating that her 22-year-old apprentices could only work 35 hours per week. After that, according to new federal legislation, they'd need to be paid overtime.

"Seriously?!?" she told me. "Graduate students don't work 35 hours a week! They don't work 45, either. If you don't love research enough to want to work longer than that, you've chosen the wrong field. I have tenure and can work as little or as much as I want. I choose to work 70!"

I had a similar discussion with Rick Nichols, previously a food editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"As a so-called "professional" I was never paid an hourly wage," he told me. "So the issue of reporting early or staying late always seemed more in my own control. I could leave at 6 p.m. on the dot, with a story or column not up to my personal standards. Or I could stick around and make the extra phone call, shine up the final sentence and leave an hour or two later feeling good about myself."

You can't set out to become one of the greatest cooks in the country and be told that you're not allowed to work, watch, and learn without pay. I agree that unpaid drudgery should be illegal. But unpaid apprenticeship should not be. Everyone should have the right to work whatever hours they wish if it is the path to success.

When I ask my cooks what they're planning for their days off, too many of them reply, "I'm not sure but whatever it is, I'm not setting foot near a kitchen." I laugh with them, but inside, I'm disappointed. A cook who doesn't want to cook on their day off is a cook who will not last in this business. For me cooking at home is the best kind of practice--as well as being the most fun. And when I'm not cooking, I read about cooking. And then I talk about cooking. No one pays me for any of those invaluable experiences. This is what passion is all about.

When you find your calling, there is no bright line between work and play. I would go crazy working only 40 hours a week. It's not in my DNA. I need to create. I crave the feeling of accomplishment. I feed off that energy. I work for identity and pride, not just a paycheck.

Here's one last story. Not about a chef or an athlete. About Steve Jobs:

"I never found anybody that didn't want to help me if I asked them for help. I called up Bill Hewlett when I was 12 years old, and he lived in Palo Alto.
His number was still in the phone book. And he answered the phone himself. Hi I'm Steve Jobs and I'm 12 years old. I'm a student in high school and I want to build a frequency counter. And I was wondering if you had any spare parts that I could have. And he laughed and he gave me the spare parts to build this frequency counter and he gave me a job that summer at Hewlett Packard working on the assembly line putting nuts and bolts together on frequency counters. And I was in heaven...Most people never pick up the phone and call. Most people never ask, and that's what separates sometimes the people who do things from the people who just dream about them."

Steve Jobs had a right to work the assembly line. I had a right to peel potatoes in a kitchen when there was no paid job for me there. Connor Barwin had a right to practice after practice. And Rick Nichols of the Inquirer had the right to shine up those final sentences so he could feel better about himself.

The right to fair pay is one thing. The right to become excellent is another.

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