Acclaimed pastry chef/restaurateur Gale Gand and her partners have a joke about where to locate new restaurants each time they’ve launched one: “Build them within walking distance of an emergency room,” she says. She points out that famed Chicago restaurant Tru, where she serves as executive pastry chef and partner, is less than a block from an ER in downtown Chicago.
“You have the normal cuts, stitches, and burns,” says the busy mother of three, though the risks of being a chef include a lot more than sharp knives and fire. “It’s a super-physical job,” explains Gand, whose been known to wrap ice packs around her knees while whipping up desserts in the kitchen.
“It’s going up and down stairs carrying things, loading boxes onto dollies, unloading cases of bananas, lots of bending and lifting,” she explains. It’s not uncommon for chefs to slip and fall while carrying heavy bags of flour or large cans down stairs – which Gand has done.
Add to that long periods of standing and countertops that are too low or high to be ergonomically correct, and the result is frequent lower back pain, achy knees and feet that always hurt.
“We have the most expensive rubber (anti-fatigue) mats around but they only do so much,” says Gand. “I change shoes a few times a day, from clogs, to Vans to Skechers, which have thick soles.” Back and knee surgery is typical for chefs, she says. “I’ve had knee surgery and I’ve had cortisone injections in my back because of pain. The last time was just before my wedding because I wanted to be comfortable.”
Still, for those who love to prepare food, the show must go on, and Gand, who travels the world demonstrating her pastry prowess and promoting her books, has a few suggestions to help prevent or alleviate pain in the kitchen:
- Good shoes are a must
- Strengthen your abs and back (core) so you can hold yourself up comfortably
- Massage, whirlpool, and hot tub soaks are great for aching muscles
- Gand is a big fan of ice and Aleve for everything from burns to sprains to sore muscles
- Back braces, such as those worn by truckers and others who load heavy goods, can be helpful
- Support inserts in shoes can also help
Chef Michel Roux, who runs London restaurant Le Gavroche and is author of “The Marathon Chef: Food for Getting Fit”, agrees that physical fitness is essential to being a healthy and productive chef. “Life in the kitchen is hard going, so it’s hugely important to keep yourself in shape,” says Roux, who has run 17 marathons. While it may be tough to work out regularly, it’s a big help in the kitchen, physically and mentally. Roux runs in-between lunch and dinner service and says he often bumps into fellow runner/chef Gordon Ramsay.
- Invest in a good, anti-fatigue mat to stand on, or try a rug in the kitchen for comfy padding
- Counters should be at the right height, so you’re not bending over or reaching up excessively
- Be aware of proper posture; don’t hunch your neck, back, or shoulders
- Occasionally rest one foot on a low stool or shelf to give your back a break
- Change tasks frequently to avoid repetitive stress