Workplace Wellness: The restaurant work culture is evolving for the better 

The restaurant work culture is evolving for the better

Restaurant work, whether you’re a chef or on the service team, is undeniably physically taxing. You’re on your feet for the majority of your shift, serving hundreds of customers, zipping back-and-forth between stations, and mostly crammed in a hot, adrenaline-fueled kitchen. For as long as we’ve known it, the harsh conditions associated with restaurant work is inevitable. And then there’s point about pay – it’s well known that the F&B industry is underpaid and under-appreciated. Throw in a global pandemic which has, unfortunately, emboldened customers to be ever more demanding than before. With these winds swirling aggressively around the industry, workers are exiting the industry in record numbers across the region.

All these factors adding up have opened up conversations about the realities and the difficulties of restaurant work. In recent years, an increasing awareness about workplace wellness has been taking place in Singapore. Through various channels and avenues, operators are taking it upon themselves to create better work environments such as implementing 5-day work weeks where 8- to 12-hour days across 6-day work weeks were the norm.

Here we have Chef Dwayne Emuang, who has worked in a diverse range of high functioning kitchens – from the fine-dining kitchens of CUT & Spago by Wolfgang Puck at the Marina Bay Sands to overseeing 7 of the kitchens at Marina Bay Sands that operates 24/7 and serves up to 1,600 pax per day (this was at its peak, pre-pandemic). He shares with us how restaurant work can be well-balanced and what the industry can do to improve workplace wellness.

Chef Dwayne Emuang, a chef that rises up the ranks through 14 years of hands-on experience

Chef Dwayne began his career in 2008 at a now-closed French dining restaurant at Hotel Equatorial in Penang, a vibrant heritage city in Malaysia renown for its historical landmarks and food culture. Without any formal culinary education, he started at the bottom as an eager young chef, working his way up through a whole lot of grit and tenacity, and experiencing every little part of restaurant work – the good, the bad, and the ugly. In 2010, he moved to Singapore and joined the pre-opening team of CUT by Wolfgang Puck at Marina Bay Sands. From there, he moved up the ranks and twelve years later plus 18-months stint as Executive Chef of The Dempsey Cookhouse by Jean Georges Vongerichten, he was appointed Associate Director of Food and Beverage at Marina Bay Sands overseeing the entire food supply chain, menu creations, and service levels for the restaurants within the casino of Marina Bay Sands. Today, he is the Culinary Director of Yonder Hospitality and oversees its F&B businesses – Grain Traders, Raw Kitchen Bar in Singapore and the upcoming F&B programming at Else Retreats Kuala Lumpur (coming soon).

“The support system plays a huge role in moving us forward or giving up on this career path.” – Chef Dwayne Emuang, pictured here with legendary Chef Tetsuya and Chef Justin Quek with all the executive chefs of CUT Singapore, DB Singapore and Osteria Singapore in 2013.

“Moving to Singapore, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was given two days off, which was a treat. Back then, 8- to 12-hour days and 6-day work weeks were the norm in the industry.” Having worked with bigger corporations such as Marina Bay Sands has made Dwayne appreciative of the benefits, programs and team member accountability implemented through corporate initiatives alongside support from the Singapore government in enforcing employer rules and regulations. There are programs designed for the health and wellness of staff, “Programs such as the step challenge competition between teams to make sure everyone hits their daily step count goals. Or Plant Forward Mondays (Meatless Mondays) to keep our health in check.” 

Operators and leaders have a role to play in making sure that the staff are taken care of, which in turn, improves employee retention 

In the past three years, and with the pandemic, operators whether independent or corporations are gradually seeing the conversation become a necessity. “With social media, people are beginning to voice their opinions and stand up for what they believe is right. 10 years ago, it would be taboo to talk about health or wellness in restaurant work – you just go with it. It is more than just a paycheck these days.”

“I think now it’s slowly coming to light how important work-life balance is. Given, companies have a part to play, but also operators and leaders should not shy away from the topic but rather, be the driver to open up talks with team members. Take the initiative to have quality catchups or review sessions with your team.” He hasn’t come across co-workers who had cases of depression however, a few years ago, he did see friends in the industry who exited the industry completely and never came back. They went on to other careers that were not within the kitchen at all. “For them, enough is enough. I think it was burnout and their employers were not taking care of their needs. I was fortunate enough to work with a bigger corporation where my benefits and welfare are taken care of. The support system plays a huge role in moving us forward or giving up on this career path.”

Chef Dwayne was part of the pre-opening management team of Spago by Wolfgang Puck at Marina Bay Sands in the 2015s, pictured here with Wolfgang Puck

But first, take care of yourself 

“As you move up the ranks, be it on the kitchen or service side, going from supervisor to management level, OT (overtime) is not included. Unlike when you first started out, the job scope changes and now involves more people management.” he shares. With less time and broader responsibilities to handle, self-care is important – something that Dwayne realized only in recent years and has learnt not to feel guilty about it. 

“I go through stages where I definitely feel burnt out. It is something you need to realize is happening and find ways to deal with it. As a leader, I want to make sure that my team members are happy, that they are able to enjoy their work. By prioritizing my own health – mentally and physically, then I am able to take care of them. It took me a long time to realize that it is not selfish to take care of myself first.”

Your team is looking to you for guidance and if you’re burnt-out or exhausted, guess what? You will fail because you have nothing to give. 

Finding work-life balance is an intentional choice, and it can start with small steps 

Working in a fast-paced industry that is people oriented, being able to draw the line and have the work-life balance is something you have to cultivate. “It can start with small steps that make a huge difference. For me, that is to not check emails outside of work. I even moved my work email folder to the second page of my phone screen so that I stop wanting to check it every time there’s a notification. I tell my team members that if it is very urgent, they can reach me through the phone or WhatsApp. It is not end of the world”

“Right now, one of the things I would say is important is being present and intentional. During my days off, I spend time with my loved ones. I’m not planning tomorrow’s work, I just focus on them and that has been rewarding for me. I do get that we want to work hard when we are young, and enjoy the fruits of our labour later. Everyone’s journey is different.”

Knowing how and where to draw the line between work and personal space, and being present for my loved ones made a difference for me.

Launching a 4-day work week can be an advantage for your restaurant business

Dwayne shares that the two restaurants he oversees now runs on 5-day work weeks for Grain Traders (Monday to Friday) as it is based in the CBD, and 4-day work weeks (Thursday to Sunday) for Raw Kitchen Bar. Grain Traders has been operating for close to 7 years now and 7 out of the 8 staff from the opening team are still with them. Raw Kitchen Bar has been operating for about a year and a half now and most of the culinary opening team is still the same team now. 

Such arrangements are doable depending on the business model, location and business factors. “Such high retention rates and restaurants that are closed on weekends are unheard of. However, it is changing the mindset on how to operate restaurants more effectively. It is also cultivating a good work culture and training for the next set of leaders to understand what mental wellness is and that self-care is important.” 

The industry is now fighting two battles – getting people in and people leaving from burnout.

The way forward for the industry

We need to discard what is deemed as an unhealthy environment in the kitchen to improve work conditions. “When I first started 14 years ago, I didn’t mind working extra long hours because I was hungry for knowledge and constantly improving myself. (Side note: He has worked 7-days a week, 20 hours in a row for 6 weeks straight in preparation for a restaurant opening) But now, as I became a leader, I have learnt to not repeat the practices that bring negativity to the kitchen. If we go through that cycle again, there will be no advancement to the industry.”

One thing he noticed over the years managing a few Chinese kitchens is that “A lot of the more senior Chinese chefs have had wrist surgeries because of cooking with woks. Knee problems are also common and I think that’s where the industry has come to realize that it is important to take care of team members.”

He pointed out that the industry is now fighting two battles – getting people in and people leaving from burnout. “So, it all starts with us. Talking about it, learning and being aware about it and looking to the future to prevent that. The situation now is, “Hey, I want you to work hard, but I need you to also go back and have a good rest.”

Having experienced working in all sorts of kitchens over the last 14 years, he highlights that it is important to filter out toxic practices, take a step back and re-evaluate the processes. If things can be done more quickly without compromising on quality, implement it. With the rise of service robots, he argues that this can improve worker’s health, as well as service provided to customers as the manual work has been eased up. “If we can make this dish with the help of technology and cut down cooking or prep time by 2 hours, it will help ease the staff to focus on other aspects of the business, like improving the guest experience. Unless you’re a fine-dining restaurant where taste needs to be perfect, with mid-tier restaurants, if 90% of the taste is similar to the original method, I think it is a win.”

In the end, it is all about balance. For operators, of course, profit is at the core of the business, however, if operators take steps in caring for their employees, appreciative staff will work together to make your business work. For individuals, it is to intentionally take steps for self care and raise awareness, where needed. This will, hopefully, make restaurant work be viewed as “not too bad” after all and that it does not destroy anyone mentally or physically. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Interview and written by Theri Burhan. Edited by Lim Aileen.

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