The Smoking Culture Among Chefs

Why Do So Many Chefs Smoke? This question puzzles millions of people; after all, it is well known that smoking kills our taste buds. Why then do chefs choose to smoke when they rely on their taste buds for work?

I myself am a non smoker, but I have spent many years surrounded by chefs who choose to smoke, so have an insider view on the reasons for their perceived strange decision.

It goes without saying that I am not advocating smoking, I am simply commenting on the culture that exists within catering environments.

Many chefs choose to smoke to help relieve the stresses of the job as smoking provides an excuse to leave the hot kitchen and step outside for a break. There is also a smoking culture among chefs which dates back many years.

This is a simplified answer and there are many other reasons chefs choose to smoke. However, in my experience these are the main reasons. 

To Get A Break

When a chef goes outside for a cigarette break they are getting a break from the stresses of the kitchen. As smoking is widely accepted, a lot of kitchens are ok with their chefs nipping out during the day for a quick smoke.

If a non smoking chef wants to nip outside for 5 minutes of fresh air this may be met with an odd look from the head chef so they will often choose to stay inside and continue working.

Readers from all career paths will understand this feeling; that smokers get more breaks from work than their non-smoking colleagues. We often see our smiling work mates just nipping out for a 5 minute cigarette. Over the course of a day this can add up to a large amount of break time.

Popular To Smoke

As many chefs smoke, going outside to the smoking shelter is an opportunity to chat with our fellow workers. In a very sociable trade such as catering, this time chatting can be very valuable and good fun.

Non-smokers can sometimes feel like they are at a disadvantage when it comes to not having the ear of their colleagues. If the head chef happens to smoke, the importance of a junior chef being able to have a friendly chat over a quick cigarette should not be overlooked.

The fact that many chefs choose to smoke is also one of the reasons that those that try to quit find it so hard to give up.

French Culture

It is fair to say that smoking is a larger part of French culture than it is in other European or American countries. 

Cooking takes large parts of its heritage from France; the French words are present in day to day kitchen lingo as well as the hierarchy structure itself. This French influence also extends into the enjoyment of cigarettes.

Late Night Socialising

This could be characterised as a drinking culture, but that could put a negative connotation on the fact that often chefs enjoy a simple drink after work.

It is common for chefs at the end of a shift to go for a drink together. When people drink, we often see that they begin to smoke more. Anyone who has tried to quit smoking will know that maintaining the discipline whilst having a few drinks is perhaps the trickiest time.

Again this links back to the socialising whilst at work. If all our colleagues are smoking when out socialising, we are far more likely to light up in order to fit in.

Does Smoking Kill Chefs Taste Buds?

We often hear that smoking ruins our taste buds, and whilst this is true, many chefs are able to compensate for the reduced sense of taste.

I have tried dishes produced by some chefs who smoke and unfortunately they tasted like a bucket of salt had been poured in there, they simply can’t taste it. However, the same is also true of some chefs who do not smoke!

However, I have tasted dishes prepared by 2 Michelin Star chefs who smoke, and discovered that they can season food to perfection and produce outstanding results. So how can they do this?

Having great taste buds is a skill that can be developed like any other. People are not born with amazing taste buds. A chef, through practice, will learn to discern how a dish should taste and season accordingly.

If a chef where to spend 10 years of their career not smoking and then for some reason choose to start, it would have an affect on their ability to produce great dishes until they adapt.

The reality is that most smoking chefs have smoked from the time they began their training. They have always had slightly dulled taste buds and as they have learnt how to cook, they have learnt to compensate without even knowing they are doing it.

For many chefs, the argument that smoking has ruined their taste buds is not an argument they are willing to acknowledge as being true. Therefore they are happy to carry on smoking.

Chef Subculture

I have mentioned in previous posts that being a chef is like being part of a subculture. The tattoos and swearing all lend themselves to the stereotype of this culture. 

Add to this the smoking, and we get a picture in our mind of a classic chef. By choosing to smoke, in a way chefs are playing into this culture themselves. They believe that is the way they should act and so they do.

Famous chef Marco Pierre White is perhaps one of the most famous chefs responsible for breading this image of chefs. The famous image of him smoking in his infamous book White Heat shows just the kind of self-image he wanted to portray to the world.

Chef Vaping in the kitchen
Chef Vaping in the kitchen (a big no-no)

Whether we like it or not, smoking is still associated with a ‘bad boy’ culture and the urge to be part of this culture is prevalent in many new chefs.

Stress Relieve

The topic of whether smoking reduces stress or actually compounds the problem is up for debate. However, most smokers will tell you that in the instant they light up they get a rush of calming hormones.

This rush can be very important for chefs, who have a very demanding job.

It is hard to think of many other careers that require such intense concentration alongside such physical excursion night after night. Smoking is a way for chefs to slow their bodies down after work.

Trying to slow down after a busy shift without a cigarette, or a drink, can be very difficult for those that choose not to do either. The late nights, early starts and poor diet all add up to an unhealthy lifestyle that smoking seems to also slide into.

Not Health Conscious

Due to the demands of the job, we will not find many chefs who find the time to go to the gym or exercise on a regular basis. I wrote a whole article on how chefs stay slim (linked here)Opens in a new tab. which expands on this topic.

Not always the case, but often, we see that chefs will be less health conscious than many other parts of society. Trying to balance long working hours with a healthy lifestyle is a battle that many chefs choose to give up on.

We don’t often see gym trainers smoking, partially for the reason that it would be detrimental to their career.

Chefs do not come under these same social pressure. Some kitchens may look down on chefs that smoke but in the main it is accepted as part of the character of those who do the job.

To sum up

There are many reasons why chefs smoke, but they all tend to focus around the fact that many other chefs choose to, therefor it becomes a part of the culture.

This can make it very difficult for smoking chefs to stop. We also see new chefs entering the trade (and eager to fit in) decide to start lighting up.

Higher end kitchens are becoming more outspoken on the fact they do not want their chefs to smoke. They highlight the taste bud deadening issues, as well as trying to promote the overall health of their staff.

In my experience there is a shift in attitudes with more chefs deciding not to smoke. Many kitchens are recognising the importance of giving chefs real breaks and helping them to care for themselves health wise.

By promoting a more balanced lifestyle and providing adequate breaks, chefs do not find themselves having to smoke, just in order to get some rest bite from the kitchen

Dave Nicholas

Having spent around 10 years working as a qualified chef in high end restaurants, my mission is to use this experience to help others as they begin their career in catering!

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