[Marxism] The real working life of a chef

Richard Fidler rfidler_8 at sympatico.ca
Thu May 23 16:05:00 MDT 2013

This thread resonates with me. During the Sixties, I worked in the
restaurant business for five years between semesters while attending
university. But in peculiar circumstances.

 I worked on dining cars on the transcontinental railroads (Canadian
National and Canadian Pacific) between Vancouver in the West and Saint John,
New Brunswick in the East as well as on shorter trips between Detroit,
Buffalo, Toronto and Quebec City. Dining car crews were members of a major
railway running-trades union, which meant we had relatively decent wages and
regular workers had some job security. At various points I worked as a cook,
waiter and finally steward (maître d').

We also had unusual schedules. On a typical run, I would be on the road for
four days, westward-bound between Montréal and Winnipeg where a crew from
Vancouver would take over and after spending the night in the company's
elegant hotel, at its expense, we would head back to Montréal the next day
on the east-bound transcontinental train. We then had four days off before
the next trip.

In addition to the diversion of changing scenery, we had the advantage of
being largely remote from senior management. In fact, apart from the
occasional inspector who would show up unexpectedly (most of them were
former stewards or chefs) we were self-managed as a crew while on the road.
Of course, we had to operate with set menus, standard uniforms, and meal
routines determined by custom and railway management. But we ate from the
same menu as the passengers. Between meals we could relax, read or chat
while being paid at company expense. And occasionally, after taking a
chartered trainload to a destination we would "deadhead" back to base
feeding only ourselves, all on company wages.

While on the road, we slept on the train, usually in a crew car equipped
with bunks and a shower, located just behind the locomotive (I got used to
sleeping through the sounds of the whistle at level crossings). On some
trains with older equipment we stripped down the tables, hung curtains and
slept on cots we set up in the dining car itself. If there was a spare
bedroom or bunk bed on the train, a friendly porter might allow you to use

In those days there was a certain pride in these jobs. The dining car
service was high-class, with linen tablecloths and napkins, silverware (even
finger bowls), and fine wines. And there was a definite camaraderie among
the crew, cohabiting in these conditions for days at a time. It was standard
practice to pool our tips and distribute them evenly among all the crew. On
a good trip this could almost double your income. After a run, we might all
go for drinks together in a bar near the station.

But there were real limits on this. The railroads were one of the last
vestiges in Canada of a virtual Jim Crow-like racial discrimination. The
dining car crews were all white, and almost all the sleeping car porters
were Black. I witnessed many examples of how this separation encouraged
racial prejudice among the dining car workers (more than one referring to
porters as "Mau-Mau" for example, in the sense of savages, not liberation
fighters.) And all of the running trades employees, including porters and
dining car crews, were male. 

When I worked out of Montréal, many of my co-workers were Québécois. Not
always proficient in English, they were disproportionately cooks and other
kitchen personnel. Some of the older workers had begun working on the
railroad in the early 1940s, to avoid conscription (the draft) in WWII,
which was very unpopular in Quebec. They were exempt because the railways
were classed as an essential war industry. In those days, they told me, a
typical working trip would mean being on the road continually for a week or
more, with only a couple of days between trips as they transported troops
across the country and to embarkation points. They had helped to organize
the union.

For many of these older workers, the dining cars were a career for life. On
union wages, you could raise a family. With seniority, you could bid on the
best, the regular runs with the best tips.

That was the Sixties, however, and in later years, for a variety of reasons,
the service deteriorated rapidly along with the fate of passenger rail
service in Canada, which is now inferior even to that in the USA. And there
is a world of difference between the conditions I experienced then and what
my daughter (now a 21-year-old student) has experienced in the restaurant
and bar industry. Her experience corresponds entirely to what is described
by Michael Yates (and Robert Schardein in the excellent item he referenced,
below). Working in the restaurant industry on the pre-neoliberal railways in
Canada was indeed quite peculiar -- and not least because we had a fairly
strong union, which covered even temporary employees like myself.


-----Original Message-----
From: marxism-bounces+rfidler_8=sympatico.ca at greenhouse.economics.utah.edu
[mailto:marxism-bounces+rfidler_8=sympatico.ca at greenhouse.economics.utah.edu
] On Behalf Of Robert Schardein
Sent: May-23-13 3:30 PM
To: rfidler_8 at sympatico.ca
Subject: Re: [Marxism] The real working life of a chef

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