Can Attica's four-day work week catch on?

Ben Shewry, owner-chef of Attica in Ripponlea.
Ben Shewry, owner-chef of Attica in Ripponlea. Photo: Supplied

The greatest restaurant trend of 2017 hasn't been too easy to swallow. It has been the cold, hard revelation that the dining industry is built on a teetering tower of frayed nerves, and overworked chefs – and they're leaving in droves. But with the "we're not OK" floodgates now opened, so has the door to solutions.

On Friday, Attica's Ben Shewry posted a picture of his 23-year-old self on Instagram. It's a ratty picture. He's so bleary-eyed he looks stoned. It's funny. The post less so.

"2001. 23 years old. Shagged. Occasionally, well-intentioned people will say to me 'your success must feel amazing' and I'm grateful for sure, but this year I've been reflecting on some facts of my 'success'. I'm 40, I've averaged 75 hours per week in kitchens since the age of 14. I've already worked roughly the same amount of hours as a person averaging 40 hours per week throughout their career to retirement age. So no, I don't feel 'amazing'. I feel like I'm 65!"

"Shagged". Ben Shewry's picture of himself at 23. He has now introduced a four-day work week.
"Shagged". Ben Shewry's picture of himself at 23. He has now introduced a four-day work week. Photo: Ben Shewry

The post goes on to say that Shewry has now implemented a 48-hour, four-days-on, three-days-off working week for his kitchen.

"Are the old ways of flogging yourself and having no life outside of the kitchen right? In my opinion, no," the post continues.

If 48 hours still seems like a lot, it's not in an industry where overworking has long been framed as a point of pride. "Kitchens have always been into that macho bullshit," says Shewry. "If you worked until 1am and started again at 6am, you were the best, the hardest. Changing the mindset has actually been hard."

Apparently they're having to enforce the time restriction, as some chefs still show up at 10.30am for a noon shift. They're sent home or to the staff room to read.

It's not a decision without sacrifice and consequence. Fewer hours means Shewry has to employ more staff (they are all on salary).

While enforcing sustainable hours seems like an obvious solution to the chef crisis, industry conferences like GROW have also revealed that overheads are higher than ever, so those added costs would need to be absorbed by customers too. Remember that when your food is cheap, chances are, someone else is paying. That needs to change if we still want decent chefs in ten years.

It is a cost Shewry has decided is worth it and the benefits have been immediately apparent, not just for the personal lives of staff, but for the business. "It's important they learn to work within their time. As they do split shifts they know they have to trust each other, to delegate, and to work efficiently to leave things ready for the next chef who will come in."

They also have to work every section at the drop of a hat, which often doesn't happen at fine dining restaurants. "You get stuck on a section, you pick a ton of herbs and plate tons of beautiful-looking food but often you don't get into the real depths of cooking hard. It is very important to me that our cooks leave here with the ability to cook properly." 

Shewry reduced hours soon after he took ownership of the business in 2015 and introduced the four-day week four months ago. "There have only been positives for us."