This is the most 'traditional' kitchen I've ever worked with, in the sense that it conforms to many of the stereotypes people have about fine dining restaurants.
For the past week we started at 10 am, working until the last table was finished. For reference, the tasting menu plus pre-dinner canapés and post-dinner petit fours comprise an approximately 3-4 hour experience for the guest, and the last seating is at 9 pm. On weekdays that translates to us missing the last subway trains and taking taxis home.
When I first told my father how much we work he asked me if it was legal. I laughed.
The sous chefs make an effort to send the stages home 'early,' after we've been there for about fourteen hours; this is relative to the chefs de partie (full-time employees). But, hey, at least they get paid.
We break once during the shift at 3:30 pm to eat staff meal all together. Those precious minutes are the only time we get to sit down.* A friend once asked me if, as employees, we eat the same food that the restaurant serves the guests. I laughed. No lobster or reserve caviar for us! I'd like to think that at a Michelin starred restaurant the food they feed us is a step up from staff meal at the Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang's, but I really can't say for sure.
My last job was much more corporate, being a part of a luxury hotel franchise, so even though it was still fine dining I rarely worked more than 55 hours per week. There was an HR department, and rules like taking a full thirty minute break before the sixth hour of work were enforced.
This is my second time working in Europe, the first being when I staged at a well-known bakery in Paris. And, once again, I can't help but notice the differences between here and home. Generally speaking, European chefs are more aggressive-aggressive, while Americans tend toward passive-aggressive. This is not to say that I haven't seen an American chef throw a tantrum (because, oh boy, have I), but those episodes are rarer in my experience. Europeans are also more chivalrous; as one of only two women here in the back-of-house team, the guys are really good about helping me with things that are heavy or up on a high shelf. American guys, not so much.
No matter where in the world you are, though, the real backbone in the kitchen is camaraderie. It's stronger here than in any other kitchen I've been a part of. The team is a family. We push ourselves and each other, laugh, cry, and scream together, because the only way to go is up.
*A former chef of mine used to work at a 3-star Michelin restaurant, where staff meal was hurriedly scarfed down while standing. As a result she drank tons of water because sitting on the toilet was the only time she could rest her legs.