World-Class Restaurant Kitchens: Toxic Workplaces?

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Confession time.

I confess to have been unaware — until the past two weeks of reading a new bestselling book — of the toxicity which is widespread in a certain workplace with which we are all familiar: restaurant kitchens, especially those in high-end food establishments.

Bullying. Threats. Extreme hazing. Harrassment. Humilation. Misogyny. Screaming and degrading name calling designed to destroy self-esteem.

It’s downright head shaking and I just never knew about it, though I consider myself something of a foodie.

We’ve made so many strides in the past 30+ years to make workplaces more engaging, more egalitarian, more “humane.” Less toxic, less “my way or the highway,” less tolerance of boss-as-asshole. But after reading the 2020 bestselling book Dirt by Bill Buford I realize we have a long way to go in some workplaces. The good news is that prior to the pandemic wreaking havoc on the restaurant industry it had apparently begun to be addressed.

Restaurant kitchens — especially in upscale eateries — have all of the ingredients for being difficult places to work. Long hours; high stress, especially when multiple orders are placed at once; close quarters; an often-strict hierarchy of roles; big and often unchecked egos; a bro-dominated hierarchy.

In many fine dining restaurants and the world of Michelin stars there is an emphasis on perfection which can lead to a cultish obsession. And that epicurean obsession can lead to abuse when that standard of perfection is not achieved.

Jim Collins is famous for proclaiming that “ good is the enemy of great “ but it appears that “great” in some workplaces can be the enemy of collegiality and respect. The food might be astonishingly good and meticulously prepared but the ends don’t justify the means.

Buford — His quest as told in Dirt

In Dirt (which Buford really means “terroir” or the local dirt in which crops and animals are raised) the author moves to France to learn how to become a chef in Lyon, considered by many to be the gastronomic capital of France if not Europe. It’s not a book simply about his observations, but rather about his total immersion, his culinary and cultural trials and tribulations. And a few victories.

Even though he was 50ish years old at the time, a former editor at the New Yorker and the author of several food books, including the 2006 best seller Heat, which is also an entertaining and informative read, he is subjected to the same pay-your-dues hazing and bullying as the young unpaid stagiaires (trainees). But then, everyone is subjected to that abuse. Each level of supervisor treats their people terribly and in turn is treated terribly by their supervisor.

One can write this off to the idiosyncrasies of French haute cuisine culture but as I searched the internet for corroboration and related articles, it is indeed a “thing” not just in many haughty French eateries but in most parts of the world as well, including the U.S. And it’s been tolerated for a long time. George Orwell, in 1933, 16 years before he published 1984, wrote Down and Out in Paris and London, with chapters about explicit restaurant kitchen abuse.

This all likely sounds disturbing, especially for readers who are strong advocates and/or practitioners of energizing and empowered workplaces (and who might also have gourmet tastes), so I offer a context “time-out:”

  • Not all restaurants have oppressive and demeaning work cultures, even the world class eateries. Thomas Keller, for example, owner and head chef of the world-famous French Laundry restaurant in the Bay area, is well known for creating an inspiring and respectful kitchen culture as well as developing top talent.
  • The focus here is on upmarket or gourmet restaurants. Places that have not only a head chef, but also a sous chef, a pastry chef, a saucier, etc. They have ambience. They have pricey entrees. They are reviewed by food critics. We are not talking about Appelbee’s or Ruby Tuesdays, although there is likely some sort of hazing of newbies in most restaurants.
  • Although Buford talks extensively in his book about the appalling kitchen cultures he encountered, Dirt is not an expose. It’s not a modern-day culinary equivalent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It’s not investigative journalism, or a “gotcha” book. It was simply a multi-year chronicle about his experiences in learning how to become a really good French chef and the kitchen abuse was part of the whole picture, part of the gestalt.

Anthony Bourdain chronicled this abuse and his own experience in his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain reports that he was not allowed to have a name for the first few months he worked in his first restaurant but was simply called “mel” which was short for “mal carne” (bad meat). Interestingly, despite the degradation and taunting he experienced in the trade he also offered a lukewarm rationale for hazing and misogyny in that book which he walked back many years later.

Adam Reineris the Founder and Executive Editor of a blog called The Restaurant Manifesto and is a 15- year veteran of the NY hospitality and restaurant industry. He observes:

“Many chefs will tell you that aggression is the only way to coax consistent production from their line cooks. Making great food takes extraordinary discipline but a chef’s quest for purity behind the line can often turn sadistic. Long nights in a blazing hot kitchen with a printer that never stops spitting out orders can transform gentle souls into rabid animals. Voices get raised, toes stepped on. The first-aid kit in the kitchen doesn’t treat hurt feelings.”

He also suggests that: “ Harassment in restaurants is often hereditary. It gets passed down from chef-owner to chef de cuisine to sous chef like a mutated gene. Once the abusive behavior becomes ingrained in a restaurant’s culture, it’s hard to reverse course.”

Buford makes the same point numerous times in Dirt re. his experiences in Lyon. The articulated message was: “It’s the kitchen. You deal [with the abuse] or you leave. You are with us or you are not.” Put another way,yousuck it up or you are gone. No excuses. No HR interventions. No coaching conversations. No performance plans. No legitimate reasons for being late or absent — including illness. Think about that — requiring sick employees who make and serve food to come in and work.

This might all seem surprising — we as customers rarely witness this kind of dyspeptic dysfunction from our tables. It’s all “back of the house” and our interactions are largely with the waitstaff. And with all of the talk these last two decades about “the war for talent” and quality of working life, how could such kitchen horror shows have legs in these times?

Going forward?

The pandemic has put much of the hospitality industry around the world into a Pause mode. As upscale restaurants reopen, they’ll be under enormous pressure to be financially successful which may increase the amount of pressure on the chefs and the other folks working in those kitchens. It will be interesting to see if the public call-outs of that bullying behavior in the last few years will resume and gain traction and result in more respectful kitchen cultures without a diminution of the product. Let’s hope so.

Or like that potion of last week’s seafood appetizer that got lost in the back of the refrigerator, will it continue to be the stench in some kitchens that is acknowledged but not addressed?

About the author: Mike Hoban is a leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.

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