Will abusive chefs get their just deserts?

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

Professional kitchens have always seemed like pressure cookers: hot, sweaty, stressful. The caricature of a head chef is angry, sweary, unable to keep a lid on his temper. He shouts at underlings for the most minor of infractions.

Recent events have shown how pervasive that stereotype still is. A number of ex-employees of the Kitchin Group, the set of restaurants owned by celebrity chef Tom Kitchin, have made allegations of a range of abuse, from being denied food, drink and breaks to deliberate burning and sexual harassment. Two senior members of staff have been suspended pending investigation.

But the response from the food industry has been muted. Many have simply ignored the claims; others have made excuses. Food critic William Sitwell claimed that ‘in any high-pressure environment… tensions run high and tempers can fray’. To anyone outside of this bubble, this is deranged. These allegations don’t describe sharp words, they describe systematic abuse. The problem with kitchens is cultural. In a restaurant, abuse isn’t just tolerated; it is aspirational.

Arguably, this was baked into the restaurant kitchen from the start. When French chef Auguste Escoffier introduced the ‘brigade system’ of kitchen hierarchy in the late 19th century, he explicitly modelled it on the army. This brought valuable discipline and order, but also concentrated power in the hands of chefs, untrained for leadership. And the thing is, the kitchen isn’t a warzone. This is not Waterloo — it’s lunch.

The heyday of the rockstar chef came in the 1990s with Marco Pierre White. He became a legend — at the time the youngest chef to have been awarded three Michelin stars — and the poster child for bad-boy chefs. White described his kitchen in his 2007 memoir The Devil in the Kitchen as his ‘theatre of cruelty’. By his own admission, he shouted, swore, threw food and glass bottles, slashed chefs’ whites with knives; chefs were throttled, hung on hooks by their aprons or dumped in dustbins. ‘Discipline,’ he explains, ‘is born out of fear.’ It’s often been reported that, as Gordon Ramsay’s mentor, White made the ultimate shouty man cry. But then Ramsay is a good example of this cycle of abuse: he has made his own career out of screaming at chefs on television until they cry.

In the intervening years, though, some have engaged in self-reflection. In 2000 Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which details the toxic world of New York restaurants, became something of a bible for bad-boy chefs. Bourdain later wrote that it ‘was not a story about a particularly good or commendable career… It validates a lot of bad behaviour’.

René Redzepi, co-owner of Noma, voted best restaurant in the world multiple times, has also reflected on his behaviour: ‘I’ve been a bully for a large part of my career. I’ve yelled and pushed people… This was how I had been taught to cook, and it was the only way I knew to get a message through.’ It took a long time for him to realise that people perform better when they’re confident rather than fearful. ‘We can’t take the boiling points out of service, so we need to find tools to handle them better.’

What are those tools? Chefs’ union Unichef has started a petition calling for the rescinding of Michelin stars and AA Rosettes awarded to restaurants where staff are abused. Asma Khan, chef-owner of Darjeeling Express, has backed this. ‘We are haemorrhaging the future stars of our industry,’ she tells me, ‘and most of them are women… Let’s talk criminality. Let’s talk about sanctions. Let’s talk about boycott.’

Ravneet Gill, a pastry chef and presenter of Junior Bake Off, founded Countertalk, a hospitality recruitment platform committed to only promoting jobs with healthy work environments. Gill says she has seen a shift in employers taking responsibility for the welfare of their staff, and warns: ‘When you shun or blacklist someone, it’s like saying you’re incapable of change, and if that’s true, we’re never going to get better.’ Where companies are failing, she says, there needs to be compassion, and the chance for redemption.

I am sympathetic to both Khan’s fury and Gill’s bridge-building. I think we need both if restaurant culture is to change. But change may already be on the cards. The pandemic has led to huge staff shortages in hospitality. Workers are in demand, which means they have more options than ever. Restaurant staff may decide they do not want to work for abusive chefs any more. And if owners and investors see these chefs as a liability, rather than an asset, the tide is likely to turn rather quickly. Wouldn’t that be delicious?

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