After working in kitchens for most of my adult life, I’ve been lucky to take a break for a few years. As I look forward to coming back, this global situation we are in has brought to light some things I’d like to get off my chest.
If this pandemic has proven anything, it has proven the fragility and unsustainable nature of the restaurant industry. Considering the push towards creating the “sustainable” restaurant, it’s a bit ironic that it seems we have yet to recognize the hypocrisy and unhealthy values of our working culture.
Sourcing local produce to minimize fossil fuels, creating strict composting and waste management programs, and finding creative ways to reuse waste materials are great initiatives towards creating a restaurant that is more responsible. But I think the problem goes much deeper than that, and it has to do with our ego and pride as an industry.
As cooks, how many times have we heard the following seemingly impressive compliments?:
“That cook is a machine. She comes in earlier than anyone else, leaves later than everyone else, and never complains. An absolute rockstar.”
“He’s an amazing chef. At any point, he can come onto your station and cook your station way better than you could ever possibly work it.”
“How impressive is that kitchen? They have 40 cooks working in the kitchen to serve 40 guests. I heard they come in at 7 in the morning. They work 18 hours a day.”
To be honest, these are claims that impressed me as well. The dedication to a craft, the almost god-like talents in our industry. I wanted to be that machine. I wanted to be that rockstar. I wanted to be someone who would outwork anyone, who can work 16 hours every day, and still go home, do 2 hours of research and sharpen my knives before I go to sleep.
But, taking even a small step back makes it clear how unhealthy some of those values and expectations are.
Should it be part of our expectations that the only way to feel accepted and valued is if you shun everything else in your life for your career?
To be blunt, if I’m a chef and I have as many cooks working in my kitchen as I do guests in the restaurants, or even half the amount of cooks, and they work 12-18 hours a day, it shouldn’t be a source of pride. Maybe it's a severe lack of understanding how unsustainable my menu writing and planning actually is. I have a hard time arguing that if that’s how long it takes to create your menu and that’s the working force that you need to accomplish it, you’ve written an unsustainable menu.
Sustainability and responsibility also have to do with human beings as well.
If I’m a chef, and I can do a better job than my cooks at any point of the day, then to be frank, I may be talented at the hard skills of cooking, but I lack the soft skills needed to mentor my team and allow them to grow and flourish. Or maybe my ego can’t face the thought of someone in my kitchen can actually be better than me at something.
The crazy thing about our industry is that it’s really easy to manipulate and control as a leader.
Because of the subjective nature of food, leaders in a kitchen are rarely ever questioned or challenged on their opinions. How can you tell your chef that, actually, the sauce is perfectly seasoned, and it does have enough pepper in it? How can you prove them wrong? Most kitchens are also run as a strict hierarchy, where those who are at the bottom rarely have the right or opportunity to share what they think. A chef can easily tell a cook to remake something, and make whatever explanation they want, whether it’s true or not. The problem with this is that when it gets personal, it’s really easy to make someone’s life miserable if you lead them in a kitchen.
It’s a shame isn’t it? Who should change? Should the cooks just merely get better at their jobs? Or do the chefs who run these kitchens need to learn to humble themselves and realize the bias of their actions.
Add to that the pride that comes with doing something difficult. I’m not saying that cooking is easy. It takes time to learn the skills needed to be a good cook. But largely, the difficulty comes from a self induced style of punishment we inflict on ourselves by making things difficult, not because it makes any logical sense, but because it helps us feel better about ourselves. There’s aspects of the business that are difficult by nature, such as a full restaurant with an a la carte menu, dietary restrictions, and rude guests, but even without those, I think we would find some way to make life hard for ourselves.
As much as I love food, it’s still just food. The details we obsess over, as much as we want to admit it, will go unnoticed and unseen by most of the guests who taste them. The small details do matter, but I would argue more times than not, it’s more for our own satisfaction rather than for the pleasure for the guest. The guest experience in a restaurant has so much more to do with how they feel and how they are treated than the actual miniscule details of how many leaves of lemon thyme go on the third course.
What’s actually difficult is working in the medical industry. We cook for people. Nurses and doctors spend their shifts trying to keep people from dying. Maybe a bit of perspective is needed.
With social media culture and celebrity status comes something about the industry that I despise. It’s not exclusive to our industry, it’s actually something that runs through every part of culture. It has to do with affiliating yourself with those who can give you the most value. This leads to random people reaching out to try and be your friend when you’re in a coveted position, and then never really hearing from them again when you leave that position. How many false relationships do we actually have because of status?
We shun those who we believe give us no value, or who we feel aren’t as good as we are.
Also, all those who spend more time making something look good for instagram, remember that beauty is subjective. It’s cool that you can take a baby beet and have the single root pointing high above your plate, and cut a sliver of entrecote out of the whole steak that you cooked so you get a nice cross section. But let’s be realistic, those who see these images on instagram will never be able to verify if it actually tastes good, and I think we fall into the danger of spending more time making something instagrammable, rather than just simply delicious (again, both are subjective...but one actually serves the purpose of what food should be).
It’s also foolish to chase after perfection, or claim that something is perfect. There’s no such thing. The pursuit of perfection is in itself a meaningful task, but should we cut each other down and demoralize those around us in the process?
Truthfully, I’ve had to ask myself if I’m actually having fun in our industry? Or does fulfillment only come from the pats on the back and the likes and comments?
Unfortunately, our industry has come to the point where the top chefs are glorified god-like figures who rarely are questioned about their behavior. It’s actually viewed as admirable traits that a person can hold so much power over so many of their staff, and that these staff would go to extreme lengths for every ridiculous request.
How come we see that as being acceptable?
What about if instead about bragging about treating our staff better or caring about our staff, why don’t you just do it? Does it really have to be publicized?
Maybe I’m just bitter because of what I see and how far from reality it almost always is.
And, quite honestly, I know I’m jaded as well. I can’t help but feel a certain level of sadness for allowing these unhealthy values and expectations to dictate how I treat people. This break from our industry has given me some much needed time to reflect.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking it’s true. Maybe you think it’s too judgmental.
Unfortunately, I must admit that I'm guilty of holding onto some of these unhealthy perspectives, but if there’s anything I’ve learnt in life, it’s that you should share what you learn, despite the fact that it might not make a difference, and that at the end of the day, the only person you can change is yourself.