Kitchen Culture Serves up Toxicity for Employees
Three former restaurant workers discuss coping with the ugly aspects of kitchen culture
Features / August 2, 2018
After the tragic passing of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, many people took another look at some of the topics he raised in his book Kitchen Confidential.
Just last year, Bourdain expressed regret for his own complacency in—and even glorification of—toxic elements of kitchen culture, namely the unchecked sexism of the back of house.
Having spent a few years of my life working in kitchens, I’ve seen some of the best and worst parts of this culture. As hard as it is to paint such a large industry with broad strokes, I’ve definitely noticed some commonalities in all of the restaurants I’ve worked in.
I met some of the most compassionate and intelligent people I know while sautéing for entrée dishes on the line. Unfortunately, it’s also where I encountered some of the most obtuse, bullying, straight-up reptilian assholes I’ve ever had the displeasure of talking to.
When you work in an industry where a mistake could leave you with one or two fingers less than you had when you walked in, horrible burns or scars for life, or chronic pain and permanent blindness, you tend to take the bad with the good. Still, it’s hard not to wonder why people put up with working alongside people who mistreat and denigrate their co-workers.
A lot of the time it seems like it’s because you don’t have much choice. Working in a restaurant is a viable way for students to make money while going to school because you’re able to work nights and have a relatively accommodating work schedule.
Speaking from experience, though, this can put you in a position where you’re unable to stick up for yourself when being treated with disrespect and hostility—especially from your superiors—because you fear you could lose your job or alienate yourself from the rest of the crew.
Almost all restaurant kitchen staff are organized into a hierarchy called the brigade de cuisine which includes chefs, sous chefs, chefs de partie, and so on. This hierarchy, first developed by legendary chef Georges Auguste Escoffier over 100 years ago, is absolute and unquestionable. Its resulting power dynamic makes it very difficult to challenge your superiors over anything, even if it’s unrelated to food.
There’s also such a variety of people who work in kitchens that, sooner or later, their personality differences culminate in conflict. When I was working in a kitchen, the guy on my left was working his ass off so that he could feed his kids while the guy on my right was working equally hard to feed his slowly worsening cocaine addiction. I was happy to call both of them my friends, but they were often at each other’s throats for one reason or another.
“There’s a whole bunch of testosterone in the kitchen,” says James Wirth, a graduate from KPU’s Appliance Servicing program who worked as a cook for about two and a half years. “It goes to people’s heads.”
Wirth still regularly works in kitchens as an equipment technician, and even though he’s no longer a cook, he says that he still occasionally feels some animosity from chefs and kitchen workers.
“Working with some of the chefs out there, it feels like there is a sense of entitlement, almost like they’re better than everyone else,” he says. “I’ve worked with a handful of chefs who were more like positive teachers, but I’ve had a plethora of chefs and sous chefs who have an ego or an attitude.”
This mix of testosterone and ego that Wirth references can become particularly volatile once it starts to get busy on line. That’s when shit hits the fan. I still get anxiety when I hear order tickets being printed out at restaurants—it reminds me of how demanding and stressful the kitchen could get.
When you’re working in a kitchen, the timeliness of your work is vital and the margin for error is unforgivingly slim. When you mess something up, it can affect the entire rest of the kitchen. Often they’ll let you know by harassing or yelling at you, which adds to the tension and frustration.
“Suddenly I’m the bad person and I’m getting yelled at by somebody when, really, if you break down the situation, I’m just trying to help them out and they’re taking out their frustration on someone who doesn’t deserve it,” Wirth recalls.
Imagine this: The kitchen thermometer says that it’s 29 degrees on line. You’re in the middle of cooking nine different meals, all of which need to be finished in the next six minutes. You haven’t stepped away from the hot stove for almost three hours and there’s an uncomfortable layer of grease on your face and sweat coating your entire body. The fresh oil burns on your left forearm are starting to sting like crazy. You haven’t had a sip of water in an hour and a half, and the last cigarette you had might as well have been a year ago. Someone just returned a perfectly cooked and plated appetizer because they didn’t realize it wasn’t gluten-free.
Then a dishwasher drops a 10-pound sauté wok on your foot and you burn $38.00 worth of sablefish, eating into the chef’s food cost money and setting the whole kitchen back about 10 minutes.
The stress can be unreal.
In this sort of environment, you might not be your best self 100 per cent of the time. Still that’s no excuse to be a bully, and too often women are the recipients of this behaviour.
The gender divide between the front and back of house is systemic, and research stretching back for decades has suggested that female servers who are judged to be more attractive earn more tips than those who aren’t, especially from male customers. This dynamic is obviously utilized by hiring managers and owners, who seem to favour hiring women for front of house positions.
The standard sub-minimum wage that servers earn also puts an unjust financial pressure on women to endure objectification, and while an increasing number of venues are challenging this by raising servers’ wages, it remains the status quo for the vast majority of businesses. This is not an excuse or a justification for the proliferation of sexist culture in kitchens, but I think it’s worth noting that this culture exists in correlation with an industry that has a very clearly defined structure that reinforces and exploits gendered roles.
Nicole Kwit, KPU fine arts graduate and the art director for The Runner, says that she experienced hostility, condescension, and disrespect while working in restaurants as an expediter and server.
“I think there is a lot of misogyny. Every restaurant I’ve worked at was heavily male-dominant in the kitchens,” she says. “You would hear it amongst themselves. It wasn’t always just towards the waitresses. The women [in the kitchen] would be quiet and they stayed to themselves. You’d hear them get yelled at a lot if they stepped out of line or gave an opinion or something.”
It’s not always the case that female employees are mistreated, objectified, or otherwise disrespected by their co-workers, but it does seem to happen with higher frequency in kitchens. Most managers are on top of keeping their employees comfortable, but a lot of the time, negative behaviours can slip by that the managers are either too busy to notice or intentionally turn a blind eye towards. Here are some that I can recall:
When a particularly tall cook at a restaurant in Langley boasted that, because of his height, he was able to look down the shirts of female servers without being noticed.
When line cooks at a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver would nudge each other and mutter “josei desu” while pointing out women they deemed attractive, taking turns to ogle them as they walked by.
When a group of cooks at a steakhouse in Walnut Grove nicknamed an underage server “jailbait,” referring to her by that name for months, often to her face.
When a chef at a pub in New Westminster angrily shouted down a female server for making a small mistake during lunch, loudly demeaning her in front of coworkers with so much malice that it was genuinely frightening.
I witnessed all of this but never saw any kind of reprimand or disciplinary action taken. This neglect goes a long way towards perpetuating the toxicity of kitchen culture. I’m just one person, and my handful of anecdotes makes up just a small fraction of the tip of the iceberg of problematic attitudes and culture present on the line.
I do think it needs to be said that, while I did step up and call out some of my colleagues on their behaviour a few times, my overall inaction and passivity during these kinds of locker-room situations exemplifies the larger, equally problematic issue of the tacit acceptance of this type of conduct by silent bystanders like myself.
That being said, there is progress being made, and management and chefs are taking steps to cultivate a healthier work environment.
By all means, keep eating at restaurants, enjoy dining out and trying new foods, but try to think more critically about how you treat staff and what you expect of them from now on. You could even consider supporting the movement to pay servers living wages.