Restaurants are toxic workplaces

We’ve all seen the reality food shows starring the red-faced, expletive-spewing, hot-tempered chef — or heard the stories of their overworked and underpaid subordinates. Gordon Ramsays hell kitchen is in its 21st season, and The bear, FX’s drama about a gourmet chef who runs the family’s sandwich shop was the hit series of the summer. Industrial jobs—and all the alcohol, drugs, and workplace abuse that come with them—are glamorized, the negative behavior perpetuated. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Photo by Daniel Neuhaus
Solution 1: “Kitchens should function like any other workplace”

David Schwartz, Co-owner and chef, MIMI Chinese and Sunnys Chinese

“Most kitchens are modeled after a militaristic brigade system, where orders are barked at subordinates. It’s an antiquated approach to a workplace, and it doesn’t do any good to treat people like they’re under you. In my kitchen, I expect everyone to speak to each other with respect: That means the dishwasher speaks to me the way I speak to it. “Yes, chef” is a standard response in restaurant kitchens, but imagine how odd it would be to say “yes, chef” every five seconds in any other industry. Also, it’s often the case that restaurants don’t pay for proper accounting services and end up missing out on payroll cycles and tipping. Kitchens should function like any other workplace: benefits, HR, a functioning salary system. Isn’t it obvious that when people enjoy working for you, it will be easier to retain employees and your business will thrive?”

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Photo by Clay Williams
Solution 2: “Promote a safe and supportive workplace”

Hassel Aviles, Executive Director, Not 9 to 5, Mental Health Advocacy in the Hospitality Sector

“The most important step restaurants can take to support their employees is to practice psychological safety: foster workplaces where people feel safe, making mistakes, being vulnerable, and not afraid to give feedback and to obtain. That means getting rid of the notion that employees should “check their shit at the door.” This is how we end up in toxic workplaces where suppressing any emotion other than anger is the norm. Leaders should model vulnerability by sharing their perspectives on work—including failures—normalizing breaks, focusing on solutions rather than blame, regularly showing gratitude, and seeking employee input and feedback.”

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Photo by Nadia Alam
Solution 3: “Participate in compassionate leadership”

Eva Chin, Chef, Avling

“Is the brigade the source of toxicity and patriarchy in a kitchen? I do not think so. It’s the shame, the elitism and the lack of compensation. I would love to see more restaurants offering personal development workshops and courses for their management teams. Our industry has made amazing strides in food innovation, but while restaurants are about people, for our senior leadership team – which is standard in most other industries – the culture of personal development isn’t nearly strong enough. As leaders in the industry, we should learn skills like compassionate leadership, conflict de-escalation, and fostering a healthy, positive work environment.”

Photo by Erin Leydon
Solution 4: “Work from a non-hierarchical model”

rogeryang, Owner, Osteria Du and Pizzeria Du

“You almost expect toxicity in the hospitality industry, but happy people work better. In my restaurants we work according to a non-hierarchical model, where everyone is responsible for the leadership of the other. For this to work, the right people have to be on board, and that starts with the hiring process: instead of a manager conducting interviews, we get a few team members to do internships. From then on, leadership comes naturally – young chefs, for example, want to learn from senior chefs. This requires more group discussions and takes longer, but it also means people feel more involved. No one is just a cog in the machine.”

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The brigade system

The restaurant kitchen’s militaristic chain of command was designed by chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, who had served in the French army, in the late 19th century.

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