Compassion in the Kitchen: Why Culinary Culture Must Change

While Anthony Bourdain has gone on record arguing for the rightness and the necessity of hazing in his book “Kitchen Confidential,” the crueler and harshest antics used in some kitchens no longer have a place in modern culinary professionalism. We need to attract more prospective employees, not scare them off into other industries because of the established Culinary Bro Code. There are already enough reasons to choose from to do something else for a living.

Women have not had an easy time integrating into the hyper-masculine world of the professional culinary kitchen. Ask any woman working in the business today, and she’ll relate as many horror stories as you have time — or the stomach — to listen to about coming up in our current culinary career culture. A recent Thrillist article recounted examples of these tales, such as one from an anonymous sous chef. She worked for a male chef who yanked female chefs' heads back by their hair buns, and who attached a carrot at the end of her station and called her “The Little Donkey.”

Along with this type of abuse is the disturbing fact that still, in 2016, along with unequal professional recognition, women are paid less than men for similar work. According to Glassdoor, female chefs make 28.3 percent less in base pay than their male colleagues. That's the second-highest "adjusted" percentage among the careers included in the study.

I learned the value of female co-workers early on. In my very first executive chef position, I was paired up with a woman as my sous chef. Lori Walker was an amazing assistant for me and helped me get on my feet as a first-time chef. Without her partnership, I wouldn’t have lasted a month.

She and many other women who I have had the pleasure to work with have been the hardest-working culinarians on staff — coming in on their days off, even when sick. They were also the hardest-working people in the room, primarily because they had to be. They could not be seen as weak, needy, or quick to tire. The “bros” in the room were waiting in the wings, ready to shame them right out of their whites. The Culinary Bro Code demanded it of them, or they would quickly be outside looking in. Such was the price many of these women paid.

One might argue that as bad as all this may sound, it has improved, and one might be right. Just not fast enough, by this writer’s estimation.

For some, such as people of color, women, and LGBT communities, no matter how hard they work, the deck has been — and in many cases still is — stacked against them. I was equally guilty of it. You will ride some cooks like rented mules until they come up to your standards or head out the door, head hung low with enough soul-stealing self-doubt that they’ll question themselves for years. Instead of spending the time nurturing talent, modeling mature professionalism, and training skills, some chefs would prefer the expeditiousness of hazing to weed out the weak, infirm, and less desirable candidates.

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The Culinary Bro Code demands that we treat others as poorly as we were, if not more so. “Bros” will make jokes about someone’s sexuality, color, experience, personal challenges, or addictions. They’ll play under the guise of camaraderie and good-natured fun, and some chefs and sous chefs will go along with it. Some will even instigate it but, in all its guises, it still comes down to boys being boys with all the compassion and grace of the "Lord of the Flies." Everyone has a good laugh at someone else’s expense. The laughter ends on a bitter note, remembering when and how we were hazed.

Need to talk for a minute about stress and how it’s affecting you? Ain’t got time for that. Need to take some family leave because you or your wife is having a baby? Are you kidding me? God forbid that someone should get sick short of being in the hospital before you call out, despite the danger of working a shift with contagious conditions such as pink eye. I once fractured both of my forearms during a basketball game and was guilted into going to work that night with both my arms in braces by the Bro who owned the joint.

All of these are great examples of immature professionalism and it’s a cancer in our industry. Some managers and leaders often make the mistake of turning a blind eye to these events, choosing to avoid the incident rather than confronting it. These are the same folks who will tolerate a chef’s mood swings and bad behavior in the mistaken belief that, as an artist, he or she is allowed a certain degree of permissible drift.

Nothing could be further from than truth and is never a smart managerial move. As a professional chef or cook, in that there is an exchange of value — money versus time or experience, one should at least be expected to act, well, professional.

Some companies, like Omni Hotels, understand the deeper implication. Their trilogy of company culture states that, “To be successful in business, you must satisfy the needs of Associates, Guests and Ownership. Maintaining that balance allows us to create the unique experience for which Omni is known.” Happy, empowered, appreciated, and nurtured associates will make guests happy, which in turn will make ownership happy.

Yes, the times are changing. Recently a group of high-profile chefs in France, a country long known for its poor treatment of culinarians, got together to form a petition, formally denouncing violence of any type in their kitchens.

In an associated piece for NPR, James Oseland, former editor-in-chief of Saveur Magazine is quoted as saying, “There’s also a very inherent machismo that happens in the kitchen. I think, really, the way to solve all of this would be to get more women in the kitchen." 

Sounds like the right prescription for a disease that could gut the culinary industry whole if ignored. In order to do that, we — me and you — will have to do everything we can to infuse our operations with more compassion and understanding, finally and consciously putting an end to The Culinary Bro Code.