There are many questions today when individuals involved in a work culture try to define and justify who they are. Times have changed, expectations have evolved, and what was once assumed acceptable has come into question. Not to make excuses, but it was long assumed that ignorance was bliss and tradition made actions acceptable. The following statement was strategically placed on my chef’s office door for as long as I can remember – it was a statement that, for all intents and purposes, tried to explain who we (those who tied on an apron and worked in the kitchen) were and unintentionally justify whatever inappropriate action may have taken place:
“Yes, we can be hard at times, but we are very sensitive underneath. We can receive 99 rave reviews, but it is the one unhappy guest who keeps us up at night. This is the way we are. Food and a person’s reaction to how we prepare it means everything. It is more than our job, it is our life.”
-The Kitchen Staff
Now, let’s be clear – I wrote this and I believed in it (and to some extent – still do). I felt (feel) that those who are career cooks take their job seriously, sweat the details, and strive to prepare great food that makes everyone happy. The problem with this statement, as I now see it, is that it indirectly infers that our actions and personality flaws are justifiable because we care about what we do.
Cooks are a unique breed, and good cooks tend to be eccentric, sometimes moody, and crusty, oftentimes profane, unforgiving, egocentric, and uncompromising in an effort to reach an unrealistic goal of perfection. Chefs, at least in the past, were known to demean coworkers, yell and curse, and portray themselves as all knowing while everyone else need to be subservient to this belief. Of course, there are plenty examples of great kitchens where this is not the case, yet I think that most of us have worked in and maybe even contributed to those hostile environments.
Many cooks have bullied, approached coworkers with disrespect, sexually harassed those few women who really tried to be solid contributors to quality cooking, and made life difficult for far too many who were just trying to do a good job. If you have not been part of this then I applaud your experience in the kitchen, but I would assure those who are reading that this has and continues to happen every day in kitchens across the country. To many of us, it felt like a right of passage – the bullying of new kitchen recruits, the innuendo around women cooks and service staff, the aggressive use of four letter words, and the verbal attack on workers who made mistakes or failed to meet the standards of the operation was all part of the “way it is”.
There is little doubt that this happens in many industries as we have found out in recent weeks, but I am not sure that it is as blatantly accepted at any higher level than in the restaurant business.
Recently, Chef Tom Colicchio wrote an open letter to chefs and cooks calling them out on generations of inappropriate behavior and the need to change. As we struggle with ways to make our industry more attractive to young folks and find a model of operation that helps to retain the best of the best, this environment of harassment must be on the table.
Chef Colicchio’s open letter:
What makes me most proud of my four plus decades of work in restaurants also points to areas within our culture that can no longer be tolerated. It is up to each of us – chefs, cooks, culinary students, faculty members, restaurateurs, dining room managers, and service staff to insist on a different environment that is just as demanding, just as focused on striving for excellence, just as connected with preparing and serving great food, but an environment of support and inclusion. Put aside the fact that this is the law – it is the right thing to do.
Here are some thoughts for cooks and chefs (myself included):
 UNDERSTAND AND APPRECIATE DIFFERENCES
What makes us different makes each of us interesting and valuable. If we take the time to listen and appreciate this difference we will grow as individuals and as cooks.
 PERFORMANCE HAS NO GENDER
Cooking is not a man’s job; being a chef is not a man’s job; becoming an effective restaurateur is not a man’s job; service is not a woman’s job – in all cases performance is the differentiator. We need to stop identifying a job by gender and simply look at who is qualified through performance to be effective in any role.
 PERFORMANCE HAS NO ETHNICITY
I have always taken pride in the diversity within restaurants where I have worked. The role of ethnicity in a restaurant kitchen or dining room is sometimes very hard to define. Diversity makes any business stronger and rewarding for all involved. Ethnicity on the other hand is not a requirement in connection with the restaurant concept. Do Italian restaurants need Italian born cooks, a Chinese restaurant – native Chinese? As is the case with gender in restaurants it is all about performance.
 OPEN MINDS LEAD TO GREATER KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING
When a restaurant is allowed to be a melting pot of ethnicity, race, gender, age, and beliefs it will become a place where every player stands to constantly learn and grow as an employee and a person. The chance to build an understanding of what makes people different and what makes them the same is a priceless gift.
 TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED
This time tested statement has never been truer. Good people who look at every situation to interact with others in this fashion are better for it. If we all stopped before we bullied, harassed, belittled, or mocked another and asked: “How would I feel in this situation” I am confident that the answer and the action would be positive.
“There is ample data to show that the first two weeks on the job are the most critical for young cooks. This is when they are most vulnerable to criticism, belittlement, disrespect, and feeling uncomfortable in their new surroundings. Some simply choose to walk away and look for a more accepting work environment.” Can we (the restaurant business) afford to turn people away who might very well become excellent contributors to success?
 THERE IS A WRONG TYPE OF UNCOMFORTABLE
There is validity to the statement that if people are to grow we need to put them in a position where they are uncomfortable with their skills and abilities. This “push” will quite often help people to take a leap of faith and push themselves to exceed expectations. This is an “uncomfortable” that can have real benefits for everyone involved. There is, however, an “uncomfortable” where people tend to feel inadequate, abused, and in a position to do or say something that goes beyond their personal life “compass”. This is not acceptable and bears no positive outcome. This is against the law and simply wrong. Forget that this may have been the way it WAS in restaurants – it can no longer be the way it IS.
 RESPECT, RESPECT, RESPECT
This is what it comes down to – respect your fellow employees for their gender, race, ethnicity, age, personal preferences, and beliefs. When you look to your left and to your right you will see a fellow employee who is in a position to work collaboratively in the process of achieving a goal. They either have or have the potential to gain the skills necessary to help achieve this goal and as such are equal to you in the moment. You deserve their respect and they deserve yours.
 EQUALITY MEANS EQUALITY
We have all likely been guilty at some level of exercising discrimination, yet at the same time the restaurant business remains one that opens many doors for any entry level employee to reach the pinnacle of a career. We may not even realize what we have done in the past: thinking that women are best in the bake shop or garde manger; older cooks are not suited to work on the line; non-English speaking employees are automatically scheduled for dishwashing or prep where we never need to worry about helping them improve their ability to communicate in an English speaking kitchen; or women make the best servers and men make the best managers. These are all assumptions based on nothing but false perceptions and maybe a bit of insecurity.
Just as the dishwasher in a restaurant might very well be a restaurant owner in twenty years, so too might any employee thrive in any position that we train them for and give them an opportunity to give their all.
This is a time for the restaurant industry to take a hard look at itself and collaborate on the creation of a new dynamic, one that will prove to be attractive to the very best workers, workers with a desire to perform and contribute to success. In 2018 and beyond we should all look at us and check our approach to these challenges.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training