Toxic kitchen culture and other industry problems

It may be indicative of the kind of people the hospitality industry attracts when you hear things like “It’s all about that rockstar lifestyle, you know?” from a recent culinary school graduate. I can only smirk and bite my tongue, thinking about trashed hotel rooms and red-wine stained carpets and plants. Reading Keith Richard’s autobiography lying in my tent at treeplant this year, I could only think that I had always been attracted to the rockstar lifestyle, and finding myself musically shortcoming, I had found it at treeplant. Not in my years in kitchens. Sitting on a lonely, threadbare couch in an apartment by yourself drinking yourself to sleep is, perhaps, a rockstar lifestyle, but not the one envisioned by those who invoke it.

My first kitchen job was both my hardest and most rewarding. I realize I am treading over old territory again and again here, so bear with me, but working at The Beech Tree was a humbling, exhilarating, terrifying and gratifying experience that both drove me to me knees and elevated me over and over again. I was woefully unprepared walking into the tiny kitchen for my first shift, hungover from the drinks at the bar the night before, wearing a zebra patterned apron an auntie had given me for Christmas years prior. It had its own series of issues with a chef who, during my first shift, threw a cast iron frying pan across the kitchen and later, punched a hole in the drywall. He and I ended up getting on famously. He was temperamental and difficult and though I haven’t visited in an overly long time, I love and respect him to this day. No other kitchen will ever live up to my first kitchen experience, which drove me, humbly, to my knees, applying essential oils for serenity and calm in the sweltering garbage alley behind the restaurant before shakily opening the door and entering into the lair of Chef.  I had two nervous breakdowns while working at The Beech Tree. I was much less self assured at the time and had an entire host of self doubt and sadness and worry eating at me from every angle of my life at the time, so it certainly can’t be blamed entirely on the hours spent in the kitchen, but the 14 hour shifts six days a week didn’t help. I have been lucky enough not to experience the institutionalized sexism that comes hand in hand with the hospitality industry, but I have experienced the harsh toll on one’s mental health and relationships.

There, I struggled with rising to occasions and grasping new skills and exhibiting character traits that would make me worthy of the job I had stumbled into. Now, I find myself criticized for not being willing to throw myself upon my chef’s knife, hara kiri, in a gesture of dedication, and for much lesser food. When you’re throwing a minimum of ten hours a day of your life into a kitchen, it is nice, at least, to be making beautiful product. Being criticized over mashed potatoes sits poorly with me.  Chef at Beech Tree never said, “No, you can’t go,” he just grunted, eyes boring into the pile of pimply naked chickens before him, unusually large and deft hands whacking the knife into the bone. I’d pour myself another pint at the bar and stand at my station, leaning into one knee to relieve the pressure, tediously grinding, weighing, beating and shaping a brisket into the fresh burgers that we were able to serve anywhere from rare to well done because we had processed them in house with such care. In silent companionship, we would make sausages, hand cut chunky ‘thrice cooked chips’, vac seal short ribs to cook, sous vide, for 36 hours in our Macgeyvered machine in the tiny back room.

The expectations upon a cooks time are high. Shifts are long and unpredictable. They may be extremely busy and if one’s shift ends at eight o’clock and there’s a fifteen-top sat at 7:45, you can hardly walk out once the orders start rolling in. That is universally understood. There is a difference between that and being grossly over-staffed and milling about uselessly. There’s a difference between the hard, driving demanding rhythm of a busy service and calling a cook who leaves three hours after the end of his scheduled shift, at an off-peak time, “Lazy” for needing to go home to his wife and children. While sexism and addiction are huge problems in kitchens, I am here to address another issue, which is the absurd expectation we have of cooks to completely sacrifice their work life balance (which, in turn, leads to addictions, mental health, career changes, and perpetuating the toxic culture of kitchens.)

Cooks are pitted against each other in unspoken competitions to see who will rise through the ranks. They sacrifice personal time, physical and emotional well-being, endure psychological and verbal abuse and shifts so long that they have time only to sleep before returning to do it all again the next day. The line is a fratty boys club where chef whispers sexist jokes, telling the women not to listen. It isn’t the telling of ribald jokes that bothers me, it is being excluded from hearing them that rubs me the wrong way. I was pulled aside and spoken to about jokingly calling myself a slut on the line. The boys continue to make jokes about wieners and pussy incessantly and without reprimand, or tritely expressed concern for their well-being. I’m a girl. I’m not one of the rowdy boys who lives in staff housing. I haven’t been cooking for as long. I’m starting to rack up an impressive chain of shitty diners and burnt bridges behind me, but I am a god damn good line cook and a reasonable prep cook. I’m happy to stay out of the competition here, day-dreaming over easy plating at garde-manger or double-timing prep and the few dishes that come out of that station. I know I can call a 700 cover brunch with ten minute ticket times or cook perfect steaks or expo a busy service. I know I can cater three different business lunches out of a kitchen the size of a jail cell, arriving via bike couriers and taxi cabs in a busy Toronto downtown. I have nothing to prove, so I stand on the sidelines and watch them bristle and cringe and compete.

It’s only food. Tomorrow, it’s going to be poop. Why do we take it so seriously?

Problems I have had over the last few months include being scheduled to end at a certain time and not being permitted to leave at said time, regardless of how busy the restaurant is. Many times I have stayed three, four, five hours past my end time, to stock up stations, complete prep, help in dish pit, organize walk-in coolers, change kegs, whatever needs to be done. I’m a team player, not an asshole. Chef preys upon perceived character faults, accusing us of laziness, lack of sportsmanship, not caring for our stations, stupidity, not being team players. A cook clocks out two hours past his scheduled end time. It is not a busy night, but he has been stuck on pans, or lead station. “I want him to grow,” says chef, watching pedantically from the sidelines. I loathe it. As he clocks out, chef asks, “Where are you going?”

He replies he’s already been here two hours past his scheduled end time. Other cooks mill about uselessly, overstaffed, funded by other ventures of the business. This restaurant doesn’t have to be lean and mean and profitable. The cook needs to go home to his wife and children. “Lazy. You’re being lazy,” chef says. He is one of the most industrious and careful cooks I have had the pleasure of working with, regardless of the caliber of the restaurant being less than ideal. He keeps his station immaculate and works with the kind of flair and panache that speak of passion and commitment. He grumbles dissent and leaves as chef calls him a cry-baby. I don’t know if he’ll show up tomorrow- he has certainly spoken about walking out before. I won’t be there to tell you. I have no intention of returning.

When I submitted my availability for the New Year’s six weeks ago, I received an e-mail back stating that was fine and the scheduling would reflect it. When I received the schedule for the first week of 2018, I was on my old schedule still. Upon bringing it up with chef, he said, “Oh, when does your sports league start?” I gave him the date; the upcoming Wednesday. “That seems a little premature. We’ll talk about it.” No, we won’t, motherfucker, because I won’t be there. I have done my due diligence in giving you my availability and you have repeatedly and without apology disregarded my time and life outside of the institution in which I work.

The implication that having hobbies, socializing, sports, education or other activities outside of the industry makes one a less dedicated cook is absolutely archaic and completely ridiculous. A work life balance is terribly important. I am not advocating to end fourteen hour shifts, as many of us are happy to work them. I am not saying that cooks should not have to stay late to complete a busy service. I am saying that our definition of character and worth being based on one’s willingness to sacrifice their personal life outside of cooking is completely ridiculous. Verging on absurd. To imply that one is lazy, to wage psychological warfare, upon cooks, to subtly torment and abuse them based on their willingness to slowly eradicate hobbies, home life, family life and socializing, is a sickeningly common habit in kitchens, and it absolutely must stop.

Sometimes, I would leave The Beech Tree, my prep completed, chef stoically manning the fort and methodically vac-sealing bags with our Canadian Tire  brand food saver. Only a year or so into our duo sojourn did be begin leaving before me, and only on Saturday nights, before brunch service on Sunday morning. Tonight, we clustered around a dish pit fucked up beyond recognition as I took control and began filling bus bins with hot soapy water so we could load racks simultaneously in the dish area and from our prep table. Words of Jamie Newman played in my head. “The dish washer must never stop running. If it stops, it wins.” My new chef leaves, as we all herd together to confront the utterly unexpected chaos the service has produced. As he walks out the back door in his pristine wool coat and toque, I see Jamie in my mind, in a dirty black t-shirt, elbow deep in the dish-pit and urging us on toward completion, mopping the floor and putting dishes away and never leaving until we, as a team, had completed the service.

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