With the restaurant industry at a crossroads, a new initiative challenges kitchens to take time out and pledge to do better.
Restaurant kitchens are not generally a locus of lengthy, meaningful emotional exchanges. By their very design, they're meant to efficiently, precisely replicate dishes that are the vision of a head chef—effectively making the entire brigade into a living organism that's an extension of the brain and body of a single person (or possibly a corporate mandate). At its best, this can be exhilarating, inspiring, supportive, and fulfilling and give the members of a team everything they need to thrive and advance in their careers. At its worst, it can foster habits and practices that lead to deep dysfunction, emotional and physical burnout, abuse, and more.
The solution, according to a new program called #FairKitchens, starts with taking an hour out of the day to simply talk. (Full disclosure: My mental health advocacy project Chefs With Issues partnered with Unilever Food Solutions and a group of chefs from around the world to develop the code of conduct.) The initiative kicks off May 29 with a suggestion for chefs to take "An Hour for Us"—time set aside for their team to get together and talk through a proposed code of conduct that includes better standards for communication, mentorship, respect across cultures, physical health, and making a practice of acknowledging colleagues' good work.
A worldwide study conducted by UFS revealed that one in four chefs has been subjected to physical abuse, 63 percent report suffering from depression, 74 percent feel sleep-deprived to the point of exhaustion, and 53 percent say they have been pushed to the breaking point. Chefs Michael Gulotta, Ludo Lefebvre, Kelly Fields, Naama Tamir, and Markus Glocker are among those who have signed on to the #FairKitchens movement, and are sharing their experiences and commitment to the program on social media in the hope that other kitchens will follow.
"It has become alarmingly more commonplace to see passionate cooks and service industry professionals leaving the industry due to stress from loss of work/life balance, substance abuse, hostile working conditions, or any mix of the above," Gulotta wrote in an Instagram caption. "While I used to think I was thriving in the craziness of kitchens as a line cook, I quickly realized as a kitchen manager that it was not a sustainable model, at least for me personally. Since then I've tried to run more positive kitchens. I know that I can always do better. I know that sometimes I throw myself into the restaurants to escape from other problems. Sometimes I don't know how to leave the restaurants, even when my staff tells me to go home. Sometimes these self inflicted stressors result in me snapping at one of my team members, or my family. I believe that I have to do better in an attempt to build kitchens where everyone strives collectively to lower that stress level."
Lefebvre concurred in his own Instagram post, writing, "Working, running and being part of a restaurant can be a grueling task and take its toll on you and everyone around you. It has taken me a long time to figure out that building a team you can trust and rely on is critical for the needed work/life balance (for everyone). Trust me, I wasn’t always this way and still need to remind myself each and every day. We end up spending more time with our staffs than we do our family, so treating one another with respect is a must. As an industry we need to constantly be striving to be better (me included)."
Though the #anhourforus social media campaign primarily takes place on May 29, it serves as the official kickoff for the ongoing #FairKitchens initiative. Chefs and restaurant workers who wish to participate and explore additional resources can visit fairkitchens.com.