The Bully in the Kitchen
Editor’s note: In November, we launched Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.
Adam Reiner is the Founder and Executive Editor of the Restaurant Manifesto, a website dedicated to helping people dine more successfully. He has worked in fine dining restaurants in New York City for over fifteen years and also served as a hospitality consultant internationally.
In early 2012, I submitted my resignation at a top New York City restaurant. I was a veteran member of the front of the house staff with over 10 years of experience. I was making money consistently and had a dream schedule. There weren’t too many reasons to leave. But like many of my former colleagues in this restaurant, the one reason I did have for leaving outweighed the rest. The executive chef was a serial abuser and I was tired of being his punching bag.
This chef continued to helm the kitchen at this restaurant for another five years before he was recently fired. His dismissal confirmed what most of us knew all along, that he was unfit for his position. It took the public shaming of celebrity chefs and industry luminaries to hasten his departure, despite the fact that the list of grievances against him had piled up beyond absolution. The tectonic shift that has given voice to victims of workplace harassment in professional kitchens and fine dining rooms is finally shaking the bad fruit from the tree. The worst offenders like this chef, we now know, were rotten to the core.
Harassment in restaurants is often hereditary. It gets passed down from chef-owner to chef de cuisine to sous chef like a mutated gene. Once the abusive behavior becomes ingrained in a restaurant’s culture, it’s hard to reverse course. In this restaurant, like many, the dining room staff dreaded entering the kitchen out of fear that Chef might pull out the switch. I was once literally shooed out of the kitchen with a plate of hot food even though the chef knew I needed to communicate the urgent needs of my table. There were others available to take the plate; he just wanted to show me who was boss.
“Run along now, waiter,” he said with a patronizing smirk and a shooing gesture. I knew if I wanted to keep my job I would have to give my lunch money to the bully in the kitchen.
Many chefs will tell you that aggression is the only way to coax consistent production from their line cooks. Making great food takes extraordinary discipline but a chef’s quest for purity behind the line can often turn sadistic. Long nights in a blazing hot kitchen with a printer that never stops spitting out orders can transform gentle souls into rabid animals. Voices get raised, toes stepped on. The first-aid kit in the kitchen doesn’t treat hurt feelings.
Part of the reason for the friction between front and back of house is because most executive chefs have discretion to hire and fire anyone on staff. General managers have the same power but rarely exercise it over BOH employees. In fine dining, all staff members regard executive chefs as “Chef” and when you enter the kitchen you approach them with the same reverence and humility as one would an Imam or a Sensei. The rigidity with which we are taught to address the chef is a reminder to everyone that the most powerful position in the restaurant (aside from the owners) is the person in charge of cooking the food. If that person has aggressive tendencies, there are very few safety valves in place to protect subordinates from their alpha male moments.
Several months before I finally gave my notice, I contacted one of the owners directly about the chef’s aggressive behavior. After logging several official complaints, I had lost faith in my managers' ability to put a stop to his conduct. I was at odds with a coworker who was a close family friend of the chef. When the chef caught wind of the friction, he began antagonizing me like a vengeful mobster. He fired food for my tables before they were ready. He made slanderous remarks about me in front of his line cooks. When he came out into the dining room one night during service and threatened to fire me, I’d reached my breaking point.
The chef and I met privately with the owner one afternoon to air our grievances. Of course, he played the dutiful son but it was only an act to protect his job. Abusive chefs always behave themselves when the owners are around. Within weeks he was back to the same old shenanigans. There was no HR apparatus within the company at the time to defend me or anyone for that matter. Every manager I ever worked with knew about the harassment. Every. One. Most of them had their own problems, and they were targets too.
I wasn’t surprised to hear about his firing, just that it took so many years to finally happen. Along with the bullying I’ve described here, he had also been the subject of multiple lawsuits claiming sexual harassment. I’ve talked privately to many who were present in his kitchen when these allegations were made, and not a single one has ever discredited the accounts of his accusers. Those cases, aside from a few brief moments in the tabloids, were given little credence by members of the food media who were more concerned that legitimizing a scandal would result in forfeiting access.
Though no one will ever admit it, this chef kept his job because restaurants are insular like fraternities. In assault scenarios on college campuses when someone crosses the line in a fraternity house, the brotherhood will likely protect its members because it knows if one person within their ranks falls it may threaten to take down the entire organization. It’s no wonder our male-dominated industry has been so silent through the #metoo movement. For too long, the restaurant business has been one big frat house.
In this case, that mentality proved wrong-minded because concealing these abuses exacerbated the damage. The restaurant group chose not to terminate this chef’s employment for years, knowing that he was a threat to the welfare of its staff and a liability to its business. Anyone in the organization who claims they didn’t know this was happening is not being honest with themselves or anyone else. Though I’m sad to see this affair stain this restaurant's legacy, I feel little sympathy for those whose reputations have been tarnished. This cancer could’ve been removed a long time before it spread. I’d probably still be working there if it had been.