Your Kitchen Doesn't Have to Be Hell

Conscious or not, being a toxic boss is a choice, and these chefs are doing their best to break the cycle.

How Not To Be A Toxic Chef
Photo: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Given a choice, most people will not consciously decide to create a toxic work environment and yet we see it happen all the time. Maybe we've worked in those places. We ourselves may have been part of the problem. But as in the parable about all people having two wolves inside them—one evil and one good—the wolf who gets fed wins. A restaurant or other workplace isn't born toxic. It's made that way, and we have the power to break the cycle.

According to Keri Higgins-Bigelow, CEO of Living HR, a consulting firm specializing in building positive company cultures, toxicity is born from inaction and failure to resolve any one of the business's underlying problems for too long.

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Outside of restaurants, most degree programs' core competencies curriculum focuses on business management. In culinary programs, the notion of people management as anything more than a cost center is regularly given short shrift, despite how important it is to a business. Rudderless employees climb career ladders, lacking formal leadership training, and try to figure the crucial aspects of team building out as they go. How a workplace does or does not become toxic is an indirect path. Good or bad, a boss's vision and behaviors are the sum total of their experiences and beliefs—and how they choose to apply them.

Many chefs of a certain age came up in an era before chefs were glamorized outside of their restaurants. Chefs were deities of their own imagination behind the kitchen doors, and they trained others in the manner they'd been shown. This mentality can be traced back to the brigade system's codification over 100 years ago. Chefs took this military model and developed a similar style of training. New hires, many of whom had never adhered to any degree of professional accountability, let alone teamwork, were viewed in the same way that the military views new recruits. Training started by stripping that person of any sense of self, and harassment and degradation as a means to that end were not taboo and instead applied liberally. Once a person no longer considered themselves an individual but rather a part of the brigade, the work of building that person back up in the chef's image could begin, and the new hire could start to absorb useful skills. At this point, the military and kitchen comparisons diverge slightly. Unlike the military, a chef receives their customers' adulation, and the accompanying boost to the chef's ego can become problematic.

Read: 6 Things Chefs Are Doing to Take Care of Their Staffs as Restaurants Reopen

Levon Wallace, a chef known for his work at Grey & Dudley and Cochon Butcher in Nashville, as well as Proof on Main in Louisville, remembers his formative years with a blend of distaste and accomplishment. Wallace describes one early chef as being "an alcoholic narcissist."

Praise, such as it was, mostly amounted to the absence of abuse. 

"I worked hard to get acknowledgement from assholes," he recalls. Like many kitchens of the time, hard work was the only means of gaining praise and avoiding punishment in that environment. Corporal punishment as negative reinforcement—such as an arbitrary punch in the chest as a matter of course during the workday—was commonplace. Wallace says that negativity could also be more planned and demeaning, and vividly remembers the chef who demanded that he lick his shoe during service one night. Praise, such as it was, mostly amounted to the absence of abuse.

Michael Gulotta, chef-partner of Maypop, Mopho, and Rum and the Lash in New Orleans and a 2016 BNC, recalls similar mindsets, with different treatment in his early years. Describing a previous employer, he says, "He sowed chaos. If service were running smoothly, he would rearrange orders on the board in the kitchen, just to see if we could handle being thrown a monkey wrench."

How Not To Be A Toxic Chef
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Jeffery Heard took an alternate path, working in front of the house as a waiter and banquet server before opening his restaurant, Heard Dat Kitchen, in New Orleans. But even those positions did not provide shelter from the militaristic culture of old-school restaurants. Being on the receiving end of barbs from chefs and kitchen staff was the norm, as were pre-service lineups intended to build performance by avoiding shame. Heard recalls being questioned pointedly and repeatedly, along with the other front of house staff, about menu items and other service points until someone cracked under pressure and gave a wrong answer. The staff member would then be berated in front of the rest of the staff, to make an example of them.

Read: Chefs Get Impostor Syndrome, Too

Like most work environments, the best performers in a restaurant receive consideration for leadership roles. That is not to say that they possess leadership qualities, merely that they are better at performing the job tasks at hand than the rest of the team and therefore command a bit of the team's respect. Armed with only their chef's examples for motivating and disciplining, they usually mimic those behaviors, no matter how healthy or destructive.

While primarily running his kitchen "tight" when it came to appropriate behavior and speech in the workplace for the late '00s, Gulotta admits to engaging in what he calls "emotional terrorism" when disciplining his team. He recalls asking a cook who was unprepared for service, "Is this how you want to live your life?" without regard to the ferocity or lasting effects of his words.

If a sous chef follows the typical career path, after spending the appropriate amount of time learning the financial mechanics of running a restaurant, they will strike out to run their first kitchen. Whether opening restaurants of their own or operating a kitchen for someone else, that is the time to define their ideals and keep or discard their mentors' teachings.

While bearing emotional scars from his work for previous chefs, Wallace sought to find a middle ground from his authoritarian earlier bosses, justifying their actions as making him stronger and a better cook. Gulotta and his partners swore that they would be an organization that put their employees first. But the chefs found that this idealism fell short of their realities. Simply declaring these intentions didn't equate to unlearning a decade or more of the abusive, authoritarian behavior that had been their points of reference.

I never wanted to be the cause of someone's nightmares.

A common theme amongst all these chefs is that the new leadership positions came with unexpected or underestimated stressors that resulted in unintended negative behaviors. "I never wanted to be the cause of someone's nightmares," Gulotta recalls after the new reality of restaurant ownership left him falling short of his employees-first vision. In 2015, he found himself at the center of a controversy when what he perceived as good-natured ribbing went awry. Describing the incident as "cook shaming," a public social media post about one of his cooks' performance was met with angry reactions, rather than the shared laugh Gulotta had expected.

Heard found himself unable to let go of controlling the minutiae of restaurant operations, and destroyed morale in his restaurant. By not trusting anyone fully to perform their jobs, he left staff questioning their status, and even their reason for being employed there.

Wallace wrote a ten-point manifesto of core values for his kitchen. Many of his old employees still use those values as a point of reference today, and while they "weren't terrible," they failed to recognize that there is a world outside of the kitchen by his admission. Citing his lack of maturity and mindfulness, he found himself in more than one situation in which he "accidentally disrespected human decency" in dealing with his staff. Like many young chefs, Wallace would shoulder the lion's share of the work, both out of the perceived need to outperform his staff at every task but also, like Heard, not wanting to let go of control. Compounding the underlying issues were a paid PR team and a glut of positive press that fed a false infallibility narrative. "Eventually, I was carrying that heavy load because no one wanted to be around me," he says.

Read: The Bully in the Kitchen

These are three stories of good intentions, three significant missteps, and three opportunities to correct the course or not. Often, the path to building a healthy work culture more resembles a balance sheet weighing positive and negative events, than a pastoral landscape. Mistakes happen, but acknowledging the error and combining it with liberal introspection and reflection can shape better workplaces.

Wallace recognizes that it was up to him to stop the cycle. "Continuing with the behavior and mindset that I started with would have relegated me to a culinary graveyard, probably a big-box hotel near an airport because no one would want to work with me." He is thankful for the opportunity to be introspective about his actions. "I always wanted to be and do better for the world, but that got painted over by ego."

Explaining his more thoughtful approach to leadership, Wallace now says, "The automatic first question for any of my team is, 'How can I help?'" He's excited and wants to excite his teams in what they are working on, and his desire to help is genuine.

For Gulotta, pausing to carefully consider his team's motivators has provided challenges, with more positive results. "How do you get someone to want to build? How do you hold someone to standards when you have to talk them into it?" He credits his life with his twin sons, both on the autism spectrum, with helping him build the patience and self-examination to deal with the task of managing his team with a more human-centric approach.

You can't slight someone for not being able to catch a ball when their strength is throwing the ball.

Heard, similarly, has considered how he conducts himself in dealing with his staff. Opting for a more humanistic approach, he makes sure to recognize each team member's strengths and puts them in a position to succeed. "You can't slight someone for not being able to catch a ball when their strength is throwing the ball," he says. Heard also admits that his milder personality does not lend itself to being the group's authoritarian and has passed off that role to others.

To build a positive culture, a company needs "a code, not a handbook," says Higgins-Bigelow. "The code is the fiber that holds people together to work for a goal," she explains. Make sure to articulate it in an easily digestible manner. Build trust by letting your team know that someone will pick them up if they stumble."

Combining these elements creates an environment of being human. When everyone involved is aware of each other's humanity and the innate fallibility of that condition, gaffes and missteps are less frequent and more easily understood and forgiven. The good wolf can win if your kitchen feeds it well.

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