The headlines have been salacious. Staff have been branded, or so the story goes. Another has been assaulted. Those with big names find themselves under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It’s ugly, it’s discomforting, it’s wrong.
We don’t know the specifities of such cases, nor do we make comment about them. Did Chef A do something bad to his partner? Was Chef B guilty of such appalling leadership that his staff felt they could sexually and physically assault others? It’s not our place to judge. The answer is, we do not know. There are laws that prevent others from impuning another’s character and and we can be sure there are two sides to every story.
The principals, however, rather than the individuals, merit comment. It would be cowardly to look the other way, to pretend it’s business as usual, to conclude that there’s nothing to see here and everything is peachy. It isn’t. There’s still something rotten in the heart of some of our kitchens and it’s time to call it out.
Violence is learned behaviour. We don’t appear from the womb ready to punch our mum. The opposite is true. Gastronomy has an atrocious recent history, in which the glamorisation of violence and misogyny has been unchecked. Physical altercations, MMA-style aggression and displays of Colin McGregor-esque brutality haven’t merely been tolerated, they’ve been encouraged. The law of the jungle has applied. It’s been fine to brand or slash, to burn or grab, to shout or intimidate. Such behaviour has been enabled by others in the industry who’ve turned a blind eye, written it off as banter or become an accessory to acts steeped in criminality.
We all know the identities of people with an amazing public perception who’ve got form. Each of us could identify a chef who appears calm and funny, charming and engaging – but has gone toe-to-toe in the kitchen, pinning a colleague against a wall or duking it out in the walk-in fridge. It happens. Today, some cook, somewhere in the world, will fear a slapping. Another will be intimidated. Bad stuff will happen.
The solution isn’t to name and shame, to embark on a cancel culture process of denigrating those who’ve transgressed. It never works. What’s passed has passed. We all instinctively know whether or not we’ve ever crossed a line, our consciences tell us.
Change should come, however. There are plenty in the industry who have owned their previous misdemeanours, who put their hands up and tell others that they were a thug, that they were nasty, that they’ve learned the error of their ways. From the highest ranks of Michelin to the journeymen who make up the numbers, few haven’t witnessed or been involved in some form of nefarious act. It takes courage to speak out, to say no, to demand better. Yet we must do all of those things. We can no longer tolerate casual violence; verbal or physical. Yes, kitchens are hot, passionate places where tempers can run high and where normal rules seem not to apply. But if we apply a simple test – would we do that in front of our kids – we start to get onto a better path.
The people from whom we might learn are those who’ve been on the road to Damascus. There are legions of chefs who’ve changed their ways, who’ve had an important moment of insight that has transformed their attitude or belief. There are the people from whom we can learn the most, whose example we might follow. They know what led to poor behaviour. They also know how to turn things around and maintain the highest of standards without being a douche.
The industry is in crisis. An unlistening Government that seems reluctant to permanently lower VAT or appoint a dedicated minister to oversee the third largest sector of the economy has no answers. Self-interest abounds. Those who are supposed to speak up for hospitality find themselves cosied up to big business or politicians with unhelpful agendas. Brexit has taken a sledgehammer to the pool of labour. Skilled European chefs and front of house staff have left, never to return. Too few youngsters want to consider hospitality as a career path, and who can blame them when the industry is mired in controversy and has a reputation for ill-treating its staff. Getting a gig as a kitchen porter doesn’t seem like much fun when it comes with a side order of mental illness caused by a chef’s roughness and barbarity.
Hospitality isn’t unique. Most industry’s have similar issues to contend with. Those in the city are coerced into working long hours, the media has a problem with substance abuse, racism is rife in the Met, homophobia is widespread in professional sport. All industries have their crosses to bear.
Yet hospitality must learn to help itself. That’s not to say new recruits should be mollycoddled. The rigour and discipline imposed by driven individuals who achieve the highest standards can be life-changing for many. Other behaviours, however, are no longer acceptable. Hospitality needs to change, we believe it is. It needs to get rid of the prehistoric behaviours that were once considered cool, for they are not. Chefs in high places have a responsibility to lead by example, to show the right sort of discipline, to improve the lives of those in the industry rather than break minds and bodies through bullying, aggression and hostility.
It’s curious that during the Euro 2021 championship, Gareth Southgate’s England taught us so many valuable lessons. Qualities on display included professionalism, discipline, calm and perspective. There was generosity and grace. Well managed and given the opportunity to shine, a disparate group of diverse talents were given the chance to be at their best.
Hospitality is an incredible industry. It welcomes the kooks and the weirdos, the creatives and the misfits, the bright and the brilliant. It’s a place where people can live their dreams. Opportunities abound for risk-takers and hard-workers, for the driven and the determined. There are behaviours, however, that no longer have a place in our industry. Bullying, aggression and violence may have been acceptable in the recent past. They no longer are.