Boiling point

Are The Days Of The Toxic Chef Over?

Following Esora’s chef firing, counterparts including Emmanuel Stroobant speak out about their experiences with toxic behaviour, and whether the industry is changing.

Are The Days Of The Toxic Chef Over?
Oliver Cole on Unsplash

It was the late Anthony Bourdain – that original enfant terrible of the kitchen – who said it best in his mega bestseller, Kitchen Confidential.

“The ability to ‘work well with others’ is a must’, said Bourdain of chefs in a professional kitchen. “You’re both working around open flame, boiling liquids with plenty of blunt objects close at hand – and you both carry knives, lots of knives. So you better get along.”

But as the dismissal in January of Esora’s chef Shigeru Koizumi based on allegations of his mistreatment of staff showed, it wasn’t always kumbaya behind the scenes, no matter how slick the front-of-house appeared to diners. The firing, which was announced over Instagram, threw into sharp relief how expectations from both restaurant staff and diners have changed when it comes to kitchen culture, even re-writing some of its previously unspoken codes of conduct.

Tough beginnings

Jérémy Gillon, Chef & Co-Owner, Restaurant JAGRestaurant JAG

Most seasoned chefs can share a tale or three when it comes to the kitchen horrors they’ve witnessed on their way to the top.

“I was trained in a generation that’s more army-style,” says Jérémy Gillon, Chef & Co-Owner, Restaurant JAG. “When a chef gives an order, he doesn’t say please. Like in the army, when you are asked to do 10 push ups, you just do it. On my first day as a young apprentice, I witnessed a senior chef hitting a young apprentice because the latter did not know the name of a knife. At the end of the day, the chef asked me if I wanted to continue working. I told him I would but he should not hit me.”

Andrea De Paola, head chef of Zafferano has witnessed his fair share of toxic behaviour in the kitchen. “While working in Italy, I had a co-worker who would mark himself with burns for each mistake. This was a practice he picked up from punishments inflicted by an extremely strict head chef from a previous restaurant.”

And while it’s been a long time since Bjorn Shen, the chef-owner of Artichoke & Small’s, worked in the fine-dining scene, he says abusive culture – both physical and verbal – is rife in the industry, recounting acquaintances’ anecdotes where they had “cigarettes stubbed out on their bare chests and arms, had pans thrown at their heads, and were burnt with the blade of a knife held over the fire.” Shen adds, however, that such toxic behaviour isn’t limited to fine-dining settings and can “exist at every level, from hawker upwards.”

Bjorn ShenNational Heritage Board

Emmanuel Stroobant, chef-owner of Saint Pierre, says he doesn’t condone such behaviour but sees a correlation between toxic behaviour and environments where imperfection is not tolerated.

“Cheffing is a demanding profession – think long hours toiling in confined kitchens at breakneck speed during peak hours,” says Stroobant. “In a fine-dining restaurant, everything needs to be perfect. The pressure can lead some chefs to become more verbally and physically aggressive while others turn to alcohol to cope. However, I don’t think abusive behaviour is unique to fine-dining as it also happens in industries like showbusiness and fashion where there is constant pressure to remain at the top of your game.”

Alysia Chan, head chef of Rebel Rebel agrees with Stroobant, saying “the kitchen is a pressure-cooker environment, filled with chefs who are likely already overworked, understaffed and trying to go 100 miles an hour during a busy service.”

Chan also feels that with the popularity of “reality shows” like Hell’s Kitchen, the media has played a role in promoting abusive behaviour in kitchens. “It has absolutely been glorified. Some customers even relish the drama,” she says.

De Paola adds that such shows created the “wrong impression” of professional kitchens, saying most restaurants are not like the dysfunctional operations displayed. “After these shows aired, I noticed that there was a trend to post videos of chefs slamming their pans, shouting at the team and so on,” says De Paola.

The rise of wellness

The Artichoke teamArtichoke

Stroobant says the situation has definitely changed because “the pandemic has made mental wellness a key priority for employees. There is also an increasing awareness that while the head chef may be the star of the show, a strong, supportive team of chefs and servers is needed to run the restaurant like a well-oiled machine. A toxic kitchen culture is detrimental to this purpose.”

Gillon, too, notes how the larger conversation around mental health has helped to improve kitchen culture. “Greater efforts are now made to understand the learning language of each individual,” he adds.

Qifan Pah, the young chef and founder of The Crane Grain and Head of Special Projects & Young Chefs Development, Singapore Junior Chefs Club, says his generation has been dubbed the “strawberry generation” for “standing up to this kind of abuse, but it’s precisely because we’re calling it out that more victims are coming forward and initiating conversation about these negative practices.”

Leading change

Emmanuel StroobantThe Emmanuel Stroobant Group

Most of the industry insiders and chefs agreed the responsibility lies with the restaurant and its leaders, rather than customers, to nip toxic behaviour in the bud.

“Measurable expectations and clear timelines should be laid out for apprentices to work towards, with regular “check-ins” with staff throughout the process,” says Gillon. “There should be no ambiguity, because ambiguity coupled with a lack of training leads to frustration.

Stroobant says good company culture comes from the top. “At Saint Pierre, we are very strict when it comes to showing respect for team members in the workplace and inculcating the right attitude. Yes, there’s always going to be immense pressure in the kitchen, and sometimes we may be tired and grumpy but we do not condone physical abuse no matter what the excuse. I introduced a short team session of breathing exercises every day before each evening shift. It is a grounding technique to calm everyone’s nerves,” says Stroobant.

If my waiter accidentally drops a plate on the floor, I can choose to bang the table and hurl insults. But what would I have achieved? Nothing. The plate is still on the floor, my staff freaks out and our customer is still waiting.

Emmanuel Stroobant

“Change starts from the individual. For example, if my waiter accidentally drops a plate on the floor, I can choose to bang the table and hurl insults. But what would I have achieved? Nothing. The plate is still on the floor, my staff freaks out and our customer is still waiting. Or I could take a deep breath, ask the team to clean up the mess, fire up a new dish, and send the waiter to apologise to the customer.”

Pah says aspiring chefs should seek out workplaces that prioritise diversity – especially in leadership roles – as they are “more likely to listen to employees.” He also emphasises that restaurants – not customers – should take the lead in supporting their staff.

“The pandemic is hard enough on restaurants as it is, and customers should still dine at and support establishments that they love. The onus should ultimately be on companies and employers – to establish the appropriate HR practices and check-ins on employees and subordinates, and cultivate a safe environment where staff can report such incidents without repercussions.”

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