If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen

Eoghan Conway examines the prevailing toxic work culture that can exist in the hospitality industry

The trope of the tyrannical chef is nothing new. Screaming at sauciers, lambasting line cooks and whining at wait staff. In some kitchens, it’s a toxic culture that’s the special of the day. Unfortunately, mistreatment and exploitation are about as common in kitchens as boxes of Maldon sea salt. The hospitality industry is one that is designed along the principles of efficiency, output and customer satisfaction. However, these goals are oftentimes prioritised at the cost of basic HR standards, and generally accepted workplace practices. 

Of course, not all employers out there are autocratic oppressors but a prevalent harmful working culture is one that plagues hospitality. Recent departures of high-level staff in Dublin restaurants, most notably in Richard Corrigan’s The Park Café, are proof of this. Disagreements over rates of pay and a “high octane” environment were just two reasons sighted by over a dozen members of staff who left. Burnt-out and overworked staff are turning their backs on the industry which they adore. Any passionate and seasoned server or chef will tell you that they love their industry, many couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else, yet why is it that the industry doesn’t love them back? 

Looking in from the outside, the hospitality industry seems like a welcoming one. Chefs with big personalities serving up even bigger plates of food. Post-service boozy lock-ins. Staff family meals before the first sitting of the evening. What’s not to love? There are no set work hours, no clocking in and out or forty-hour weeks. Looking for a nine-to-five, forget about it. The kitchen isn’t the place for you. If you want an hour for lunch and multiple coffee runs, maybe look elsewhere. The hospitality equivalent is quickly scoffing down leftovers off a plate on your lap during that mid-service dip.  

Rule number one if you know someone working in hospitality. Don’t ask them what time they finish at. The response you will inevitably get is “I’m on till close”. Ah, close, that mystical time situated in between the last pieces of cutlery being polished and half past a godforsaken hour. A shift ends when the work is done, not when the clock says so. 

I really don’t think hospitality workers get the credit they deserve. Chefs work excessive, gruelling and unsociable hours. Wait staff juggle plates as they fly up and down stairs. Yet what’s it all for? You, the customer. For you to say as you walk out that door, damn, good meal, good service. Tim Hayward, the Financial Times’ food critic and a proprietor himself, said we need to look at “Hospitality with a small h not the capital H.” See the person behind that till and the pass.

That croissant you get on the way to your 11am lecture, which you consider early, was probably made by a pastry chef that was in the kitchen from 4am. The coffee you wash it down with, the product of someone who’s been sweeping floors and dialling in coffee beans from 6.30am. The kebab you drunkenly devour at three in the morning after too many vodka cranberries (yes, guilty as charged) comes at the cost of a normal sleep schedule for that employee. It’s a tough industry and restaurants are currently walking a tightrope just trying to stay in business. But how can an industry that prides itself in the care of its customers at times not even look after its own employees?  

The emotional toll that hospitality takes on individuals is undeniable. Covid staff shortage, cost-cutting measures and the disregard for statutorily mandated breaks are pushing many to a breaking point. That server talking you through the menu might just be one more explanation away from packing it in — that’s the sixth time tonight I’ve had to explain what ceviche is, great, the tips better be worth it — Dream on. That 12.5% tip might just be going back to the owner to be “divided up” amongst staff. All things being unequal, the calculator produces a number almost as low as the food hygiene standards in your local chipper. After a rough service and on the bus home you get the dreaded Whatsapp message: “Would you mind coming in tomorrow? We are a bit understaffed.” Tomorrow is your day off. Well, it was. You have heard the stories. Insulting chefs, patronising maître-d’s and false promises. Long hours, short fuses, cold cut-throat attitudes and scorching pans seem to be a recipe for disaster. I think it’s time to give his recipe a revamp. 

Speaking with Trinity News, a source said that upon asking for a day off she was told that she would either have to leave her job voluntarily or work as rostered. Being an individual who enjoys their line of work and uses it as a safe space she chose to persevere. The result of this; 3 months of work without a single day off. Each time when she requested a day off due to exhaustion she was told that she would be fired. The source went on to say that, “I ended up in ICU for a week with an advanced kidney infection, my body had completely given in. Hospitality, as we know, is already an exhausting industry at times, let alone being forced to work continuously, with your job on the line.” 

Yet why has it taken so long for HR to reach the hobs? The structuring of kitchens and restaurants certainly aids this crisis. Small independent restaurants don’t have a HR helpdesk or a designated liaison person. Owners play the role of accountant, HR manager, runner of social media and chief disciplinarian. Even in large hospitality groups bureaucratic systems hinder any real change and lines of inquiry. The brigade systems that are entrenched in the running of kitchens assert hierarchies and top-heavy power dynamics. It is a system implemented to streamline duties which prevents chaos. What it does not take into account is its facilitation of abuse and domineering. Yet change, I hope, is on the way. 

Newly implemented laws around the distribution of service charges and tips came into effect as of December 1st last year. The mental well-being service MyMind with funding from the Department of Health has just finished its Free Counselling Project for those working or having worked in sectors that have been significantly disrupted by Covid-19. Hospitality included. Hopefully, more funding and projects like this will continue to be supported. 

Conventional thinking about the brigade system and its applicability is changing. I can hear Escoffier turning in his grave. Thank god though, the term garçon de cuisine never really seemed the most endearing to me anyway. Change is as good as a rest. Maybe it’s time to change the way we look at the hospitality industry and give its workers the rest they deserve. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Well, maybe it’s time to give the kitchen a cooling-off period.