The Compassionate Kitchen – Ending the Culinary Bro Code

The Culinary Bro Code

Dear Chef,

Today I learned compassion, something this industry is lacking. So many times we don’t care about what’s going on in other’s lives and respond with ‘suck It up sunshine’. Something happened to me personally, on a Saturday, where I couldn’t be there for service and how some people reacted really astonished me.” This came from a young woman; a dedicated culinarian, a Millennial to be exact, who had, up to that point, lived and breathed The Culinary Bro Code.

She goes on to say, “It made me think of how many times I had acted like that when someone couldn’t come to work, regardless of the day, and how mad I would get thinking of how selfish they were when in fact, I was the one being selfish. Just thought you should know. A.B New Bern NC.”

Women have not had an easy time integrating into the hyper masculine world of the professional culinary kitchen. The Best Female Chefs in the USAsk any woman working in the business today and she’ll relate as many horror stories as you have time, or the stomach, to listen to about coming up in our current culinary career culture. A recent Thrillest article recounted such tales, such as one from an anonymous sous chef who remembered, “When I was in France, the chef used to grab the girls by the buns on the backs of their heads and yank their heads back. Mine would attach a carrot to a string and hang it over my station. He’d call me “The Little Donkey.” “Donkey américaine.” He was a great chef. But he was a monster.”

Along with this type of abuse is the disturbing fact that still, in 2016, women are paid less than men for similar work. According to a new study from pay transparency web site Glassdoor, found female chefs make 28.3 percent less in base pay than their male colleagues. That’s the second-highest “adjusted” percentage among the careers included in the study. An article in Eater makes the case that it’s not only unequal pay that most female culinarians have to face, but unequal professional recognition.

I learned early, the value of female co-workers. One of the first chefs I worked under was a woman. I have no idea why, but she singled me out early to be the representative ‘man’ on whom she would visit all manners of ill temper; an emotional whipping post with which to repay all the injustices she had been made to suffer at the hands of men – chefs. This didn’t drive me out of the kitchen, nor did it make me hate her; rather it made me aware, and appreciate, how hard it must have been for her to realize the dream that she held for her life.

I took one for the team, quietly and without complaint.

In my very first Executive Chef position I was paired up with a woman as my sous chef. Lori Walker was an amazing assistant for me, and helped me get my feet under me as a first time chef. “You know Adam”, she would say a year later during my going away party, “When you started, you were a terrible chef. But you ended up being a pretty damn good one.” Thanks mostly to her partnership, without it I wouldn’t have lasted a month.

She, and many other women that I have had the pleasure to work with have been the hardest working culinarians on staff; coming in on their days off, even when sick. They were the hardest working people in the room, primarily because they had to be. They could not be seen as weak, needy or quick to tire; the ‘Bro’s’ in the room were waiting in the wings, ready to shame them right out of their whites.

Many of the women I worked with were more butch then most of the men I’ve known; regardless of their sexual orientation. The Culinary Bro Code demanded it of them, or they would quickly be, outside looking in. Such was the price many of these women paid.

One might argue that as bad as all this may sound, it’s much better than it has been, and one might be right. “The times”, as brother Bob, sang, “are a changing.”

Just not fast enough, by this writer’s estimation.

Observe any kitchen, run by a male chef, and often the hot line will be staffed almost exclusively by men, while the cold line will be staffed with women. This is a generalization for dramatic purposes, yes, but still often true. Throw a rock in any direction and you’re bound to hit a blog post, newspaper article or podcast lamenting the fact most of our kitchens are chronically and dangerously understaffed. Some high profile chefs have even decided to throw in the kitchen towel, rather than keep working so hard.

 

Most pundits agree that we, the hospitality industry, are to blame. Too much competition, not enough profit; too much ego, not enough reason. Some, such as Chef Paul Sorgule have even gone so far as to suggest that by relinquishing the responsibility of training our own staff and relegating the task to for-profit culinary schools we had, effectively, sealed our own fate. Looking back on it now, it seems that it was inevitable; born out of the beast birthed in the 70’s, I saw my first ‘Be a Chef’ commercial in the 80’s. With the advent of The Food Network and celebrity status, earned or not, of chefs came a picture of possibility that every student or intern aspired to.

Maybe, the ‘shine is off that rose’ forever now, and not a moment too soon. Most young people have come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that one must be crazier than a rat in a tin shithouse to work in the commercial food industry.

There’s been too much bad press about chefs behaving badly, social media posts about owners imprisoning their staff or books nostalgically reminiscing about the horrors and depersonalization of apprenticeships, all done in the name of hospitality. Those, capable and willing enough to go the culinary route are often deciding to go entrepreneurial or are jumping to corporate environments where rights are protected, and a chance for some benefits.

The sad part is, for some of us – myself included, this industry is the only viable option for gainful employment. It’s one of the best attributes of this craft; one can work hard, learn constantly and make something of one’s self. For some, such as people of color, women and LGBT communities, no matter how hard they work, the deck has been, and in many cases still is, stacked against them. More often than not, that deck has been dealt by white men, and the hand that they have played has been one of intolerance, stifling innovation and progress for them, and for our craft.

“C’mon chef, that’s bullshit. We treat everyone the same. Shitty.” I’m sure that’s right. I’m also sure, only because I was equally guilty of it, that you will ride some cooks like rented mules until they come up to your standards or head out the door; head hung low with enough soul stealing self-doubt that they’ll question themselves for years. Instead of spending the time nurturing talent, modeling mature professionalism and training skills, some chefs would prefer the expeditiousness of hazing to weed out the weak, infirm and less desirable candidates.

Bad Boy Chef Hazing

 

While Anthony Bourdain has gone on record arguing for the rightness, the necessity of hazing in his book, Kitchen Confidential, the crueler and harshest antics used in some kitchens no longer have a place in modern culinary professionalism. We need to attract more prospective employees, not scare them off into other industries. There are already enough reasons to choose from to do something else for a living.

The Culinary Bro Code demands that we treat others equally, if not more, poorly then we were. Everyone has a good laugh at someone else’s expense; the laughter ends on a bitter note, remembering when, and how we were hazed. ‘Bro’s’ will make jokes about someone’s sexuality, color, or experience. They’ll form sexually explicit vegetable carvings, or play grab ass in the service area under the guise of comradery and good natured fun, and some chefs and sous chefs will go along with it. Some will even instigate it but, in all its guises, it still comes down to boys being boys with all the compassion and grace of The Lord of the Flies.

The Culinary Bro Code declares that the mission is the most important thing, no matter how many bodies you have to step over to deliver the dish to the guest. No amount of broken homes, shattered hearts, drug and alcohol addiction is too much in service to the mission. It’s all grist for the mill.

Need to talk for a minute about stress and how it’s affecting you? Ain’t got time for that. Need to take some family leave because you or your wife is having a baby? Are you kidding me? Need to take time to get to an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting before you relapse? Forget it. God forbid that someone should get sick short of being in the hospital before you call out, despite the danger of working a shift with such contagious conditions as pink eye, influenza of hepatitis B. I once fractured both of my forearms during a basketball game and was guilted into going to work that night with both my arms in braces by the Bro who owned the joint.

The Culinary Bro Code must be adhered to in silence. What happens in the kitchen, stays in the kitchen.

“The first rule of the Culinary Bro Code is that there is no Culinary Bro Code”, said with a wink and a nod of affirmation.

All of these are great examples of Immature professionalism and it’s a cancer in our industry. Some manager and leaders often make the mistake of turning a blind eye to these events; choosing to avoid the incident rather than confronting it. These are the same folks that will tolerate a chef’s mood swings and bad behavior in the mistaken belief that as an artist he or she is allowed a certain degree of permissible drift.

Nothing could be farther from than truth, and is never a smart managerial move. As a professional chef or cook, in that there is an exchange of value – money versus time or experience, one should at least be expected to act, well, professional.

When will we, like A.B. above, finally understand what Thomas Keller tell us when he says, “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.”?

Some companies, like Omni Hotels understand the deeper implication. Their Trilogy of company culture states that, “To be successful in business, you must satisfy the needs of Associates, Guests and Ownership. Maintaining that balance allows us to create the unique experience for which Omni is known.”  Happy, empowered, appreciated and nurtured associates will make guests happy, which in turn will make ownership happy.

The truth of the matter is, it’s very hard to make anyone else happy, when you or your crew are miserable.

Yes, the times are changing. Recently a group of high profile chefs in France, a country long known for its poor treatment of culinarians, got together to form a petition, formally denouncing violence of any type in their kitchens.

In an associated piece for NPR, James Oseland, former editor-in-chief of Saveur Magazine is quoted as saying, “There’s also a very inherent machismo that happens in the kitchen. I think, really, the way to solve all of this would be to get more women in the kitchen.”

Sounds like the right prescription for a disease that could gut the culinary industry wholesale of ignored. In order to do that, we – me and you, will have to do everything we can to infuse our operations with more compassion and understanding; finally, consciously putting an end to The Culinary Bro Code.

 

Previously Published @

foodable tv

 

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