The more and more I work in the restaurant industry the more I am dumbfounded by the unprofessional and down-right abusive behavior that goes on and is accepted by everyone as the way things are.
Why is it acceptable for a chef to make abusive and even racist or sexist jokes, yell, or even throw things at their employees? Yes, throw things! I haven’t seen this firsthand, but I hear stories about it all the time. Why do line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers take it as just another day at work?
One day I arrived at work at 4PM and began setting up my station as was everyone else on the line. The head chef walked right up to one of the line cooks and began reaming her out because he heard a rumor she might be leaving for another job. Now, granted she was dumb to say anything to anyone about it, but it certainly didn’t deserved a public lashing. And way to make her want to stay! I would have accepted the other job as soon as my shift was over…
Recently I met a young woman who was new. She told me she had moved to the area and had been staging for a month at the restaurant in hopes of being offered a job. In case you may not be aware, a stage is an unpaid, hands-on interview that is the norm in the restaurant industry. I get it being a hands-on, cooking interview; the unpaid part, not so much, but that’s another post. So to clarify that earlier statement, she left wherever she was living, got a new apartment here and was working for free for an entire month with just A HOPE of being offered what would probably be a $12-14 an hour job. TOTALLY NUTS!
On another day at work, the chef was verbally abusive, it seems, for his own personal shits and giggles. Here’s how the conversation went:
Steve: “Yes, chef.”
Chef: “Fuck you. I hate you.”
Steve: No response, just kept going on about his business.
I did change the poor line cook’s name to protect his total innocence. But why is this behavior acceptable and even considered a routine part of the job!?!
I have some theories…
First, some stats. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Restaurant Association, restaurant and food workers make up about 10% of the U.S. labor force – that’s about 13.5 million people. Of those, nearly 61% are minorities, including women, Asians, Blacks and Hispanics. In fact, Blacks and Hispanics are the largest minority groups accounting for more than 36% of all minorities.
In addition, the path to line cook and that amazing hourly wage I mentioned above really only requires a high school degree. Now my sample size is small, but I’ve never met a line cook or even a chef with a Bachelor’s degree. At most, they have an Associate’s degree from culinary school. To qualify, I’m not saying education makes you smart, but it often it gives you perspective, and I think more importantly, it teaches you critical thinking skills.
Potentially controversial, but I’m gonna say that cooks are willing to deal with shitty supervisors because they don’t have a lot of other options. Many are first generation (and I’ll say it, maybe even illegal) with little education and sometimes little English. I work with these types of cooks every day. God love ‘em, they are fucking busting their asses for shitty pay to make a better life for themselves and their families, but why does this have to include verbal, and possibly even physical, abuse? This shit pisses me off!!
So then WTF chefs?! Why would you abuse your employees? You are just cutting into your own narrow 3-5% annual profit by creating unnecessary turnover (Yes, that’s how much a successful restaurant can expect to make. I’d say you are better off investing in the stock market and cooking for pleasure, but I digress). You are also creating a shitty work environment and people who will never be loyal. I once ran into a former co-worker who told me he thought the head chef was an excellent teacher, but that he just couldn’t deal with all the yelling and abuse. He now does landscaping. Congrats, brother, for breaking the abuse cycle!
I get it – with a 3-5% profit margin, shit is pressurized, but why would you ever take it out on the people that work for you; that produce food that reflects your reputation; and that help you make that 3-5%?!
Besides treating your fellow human with some ounce of respect, this would N…E…V…E…R, never, never, never, never fly in the business world. HA! If I told one of my former employees to fuck off, I would be so fired, so fired, so fired that I would immediately burst into flames.
I also get that the restaurant industry is different in that it is so fast-paced. When it’s the middle of dinner service, shit gets crazy. Tickets are flying, plates are flying, people are flying. But again, why does that require yelling?
One chef told me that yelling was the only way to motivate people – yelling and riding them hard. Damn, dude, you need to take a business class! There are a million, zillion ways to motivate people…
This will never happen in a million years, but business class is actually one potential solution – to require some leadership/manager/business training while chefs qualify for or renew their national food service managers certificate. As chefs become certified or renew, they would be required to get some formal training or continuing education in managing people – hell, maybe also managing a business. Perhaps chefs could learn better techniques to cut costs or be more efficient as well as learn to be a fucking human.
The way these certifications work is that the National Restaurant Association administers a program called ServSafe. There are three types of certifications: Alcohol, Food Handler and Food Safety Manager. Some states require the certification, while others are voluntary. Yes, voluntary, which means any yahoo in Oregon can walk off the street and make your dinner. Check out your state requirements.
So my grand theory (and it’s only one idea of tons) is to require some new and continuing business training for people seeking new and renewed Food Safety Manager cards – at the expense of the restaurant. Yup, I said that right – business training for restaurant managers at the expense of the restaurant. I know every chef who would ever read this would laugh in my face and tell me I’m an idiot – surprise, surprise.
But my bet is that the time and expense of a little business and management training every 3-5 years would MORE than pay for itself in lower employee turnover, better efficiency and lower costs. The real obstacle though is to change the “it’s just the way it is” attitude that infects everyone in the industry…
This topic makes me want to drink…heavily…both to all the restaurant workers who take shit everyday to improve their lives, and because there is no end in sight to it…I’m heading for an Old Fashioned…