Why the Restaurant Industry Is Done with Angry Chefs

After critic Jay Rayner accused Gordon Ramsay-style kitchen outbursts of “glamourising bullying,” are restaurants calling time on abusive chef behaviour?

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18 April 2018, 11:25am

Screengrab via Channel 4/ Twitter.

You’re in his way. The order didn’t come in quick enough. We've run out of steak tartare. These are some of the minor inconveniences I have seen trigger full-on breakdowns from adult men in restaurant kitchens. But this is normal, right? Because in a restaurant, with the long hours, pressure to work quickly, and rampant drug culture, aggression and rage are as commonplace as bad arm tattoos and beards. Professional kitchens are confrontational. They are busy. And if you can’t take the heat, then maybe you should get out of the fucking kitchen.

Borne from the strict hierarchies of traditional hotel and restaurant kitchens, perpetuated over generations by aggressive (and often male) chefs, and finally, glamorised by television personalities like Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, the angry chef trope permeates the restaurant industry.

One of the most famous books on kitchen culture epitomises this. Published in 2006, Heat by Bill Buford follows the rise of celebrity chef Mario Batali, observing the challenges of a high-pressure kitchen (and written, notably, before Batali was exposed for sexual harassment). “He rarely shouts,” Buford writes of Batali in his restaurant, Pó, “but when the maître d’ failed to spot a record producer who had appeared at the bar he exploded—‘You fucking moron. You fucking motherfucking moron’—and chased him out of the kitchen with such menace that I thought he was going to throw something.” Batali continues his barrage, screaming: “You don’t make them wait because you’re a fucking great talent in the kitchen and you know better. You are not some fucking artist.”

While many would see this profanity-filled outburst as a relic of early-noughties kitchen culture, the conversation around aggressive chef behaviour resurfaced this week, after Channel 4 shared a montage of Gordon Ramsay's worst Kitchen Nightmares moments on Twitter. The chef, who has created a multi-million pound television persona from emotionally abusing staff and failing business owners, is seen verbally exploding at staff in clips from the show, which ran from 2004 to 2014. “You bullshitting little fucker,” he screams at one chef, over some chopped potatoes. “You stuck up, precious little bitch,” he says in another clip.

Ramsay’s “hilarious” outburst over a vat of minced beef might do numbers on Twitter, but his style of abusive management has arguably damaged an entire generation of chefs. From tears and nervous breakdowns to depression and even suicide, those who choose to work in the restaurant industry put themselves at the mercy of a high-pressure work environment and bullying bosses.

The Ramsay tweet was shared widely by food industry professionals, many of whom called it out for depicting abhorrent behaviour that no longer has a place in the kitchen. One of those was chef Stevie Parle, owner of multiple London restaurants including Palatino and Craft London. He tweeted, “Glamourising this kind of bull shit really sets us back. No wonder we can’t find any chefs.” Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner also criticised the clip, describing Ramsay in a tweet as a “sad, inadequate man.”

“I earn my living reviewing restaurants,” Rayner tells me over the phone when I ask him about his tweet, “but I don't think it is worth people's physical and mental wellbeing just to cook me dinner.”

“[Kitchens are] nasty, hot, violent places,” he adds, “and older generations of cooks got used to a certain cycle of behaviour, and it still goes on because some of them are still there.”

Rayner is optimistic that kitchens have changed—noting Parle as an example, as well as the need for restaurant bosses to do everything they can to recruit fresh talent. “There is a younger generation of cooks, particularly in the age of a chef shortage, who are saying, ‘No, I don't need to put up with this’,” he explains. Indeed, when Brexit threatens to limit the number of chefs entering the country—and it is estimated that the UK needs 11,000 more to fill its shortage—restaurants can’t afford to treat their staff like shit.

“That's what's so remarkable about those Gordon Ramsay clips,” Rayner says. “They are antiquated and out of date, and are just not where kitchen culture either is or should be going.”

“There is a growing sense that it cannot carry on like this,” he continues. “And while there are some people trying to turn the tide, footage of Gordon Ramsay at whatever point in his career, and whether it's done for the camera or not, shouting at people like that is just not helpful. Plus, it just makes him look like a tosser. You're only cooking tea, you're not saving people's lives.”

“That's what's so remarkable about those Gordon Ramsay clips. They are antiquated and out of date, and are just not where kitchen culture either is or should be going.”

Rayner isn’t the only one who sees angry chef culture as outdated. Dominique Ansel, an American baker, has banned swearing in his kitchen, while Trevor Gulliver, co-founder of London restaurant group, St. John promotes a calm and respectful kitchen policy.

“A happy kitchen means happy customers, particularly in an open kitchen,” Gulliver tells me. Why then, I wonder, is there such a tradition of hostility in the kitchen?

“A lot of these chefs put themselves under pressure,” he continues. “They have a perception of what a chef should be, driven by television it would seem, rather than being driven by how they feel as a person, and the environment in which they want to work.”

“I mean, if someone is a shouty chef, they're a shouty chef, that is their way. And they do exist, and I guess they'll always exist,” Gulliver adds when I ask if he thinks we’ll see angry chef culture disappear across the board. “Chefs come in all shapes and sizes and temperaments, but I don't think it's necessarily accepted, and [the angry chef] is pretty much an anachronism these days.”

Ansel has a similar attitude. “I grew up working in kitchens in France where yelling and screaming was the norm, ” he explains over email. “It was the old-school way, and I was cursed at, burned by spatulas, and it was a really tough environment to be in. So I knew that someday if I had a place of my own, I would never bring this sort of behaviour into my kitchens.”

Mainly, he says, because it isn’t an efficient way to run a kitchen. “It's counterproductive. Swearing and shouting will only cause your cooks to become intimidated and affect the quality of their work and productivity. “

While high profile, male chefs are speaking out against bullying, the gender imbalance of the kitchen may have a part to play here too. Characteristics associated with toxic masculinity—such as aggression, competitiveness, and even violence—all contribute to negative kitchen working culture. Of course, women can be shitty too, but much of the aggression we hear of in kitchens seems to stem from masculine insecurity around power and dominance. It can be no coincidence that of the 285,000 employed chefs in the UK, only 68,000 of those are women, according to 2017 data from the Office for National Statistics. Women can’t be expected to “fix” bad male attitudes, but a more diverse kitchen would inevitably result in a more diverse culture.

Ultimately, the change needs to come from all areas of the restaurant industry—and that includes celebrity chefs.

Sorry, Ramsay. We’re bored of your shit.