Restaurant workers are made to feel powerless by design — and that keeps abusive chefs and toxic kitchens unchecked
This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.
For decades now, the dining public has understood restaurant kitchens to be tough places to work. From yelling to physical threats, bad behavior has historically been accepted as part of coming up as a cook. If you didn’t like it, the saying went, you could leave. Then last summer, in the wake of public reckonings with abusive workplaces of all stripes, it seemed like restaurant workers found their voices. They didn’t like it. They were, in fact, leaving. And on their way out the door, they were vocal about the problems they saw. Sqirl’s dysfunctional kitchen culture and food safety practices were exposed, as was the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen’s exploitation of chefs of color. Amid the details is a lesson about kitchen culture, and power, and why it’s taken so long for us to admit that working in a kitchen does not and should not excuse abuse.
My own time in whites was more than a decade ago, spanning a string of toxic kitchens in the Bay Area. There was the cupcake chain where I was subjected to the founder’s meltdowns, whiplash-inducing rants she’d dispense and then seemingly forget even as I was still smarting from her words. There was the Michelin-starred restaurant where the somewhat sullen chef ruled dinner service by fear and intimidation. He never yelled or raised his voice, instead relying on sous chefs and managers to keep us in line. Then I worked for the vegan doughnut place in a secret, filthy kitchen. We stacked ingredients on the floor and pulled oily gray rags from a bag to wipe down counters. There, I lied to a health inspector to send him away, knowing that if we failed the inspection, my boss would be furious and I’d be out of a job.
When I finally left the doughnut job in 2009, I left the industry entirely — not because I wanted another career, but because I couldn’t see a path to a sustainable, balanced life in food. At each of those jobs, I, like countless others before and after me, stayed silent despite the stressful and abusive working conditions. So did my coworkers: If anything, we sustained each other, for better and worse, providing a valued support system. But each time we shrugged off the verbal abuse or substandard labor or hygienic practices without speaking up, we normalized these alarming behaviors. We accepted the conventional wisdom that this is what restaurant work was like, and we didn’t believe we had agency to change it.
Quitting restaurant work widened my perspective enough to see its problems more clearly. My silence, I realized, was due in part to my sense that I was powerless. I was barely making a living wage, so keeping my job was critical. I knew there was a deep labor pool, so when managers told me I was easily replaceable, I believed them. And kitchens are notoriously hierarchical; “yes, chef” culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for dissenting opinions. That powerlessness I felt is a feature, not a bug, and it’s the way restaurants have operated for far too long.
As a restaurant worker in the Bay Area, I was spending about 30 percent of my income on rent; for many of my peers, that percentage was even higher. When I found a cupcake chain paying a higher hourly rate than other local bakeries, I took the job. At $14 an hour, I was earning $1 more than at my other job and $4 and change above the city’s minimum wage. The money, I soon discovered, was compensation for the founder’s temper — and I put up with those tirades because taking home an extra $30 per week means a lot when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. Quitting may have been better for my mental health, but it wasn’t possible until I lined up a new gig.
Working six days a week plus doubles, I was usually too tired to look for new jobs. As it was, I could barely balance work, mental health, financial well-being, and a job search without burning out. I was trapped by a cycle of dealing with abuse as best I could while scrambling for the financial security that might help me escape; I leaned on compartmentalizing and stayed put until I either lost jobs or couldn’t tolerate them any longer. I can’t speak for them, but I have to imagine that for my coworkers who were undocumented or formerly incarcerated, this cycle was even worse.
If I wanted to keep cooking, and I did, the only way I could see out of this financial insecurity was to move up: I needed to climb the ladder, and to do that, I couldn’t ruffle feathers. The shortest path to a better job title seemed to be clocking a year at a top-tier restaurant — someplace with name recognition, like the Michelin-starred joint I went to next. The chef preferred monastic silence and left the sneers and cutting comments to the sous chefs; we all tiptoed around him, especially when the kitchen chef’s table was booked and our every move was on display. I blocked out a lot of what happened there. Looking back, I mostly remember being starving (there were no meals or breaks during my eight-hour daytime shift), stressed, and scared of getting fired as a new crop of cooks came and went every nine months.
Cooks moving up in the ranks of the brigade system understand how little they matter and how much that big name can boost a career. They make calculated decisions to stay in toxic environments, betting on an eventual payout. Still, sometimes it was so bad there that I would daydream about speaking up, but I’d quickly convince myself not to. Ratting out a bad boss could blow back on my friends if, say, negative press led to a dip in diners and staff were sent home early or laid off. It could get me fired and even blacklisted, branded as difficult among chefs who protected their own.
My coworkers and I would vent about bad shifts and toxic bosses. But they seemed less outwardly affected than I was, getting back to work after our gripefests as if nothing distressing had happened in the first place. I beat myself up for having strong reactions to the abuse I experienced. I wasn’t tough enough to be unfazed, so I figured I was the one who needed to change. Eventually, I grew accustomed to bad behavior and took pride in a thick skin.
My fellow cooks and I relied on whisper networks to warn of shitty bosses and terrible kitchens, but we never dreamed of social media shaming. We were part of the club, paying dues while soaking up the knowledge and experience that would position us to eventually take on leadership roles. With a foot in the door, it’s easy to look past unpleasant or unsafe behavior, especially when no one else is sounding an alarm.
While kitchens could be dysfunctional workplaces, I stayed so long because I was learning a ton and I truly loved the work. I could also be myself, valuable for a gender-nonconforming queer person ill at ease in office culture. Non-normative behaviors were allowed, even encouraged. I fit in, I had friends, and, in San Francisco, I was never the only queer in the room. I rationalized the dysfunction by reminding myself that every working environment had its good and bad qualities. Sure, there was a hierarchy, I told myself, but we all wore whites. Even as I went hard on trainees, displacing my anger onto them as had happened to me, I dreamed of finding a mellower kitchen or creating my own, once I’d paid those dues.
Faith in a brighter future kept me clocking into kitchens despite growing disillusionment. Until the day the kitchen sink fell apart in my hands at the vegan doughnut shop. Sopping wet, I drove across the Bay Bridge in my boxers, replaying my boss’s reaction: He didn’t care that I managed to save the doughnuts or that I’d stayed hours late to get it all mopped up. He was pissed I hadn’t found the sink shutoff valve. To him, the problem wasn’t the sink, it was me. It took up a couple weeks to work up the courage to quit, but I did.
I can see now that I was wrong to stay silent. But I still haven’t forgotten that feeling of choiceless. And so when I hear the general public — and food media — calling for reforming kitchen culture, I want to also urge anyone asking why employees didn’t come forward to simply stop. That question puts the burden of fixing the industry on those most impacted, and most vulnerable: the employees caught in the middle. To transform toxic kitchens, operators, customers, and employees together must change these systemic mechanisms that keep workers silent in the first place.
Change finally seems possible. Pre-pandemic, a persistent labor shortage left management desperate to stem employee turnover; some restaurants increased wages, added perks that boosted collegiality, and focused on retention. Industry professionals began taking a harder look at themselves in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which shed light on the level of sexual harassment women and gender-nonconforming people experience at the hands of their employers, coworkers, and customers. Hopefully the momentum from the #MeToo movement will continue to shift restaurants away from the ego-driven chef culture that breeds toxic workplaces. The whisper networks warning of sexual predators, racist work environments, or abusive bosses evolved into the public callouts seen last summer and, more recently, in Hannah Selinger’s account of living in fear while working for one of the most famous — and famously bad-tempered — chefs in the country.
Public callouts raise awareness among diners and food media. But restorative justice offers a way to center workers in the path forward. Workers need empathy, but more so tangible action. They need a living wage and benefits. They need non-harmful work culture. They need accountability and redress from those who’ve harmed them.
Chefs and restaurateurs at the top of the kitchen hierarchy could invest in learning emotional management, going to rehab if needed, or deciding to be a different kind of boss. Diners can continue to demand accountability and change from toxic kitchens by voting with their dollars and believing the words of impacted employees.
Food media can continue to demand accountability through fairer coverage. Less fawning is a start, but I’d rather shine a light on the industry’s better bosses who may be less well known but equally deserving of acclaim. Canceling the 2020 and 2021 James Beard Awards was another step toward change; moving ahead, the foundation could align its awards with the industry’s better values. Sustainability and accountability deserve as much honor as creativity and innovation, for one. By decoupling creative excellence from the temperamental excesses of big-ego chefdom, the industry will develop new role models and new practices that promote healthier work environments.
Even as the pandemic upends the restaurant world, this reform can and must happen. Diners are now, finally, accustomed to thinking about, if not always respecting, the health and well-being of industry employees, who bear frontline risks as restaurants reopen. Restaurants can’t afford to raise pay for back-of-house staff without offsetting costs onto diners. With industry icons who’d previously eliminated tips, like Danny Meyer, reintroducing them in the pandemic to give hard-hit employees more cash, pay equity seems a moving goalpost — but one that arguably more people are aware of than before.
Ultimately, restaurants are as much about people as they are about food. That’s newly in focus these days, when so many industry employees are hurting. None of us, whether we’re in the restaurant as diners, reporters, critics, or workers, should go on centering food at the expense of those who prepare and serve it. It’s well past time to treat restaurant labor with the same consideration given to ingredients. These workers have too often felt like they have no choice but to accept abysmal working conditions. As diners, let’s finally ensure they no longer have to.
Lindsey Danis writes about food, travel, and LGBTQ topics for publications including Sift, Condé Nast Traveler, AFAR, and Longreads, among others. Bug Robbins is a non-binary queer illustrator obsessed with printmaking, folklore, and green witchcraft.