There’s a plague ripping through restaurant kitchens. It’s rife in the US and it’ll arrive here in the UK soon enough; but this epidemic is no virus. Rather it’s a rapidly spreading realisation that professional kitchens are institutionally toxic environments and that some of the heroes who lead them are uncalibrated tyrants; misogynistic, exploitative or just plain mean.
The good news is that their employees are feeling increasingly empowered to talk about their experiences and, one after the other, the giants are succumbing. Statues are being toppled.
Sure, it’s not all chefs, just as it’s not just kitchens where alpha-male power play has been rewarded. We’ve celebrated near-psychotic over-achievers everywhere from the Wolf of Wall Street to Devil Wears Prada, but there’s evidently something different about the business of professional cooking. They don’t teach misogyny and bullying at catering college any more than they do at business school, so the really baffling question here, is: Who told a generation of chefs it was OK to act like a dick?
Embarrassingly, the answer might just be ‘us’.
They don’t teach misogyny and bullying at catering college any more than they do at business school
It wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago, if you’d gone to a restaurant, you almost certainly wouldn’t have had the slightest idea of the chef’s name. You’d know the name over the door of the restaurant – usually that of the restaurateur – and if you were a real player you might have been on first name terms with the maitre d’. But the chef was hired help. He – and it was almost always he – would not be part of the ‘brand’ of the establishment. He had no ‘creative input’ beyond being extremely competent. Sure there were one or two stars along the way – Escoffier, Ude, Carême, Soyer, later perhaps George Perry-Smith or even Keith Floyd – but in general, cooks were craftsmen. They were members of guilds. Quiet, skilled, experienced and anonymous. Then everything changed.
Marco Pierre White’s White Heat came out in 1990. In a stroke of commercial acumen, his publishers elevated a thin autobiography into an elegant coffee table book by hiring Bob Carlos Clarke, a photographer specialising in kink soft-porn, advertising and album covers. Clarke recognised in White familiar elements of the mythic, the heroic and the frankly sexy. He chose to make White, a cook, look like Jim Morrison or David Bowie – a glamorous performer, backed with an image of mercurial genius, and gave birth to a new icon: cook as rockstar.
The book initially sold best to fans of Clarke’s photography rather than cooks, but it laid the groundwork. Gordon Ramsay trained under White, and around that time, Ramsay and Jamie Oliver launched on TV. Not to the old daytime audience of ‘housewife/cooks’ but to a new, aspiring audience of young men and women. And not as mere cooks-that-teach, but as stars. The cult of chefs and cult of celebrity sprang into being at the same time. Ramsay was a minor celebrity by the beginning of this century – this was the new “TV verité”, with sweating and swearing in equal measure.
Gone was the older model for a cook – a fat old bloke in a paper hat or an exhausted woman covered in flour. White Heat, Gordon and Jamie gave us new exemplars and made them hot. Then the idea spread.
Anthony Bourdain was the first to couch the macho, irresponsible behaviour of chefs in the terms of the doomed young artist or poet with his bestseller Kitchen Confidential, which he admitted was influenced by White Heat. Sure, he said, chefs were a scabrous band, but they created beauty. If a chef wasn’t a beautiful young rock god, he could now be an incandescent, creative genius, a misunderstood artist. If neither of these models suited, there was more on offer: TV executives decided that what cooking really needed was an element of tension, drama, jeopardy – even combat. New formats like Masterchef and Iron Chef set out to make the most nurturing of pursuits gladiatorial.
Cooking, something we do at home for our kids or performed a backroom role in public catering became so skewed in the public vision that we watched it being made into life-or-death competition without questioning the absurdity.
The average chef begins working on a line around 18. By 35 most of them have knackered their knees or back, some succumb to alcohol, drugs or serial bad living. Certainly, if they haven’t risen far enough to ‘get off the line’ by that age, they will have gained a degree of bitterness about it. As a result, the majority of the current generation of chefs has grown into a world where ‘what success looks like’ – the image of their aspirations – is that or an artist/poet, elite athlete/soldier, tortured creative or star. There is little connection to the craftsman. ‘Chef’ has never been further from ‘Cook’.
In this warped world, the shared myth, the esprit de corps, involves a regime of brutally hard work, long hours, physical privation, a disregard for rules and a cult-like ethos. In spite of the fact that the industry no longer demands a long apprenticeship or inhumane conditions, the belief persists that great chefs are forged by the horrors of their training and are duty bound to pass that on.
It’s a phenomenally unhealthy way to inspire. The idea that food preparation should be compared to sport, war or art, that the practitioner should risk body, mind, mental health and sanity to make it; that food is competitive, or that its making is an agonising act of self-expression, these beliefs combine into one great fallacy, one engrained consensual hallucination that may well have destroyed a generation.
What we have to ask ourselves, as media, and as consumers, is how we gave them permission to act out. Partly it’s the archaic structure of the kitchen which has collective power dynamic of a prison hulk and remains proud of it, but mainly it’s what we’ve done to a generation of cooks.
Perhaps though, there is hope. Those ‘celebrity chefs’ who succeeded are now more celebrity than chef, rarely appear in whites and are largely seen as presenters. The media that created them seem to be losing interest. COVID will take a bite out of expensive dining and ‘Michelin tourism’ so chefs are having to service the needs of local communities to survive. It’s an uncomfortable shift for many, but they are turning from food as artistic expression, a medium of self-aggrandisement, to food as a service-to-customers. Meanwhile a new generation is filling kitchens and they, thank God, have a very different set of expectations of a chef.
And what of us, the generation who lionised them? We should listen. When the young start tearing down the statues we’ve so lovingly put up, perhaps it’s time to question what made us erect them in the first place.