Lifting the lid on Australia’s toxic kitchen culture

Despite a series of suicides by high-profile chefs, conditions have not improved in Australian restaurant kitchens according to one UQ Business School researcher who is exploring ways to create change.

In 1999, an article in the New Yorker magazine revealed the seamy underbelly of the city’s restaurant scene. Chef Anthony Bourdain compared kitchen staff to a submarine crew, confined in ‘hot, airless spaces and ruled by despotic leaders’. They acquired a ‘contempt for outsiders and a loyalty to no flag but their own’.

His subsequent best-seller Kitchen Confidential told of reckless antics fuelled by drug and alcohol abuse. He recalled how at the start of the evening shift, he and his sous-chefs would recreate scenes from the movie Apocalypse Now by pouring brandy over the lit gas range, sending a sheet of flame through the kitchen.

In one of his last media interviews, Bourdain said he regretted being such a ‘meathead’ in the kitchen. His death in a Paris hotel room in 2018 is one of a series of high-profile chef suicides. Others included Australian chefs Jeremy Strode and Justin Bull, which shocked the public and put the spotlight on mental health in the restaurant industry.

Two decades after that first New Yorker article, a hospitality researcher is lifting the lid on kitchen workplace culture once again – this time with a focus on Australian chefs, in an attempt to find out the key issues and ways to challenge them.

Dr Richard Robinson from The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School is leading a research project with funding from the William Angliss Institute, and UQ’s Foundation Research Excellence Award (FREA). So far, he and his team have interviewed scores of chefs and revealed some unsettling stories.

Richard, who spent 18 years as a chef and food service manager himself, says the reality of life in a kitchen is completely at odds with the glamorous media image of chefs mingling with celebrities and making TV appearances.

Instead, chefs work long and unsociable hours for low wages in hot, cramped and often dangerous conditions. Worse still, is the unhealthy culture which can leave them with emotional scars.

Richard says there is no evidence to suggest that cooking attracts people with more mental health problems than other professions. He believes the workplace culture is to blame.

“Kitchen workplace culture has some good aspects,” Richard explains.

“Chefs are passionate, inquisitive and creative, driven by a desire to learn, and constantly inspired by new products and techniques. There is a very strong sense of camaraderie – but there is also a dark side.”

“The culture is very hierarchical, even military in style. Kitchens are ‘shouty’ places where orders are barked. There is constant banter, and while at surface level some of it seems quite harmless, we are discovering that it deeply affects young people.”

“Bullying and harassment are commonplace and new recruits are subject to rites of passage."

Richard recalls from my own kitchen days, that even where younger staff knew they were being gamed, they had to be the butt of the joke to be accepted into the fold.

"Once socialised into the culture, the new generation then see it as the norm and go on to mete out the same treatment to others,” says Richard.

Women have a particularly hard time, and Richard’s research found evidence of gender discrimination bordering on violence. One woman recalled going into work after a genuine sick day to find a sexist sign on the wall, while others told of being sexually threatened. In fact, only 25 per cent of chefs in Australia are female.

Despite the unrelenting pressure and abuse, kitchen workers are expected to ‘bottle it up’. Many find release in drugs and alcohol, to the point where some reported spending the whole of their one day off ‘zoning out’.

Richard adds, “one of the most disturbing things we found was how often the word ‘fear’ came up in our interviews with young apprentices. They described being fearful of going to work and just putting their head down, not wanting to make a mistake, so they ‘don’t poke the bear’."

“Many were afraid to ask how to do things, which is shocking considering that apprentices are there to learn. In some cases, the chefs even use their power to withhold information so they ‘muck up the job’ and there is a reason to ‘set on them’.”

However, young people were not the only victims. People of all ages reported how the job had affected their mental and physical health, and their relationships with family. Many respondents reported a sense of isolation and depression, with outbreaks of uncontrolled crying.

While the recent spate of suicides has captured widespread public attention, Richard challenges the view that conditions are improving.

“Recently numerous chefs have been telling the media that things are getting better and it’s not like the ‘bad old days’, but our research found that little has changed,” he says.

“The feedback from the industry is that the youth of today aren’t resilient, but I am ambivalent about that. Even if this were true, they are the workforce and if we want to attract and retain workers, the industry will have to change.”

Dr Richard Robinson explains his research in this short video:

Figures show that hospitality has one of the lowest retention rates of any industry. Australian government figures predict that by 2023 there will be a shortage of 60,000 chefs.

Richard believes interventions are required at different levels, starting with the technical colleges, which perpetuate the kitchen culture right down to the way they select teachers.

“Cookery teachers in some colleges are not only chosen on their ability to educate or communicate, but based on a panel interview and ‘mystery box’ challenge, where they have to make several dishes from mystery ingredients under extreme time limits. This is just another way to reinforce the hierarchy and put them under pressure.”

“They then go on to perpetuate the culture on the basis that they are ‘preparing students for the reality of the industry’, when in fact they need to break the circuit and oversee a shift in culture,” says Richard.

He believes training should incorporate modules to give apprentices skills to recognise and report unacceptable behaviour. Head chefs may need training too, so they can develop their leadership skills. Many who rise to the top usually do so because of their culinary skills rather than their ability to manage people.

Meanwhile, the industry needs to tackle the culture of low pay and wage theft which is underpinned by the ‘stage’ system, in which up-and-coming chefs work free of charge. Top restaurants may have numerous ‘stagiaires’ at any one time.

Ultimately, change will require a ‘top-down, bottom-up’ approach, where staff are willing to challenge abuse and management take ownership of the problems.

“While initiatives such as R U OK? days are helpful, the industry needs to recognise the severity of the problem and stop making excuses,” Richard says.

“Behaviour that would be completely unacceptable in other professions or in the community is institutionalised and even celebrated in kitchens.”

Richard notes that these days, young Australian’s are being equipped to deal with bullying in schools or on social media, but in kitchens the occupational values are so deeply ingrained that people are still afraid to speak up.

“Chefs underpin the tourism and leisure industry – they are vital to the health and wellbeing of the population."

"We urgently need to change industry attitudes and behaviours so that cookery is not only seen as an attractive occupation to enter, but also offers a rewarding long-term career in which chefs can flourish and be treated with dignity and respect,” says Richard.

Richard acknowledges the valuable assistance of Dr Matt Brenner with the Australian research, who also previously worked as a chef.

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