An Open Letter to the Restaurant Industry

Okay – it’s time we had a talk, Restaurant Industry. I’ve noticed a few things about our relationship since I started working closely with you, and I don’t feel comfortable staying silent any more.

I know that our relationship takes work, and compromise, from both of us to work – all good relationships do, and let’s face it: all industries are relationships of a sort. What I’ve started to become aware of, however, is just how far our relationship is from healthy. Let me address something…

Respect. This is (in my own admittedly limited experience) at the root of the problem. I have witnessed first-hand as cooks and chefs are told to not expect raises because “the company can’t afford it”, while G.M.s (General Managers) talk over coffee about the new soundproofed TV rooms they’re having installed in their homes with their bonuses. I have seen cooks and chefs being told to be “grateful” that they are being told to stay late and miss plans made with friends and family, because it means they are getting a few more hours. [Never mind that most Chefs (and many cooks) are overworked already, but to expect them to be grateful for it because it is the only way that (typically) under-paid professionals can make their ends meet is beyond disrespectful.] I have watched as a crew of cooks soaked in sweat worked in unventilated kitchens mid-summer because corporate would prefer to not pay extra to get speedy repairs to ventilation systems. And I have seen management tell cooks to lie and deceive authorities to ensure that failures to meet health and safety codes don’t come to light. None of these things are acceptable.

Then there is scheduling. Attitudes about scheduling can be one of the industry’s biggest indicators of respect (or the lack thereof.) Yes, I understand that sometimes “sh!t happens”, and someone will have to put in a bit of extra time to make sure things get done. Yes, I understand that the kitchen is the Heart of the Restaurant, and we need to look out for each other in the kitchen to make sure we have the support needed for the team to function. Here’s the thing, though – far too many restauranteurs and general managers are far too happy setting a double standard where scheduling is concerned: we, the employees, must be prompt, punctual and respectful of the schedules. Until it’s the scheduled time for our own lives to take over again, at which point posted schedules become merely “suggested” times, at the discretion of management. For people who have family commitments, have plans for their lives outside of work, who have multiple jobs to make ends meet, or simply are trying to plan their days ahead, this is a pretty unworkable approach. Again – I understand that sometimes circumstances require flexibility, but telling people they cannot go home at the scheduled end of the shift should not happen – it should be a request, and it should be the exception, not the norm. Purposefully under-scheduling to save money (“we can always tell people to stay later when we have to, but this way we don’t have to pay for a shift if that extra work isn’t needed”) is again showing a lack of respect for the private lives of employees. [Note: i have worked in management before, and I know that creating working and respectful schedules is doable, and not just a worker’s pipe dream…]

These are just a few points, but I have recently found they have been weighing heavily on me. I got into cooking professionally because I love it. I love producing good food for people. I love knowing that something I prepared made someone’s day just a little bit better. What I’ve seen happening to the people in my profession, though, and the excuses for it, are starting to tarnish that love.

“This is the way it’s always been” doesn’t cut it. “It’s called putting in your time – suck it up” doesn’t cut it. “That’s how this industry works” doesn’t cut it. There is room for improvement, there is room for respect, and perhaps it is time that the industry learned to work in a different way.

I have had the great fortune to work with a lot of really dedicated cooks and chefs – people who went to school to further their professional skills, who are constantly striving to learn more, to expand, and to grow. People who work a trade through long days, then when the day is over often spend much of their ‘time off’ reading new cookbooks, talking with other cooks, looking for new inspirations and ideas, and just generally increasing “the scope of their practice” (as my wife would term it). And all this from people who are often still line-cooks, working towards someday perhaps being chefs in an industry that pushes more people towards suicide or substance abuse than almost any other profession in the western world.

I think they’ve earned the right to more than a little respect by now.


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