It is the height of a busy service. Chefs scurry around the kitchen like worker ants, their faces shining with a coat of sweat and intense concentration. The head chef prowls between them, scrutinising dishes, techniques and attitudes, hunting with a perfectionist's eye for the smallest fault, the slightest sign of weakness or lack of effort.
He stops in front of one chef for a longer-than-usual period of time. The young man begins to feel the heat intensify and the sweat trickle down his back. An expectant hush drops over the kitchen as everyone senses what is about to happen.
Then it comes – an explosion of expletives and abuse like a thunder crack breaking the tension. The unfortunate chef is manhandled away from his section by the collar and told to "fuck off home". Playing the game correctly, he says he doesn't want to go; he wants to stay here. He is allowed back to his section, being shouted at to "wake up, dickhead". He hasn't been let off the hook, though. He still has to withstand a red-faced tirade about the last time he took a similar "beasting" and broke down in tears, "blubbing like a fucking baby". Finally, the head chef points out the young man's lack of male reproductive organs and threatens to sack him if he makes the same mistake again.
This isn't a scene from a modern kitchen. It is in fact from Boiling Point, the 1990s fly-on-the-wall TV show that followed Gordon Ramsay's early career as a head chef and propelled him to international fame as the foul-mouthed, intimidating perfectionist we all know and love.
Today's kitchens are different. The alpha male bullying culture has been ruthlessly stamped out. The kitchen paragons of today are not the sweaty testosterone pits of Gordon Ramsay but the calm culinary laboratories of Heston Blumenthal, the hipsterish love-ins of Jamie Oliver, or the Waltons-esque good life of River Cottage, places where chefs communicate in hushed tones of mutual respect and the slightest use of the F-word is shunned.
At least, that is the prevailing myth. But reports of a hidden culture of violence in French restaurants have recently exploded that myth on the continent. Now, a group of top French chefs, including the head chef at the presidential palace, have signed a manifesto calling on fellow chefs to stamp out the culture of violence, bullying and sexual harassment in kitchens. The manifesto follows the sacking of a chef at a three-star Paris restaurant for deliberately and repeatedly scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon. The incident led to a deluge of similar tales to the French gastronomy magazine Atabula, including stories of chefs being slapped in the face with fish, stabbed in the calves with kitchen knives and having to wear shin guards to protect themselves against the daily kicking they received.
But does the same thing happen here?
It did to 17-year-old apprentice chef, Harry King (not his real name). Harry was working in a local fine-dining pub in his home town just over six months ago when the bullying started. At first, another young chef would hide his knives and make threatening remarks. Then the chef in charge of Harry's section joined in and things began to escalate.
"He stole knives," says Harry. "He got in my way and verbally abused me; he then physically moved me so he could work were I was by grabbing the knife I was using and chucking it across to another table then grabbing me and chucking me to the table."
The bullying spread. Soon, all the chefs were verbally abusing Harry. One day, one of them threatened to hit him with a pan. That team left soon afterwards. But it didn't stop there. The agency chefs who were brought in continued the bullying. Harry started getting chest pains. When one of the chefs raised a fist at him, he suffered a panic attack later that evening. He consulted a doctor, who diagnosed him with an anxiety and stress disorder.
"When the other chefs got wind of this, they stopped for a while," says Harry. "But then started to harass me again – one kept throwing my products in the bin for no reason, and the head chef was basically trying to make life hell; he kept telling me to quit and change career. Eventually, I was punched by a co-worker and quit."
As a 34-year-old chef, Brian Strubbers (not his real name) is at the other end of the spectrum. He has seen and done it all, from trainee to head chef and everything in between. He has also seen his fair share of bullying, some of it horrifyingly physical.
"I saw a chef throw a carving fork at a kitchen porter," says Brian. "It whizzed past his head and stuck into the wall. It would probably have killed him if it hadn't missed. At another place, the head chef chased me around the kitchen. He grabbed hold of me, smashed me off the wall, banged me off another, banged me off a corner table and slammed me on to the tile floor. I was knocked out for half a second."
In his time, Brian has been attacked with knife sharpeners and clocks torn from the wall. In his first job at a small, family-run business, he says the owner threw a jug full of cutlery and boiling water at him because he had forgotten to heat up the rice pudding during a busy service.
It may be easy to dismiss these stories as isolated incidents, but recent research suggests otherwise.
This year, Hospitality Action, the catering industry's charity, launched its Employee Assistance Programme, which includes a hotline that chefs can call about problems they face at work. According to Hospitality Action CEO, Penny Moore, bullying prompts a large number of calls to the advice line. She says: "Often it will be people who may have left jobs because of bullying and harassment. They come to us because they're unemployed or suffering from stress and they've left their place of work because they feel they can't carry on."
Hospitality Action's findings are backed up by a recent study on bullying in commercial kitchens by an academic at the University of Manchester. The 2012 study by Wendy MB Bloisi found that 38.8 per cent of working chefs reported being bullied on a regular basis in the last five years, and a massive 67.6 per cent reported witnessing bullying. Meanwhile, 53.3 per cent of chefs identified themselves as being the targets of insulting or offensive remarks and 64.7 per cent as suffering threats of violence or physical abuse in the last six months.
The study concluded that bullying was prevalent across all sectors of the industry. It also noted that bullying was mainly vertical, coming from the top down, and that "socialisation", which started at college level, indoctrinated younger chefs into accepting negative behaviours as a normal part of working in the industry.
But if bullying is still so widespread, why the popular misconception that it doesn't go on any more? And why is it still so prevalent?
Brian Strubbers thinks that the form bullying takes has changed from more obvious physical kinds to less visible verbal and threatening behaviours. "I still see CDPs [chefs who are heads of a section] offering commis [the lowest ranking chefs] outside to fight," he says. "In the past, the violence would actually occur; now it doesn't so much, but the threat is still there."
Brian thinks that it is the pressure of the job that creates the bullying culture, with the weakest often becoming the scapegoats for others to let off steam. "In the majority of kitchens, there will be one who's the main target and it's usually the person least able to deal with it. Everybody feels the pressure of the job and they're always looking for outlets. The stronger the chefs who are doing the bullying, the more other people will think it's okay."
Anna Hansen is chef-patron of The Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell. She has seen her fair share of negative behaviour during her career, including bullying and sexual harassment. She sees the problem as a fine line between "acceptable banter", which stimulates a healthy kitchen atmosphere, and outright bullying, where the same people are systematically targeted, day in and day out, for something that raises a laugh. She also sees it as a problem with the working conditions of the industry as a whole.
"It's the same way that you're still expected to go to work when you're sick," she says. "It's even down to the hours people are expected to work. I see that changing across the board, but it's happening very slowly. People should be expected to have lives and not be so exhausted when they go to work that they chop a finger off."
For Brian Strubbers, it comes down to a lack of representation. "We need a proper union. Employment law is pretty much ignored in the catering industry. If things that happen in my job happened in another job, it would be really serious. The culture is just to put up with it."
So why does this culture still exist? One of the conclusions from the University of Manchester study is that the portrayal of bullying chefs in the media makes it seem an acceptable and even romanticised aspect of the job.
Perhaps those old Boiling Point episodes are still relevant after all – they highlighted an unpleasant aspect of the industry but also unwittingly propagated it.Reuse content