Stepping into the kitchen of a top restaurant is widely viewed, thanks to a few potty-mouthed TV chefs, as akin to entering a war zone: irate culinary masters brandishing red-hot tongs like branding irons, the air blue with swearwords and sweat running down the faces of the exhausted foot soldiers. Perhaps not any more.
Leading chefs and other industry insiders say a "cultural shift" – including the presence of more women at the top of the profession – is ushering in a new era of calm, with a generation of sweet-tempered cordon bleus shooing away their irate elders.
"There has been a cultural shift; I don't think chefs can get away with what they could a couple of years ago," says Kerstin Kühn, restaurant editor of Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine. "It is not an innocent environment, but I don't think that bosses have people up against the wall with a knife to their throats any more."
News that a chef in the US was recently sacked after telling a journalist about his sexist behaviour in the kitchen – stories that have been turned into bestselling books for the likes of Marco Pierre White and Anthony Bourdain, whose Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly exposed the darker side of the kitchen – could be seen as evidence of this changing culture.
Marcus Wareing, a former protégé of Gordon Ramsay, claims the kitchen at his restaurant Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley is so quiet it resembles a library at times.
"Mine is so quiet, it is just about focus. The shouting and swearing of the olden days has changed a lot in kitchens," he said. However, he admits that he doesn't always manage to keep a cool head: "As a chef and owner still at the coalface striving for excellence, there is going to be a fine line between calm and control and getting upset."
A backlash has been slowly building against chefs who fall on the wrong side of that line; particularly Gordon Ramsay, who was criticised by Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, last year after calling one of the country's most popular TV presenters a "lesbian who needs to see a Botox doctor". He also faced a barrage of complaints when an episode of Ramsay's Great British Nightmare contained 312 swearwords in 103 minutes.
Alain Ducasse - who was the first chef to have three Michelin-starred restaurants and who has proved popular on the recent series of MasterChef – claims that his kitchen has become calmer as he's mellowed with age.
"In my restaurants, what counts most is to always give priority to knowledge transmission," he said. "The key role of the most experienced persons is to explain and teach the younger. And disseminating the savoir faire is obviously not something you do by shouting and barking. One can be very demanding and, at the same time, very respectful."
Some attribute this cultural shift to the increasing number of women chefs running the kitchens of the country's top restaurants. Last year's Michelin Guide to Great Britain & Ireland revealed a record number of female head chefs picking up the prestigious award, rising to 10 from six the previous year.
But the macho culture still has a little life left in it: new TV shows from Marco Pierre White and Tom Aikens ramp up the drama and pressure of high-level cooking, and the formidable characters of top chefs.
The GMB union, whose members include the staff of some high-end restaurants, also said that the number of complaints it receives from the sector has not dropped in the past few years.
"We hear lots of horror stories," said Steve Pryle, a union spokesman. "They turn on people who are just trying their best. It is a very difficult section to unionise, because there is such a quick turnover of staff."Reuse content