The physical isolation of chefs working in Michelin-starred kitchens can lead to violent misbehaviour and a feeling that “the rules don’t apply”, a study based on interviews with dozens of top chefs has found.
Working long hours away from the bill-paying public in often windowless and cramped kitchens creates a parallel moral universe in which abuse and violence is the norm, the study of 47 chefs at restaurants in Europe, Asia, Australia and north America by academics at Cardiff University found.
It follows a spate of allegations of misconduct in some kitchens in the UK, including at a restaurant in Edinburgh run by the Michelin-starred chef Tom Kitchin, which resulted in the suspension of two staff. His company launched an independent investigation after historical claims of bullying and physical assault last July.
A spokesperson for Kitchin said it had since fully implemented recommendations from the investigation with “a group-wide external training programme, enhancing and reinforcing our ethos, policies and procedures to ensure best practice”.
Other chefs from different restaurants also posted anonymous complaints on social media about abusive behaviour, in what was known as the hospitality industry’s #MeToo moment.
It coincides with the release of Boiling Point, a film starring Stephen Graham about the high stress, aggression and threat of violence of working in a top-ranked kitchen.
“People think what they see on TV is exaggerated but what happens is often more severe and has major implications for the mental health and wellbeing of these young, talented people,” said Dr Rebecca Scott, one of the study’s authors.
Previous attempts to explain the misbehaviour of chefs have focused on militaristic kitchen cultures, hyper-masculine values and the brutality of physical, stressful, fast-paced work. But this one – in collaboration with a professor of sociology, David Courpasson, in the French culinary hub of Lyon – concludes anyone wanting to stop bullying, violence and intimidation should consider swapping confined kitchens that generate “the perceived ability to act in a generally disinhibited way” for open-plan working environments.
Some chefs told researchers they would not misbehave or endure abuse directed at them outside the kitchen but found it “acceptable and normal” once through the swing doors. One chef, Anton, who worked in a restaurant with both an open and closed kitchen described “shouting”, “punching” and “throwing things” in the downstairs closed kitchen but upstairs “they put on a show … they cannot throw stuff”.
Another chef told the researchers that being isolated in the kitchen meant “there is an element of kind of getting away with stuff … physical abuse, you know … Being out of sight definitely allows abuse to happen and you do get away without any real consequences.”
Dr Robin Burrow, lecturer in organisational behaviour and management at Cardiff University, said isolation could “be experienced as a kind of freedom from scrutiny to do things that would not normally be possible”.
Using a phrase from criminology, the study describes kitchen layouts as creating a “geography of deviance”.
The majority of the chefs interviewed worked in “backstage” environments, in the least desirable parts of the building. Many had little or no natural light and would work between 12 and 20 hours a day.
One chef said: “The isolation creates a backdrop, a stage where one can play up. So, there’s a really strong correlation between bad behaviour and isolation.”
Another admitted he followed a junior chef into a room away from the main kitchen and “beat the crap out of him”’ for persistent lateness.
“It’s like the army,” he said. “I mean what goes on behind those doors, behind those gates is what goes on.”