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Kitchen Confidential: The Secret Chef on bullying

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As tales of bullying behaviour still reach us from the darkest depths of certain kitchens The Secret Chef issues a rallying cry

We are tight, you and I. Our pact is unspoken, but we both know how it manifests itself. In return for enduring this kitchen you earn, really earn, those stripes.

That kudos will take you far. A raised eyebrow and an approving nod when you are being interviewed for that sous chef position at my buddy’s two-star place in the city in a couple of years’ time. ‘You lasted 18 months with chef ? Wow. You did good. Welcome aboard. We have a crew that are getting a little sloppy, you seem like the guy who can kick them into shape.’ And then you create your own unspoken pact with those under your tutelage.

And so, it bubbles on, like an enormous stockpot, the flavour never changing from a muddy, cloudy indiscernible broth, thick with scraps and offcuts: bubbling, simmering and boiling over.

But these are the old ways. The rigid militaristic hierarchy of the classical French brigade system was hidden behind closed doors and allowed for the tyrannical reign of the cold-eyed despot and his charges, tasked with maintaining discipline and standards by whatever means necessary. We tell ourselves that things have changed.

We pen mea culpas and open letters and public apologies that acknowledge our past misdeeds, confess our sins and wash our hands of previous behaviours. And then we rally and profess to a commitment to do things right, to make real and lasting change and ensure that this is the last generation who will treat those in our care with contempt, who ritualise humiliation and normalise bullying and engage in verbal abuse and sexualised intimidation and gendered persecution and racist behaviour and physical violence. Glory be, for the age of enlightenment is upon us. Welcome the sun on a new golden dawn of progress and kindness.

Breaking down the unspoken pact

Except, I’m not convinced that particular dawn has broken yet. The sky may be brightening, a pale blue shimmer appearing somewhere far away on the horizon but there are still those fighting  against the coming light, who ooze nostalgia for the dark ages and rage against what most of us see as progress.

A truly awful real-world example came to light in the UK recently: a young chef took to social media to detail some of the abuse he had suffered at the hands of some of his colleagues at a highly regarded hotel restaurant in rural Gloucestershire.

It culminated in a visit to the emergency room to treat burns suffered after having hot butter poured down the back of his trousers, this was after he had been forced to eat, among other things, raw chicken and rabbit faeces.

The hotel’s executive chef was quick to distance himself from the story, pointing out that he wasn’t on site at the time the incident took place and the employee in question had been fired with immediate effect. This sort of behaviour doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however, and nor does an atmosphere in a kitchen turn that toxic overnight.

It is indicative of an outdated and unacceptable attitude that should have had no place in any kitchen, let alone one in the 21st century.

There are still those chefs, admittedly some of them extremely talented indeed, for whom fear is an oxygen; who feel a frisson of excitement when they walk into their kitchen and know, instinctively, that they could reduce anyone in that room to tears.

These are the same chefs that are complaining of labour and skills shortages, the same chefs that are constantly recruiting for positions in their restaurants and failing to realise that ‘genius’ is no longer an acceptable excuse for an uncontrollable temper.

Yes, we may have been tight: you and I. But that unspoken pact is breaking down, along with the walls that separate the kitchen from the dining room – and the sooner that happens the better.

The Secret Chef