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Kitchen Confidential: The Secret Chef on disruption in hospitality

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We have an uneasy relationship with disruption in life, let alone hospitality, says The Secret Chef. But often, real progress comes from shaking things up

Sit down and be quiet. Stand up and be heard. Do as you’re told, follow the rules. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Respect your elders. Speak truth to power. Don’t rock the boat. Move fast, break things.We have an uneasy relationship with disruption. From early on, our learned behaviors are ones that diminish rebellion, that encourage us to stay in our lanes and punish endeavors that threaten the status quo. But we are also told of the importance of being brave and bold, of standing up to authority and questioning those received wisdoms.

I recently listened to an interview with journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell, in which he spoke about the iconic photograph from the Mexico 1968 Olympics – Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the 200m sprint, their gloved hands raised in support of human rights as the Star-Spangled Banner played over the stadium’s speakers.

History regards them as brave civil rights activists, bringing the movement to the attention of a truly global audience, but both suffered ostracism in the immediate aftermath of the gesture, and indeed for many years afterwards. The third man in the photograph, silver medal-winner Australian Peter Norman, wore a lapel pin protesting racism in sport and was similarly spurned.

We would be mistaken to think we’ve progressed a great deal in the intervening five decades – witness the on-going debate regarding Colin Kaepernick, and sportspeople worldwide taking the knee in support of his protest. The faces change but the debate remains the same.

Sport and cooking have a great many parallels. Ostensibly, all that matters is showing up and working hard. Inherent skill can only flourish if accompanied by hard work, discipline and a formidable, supportive (or terrifying) coach. We must work within, and be schooled in, ways, forms, and formats – within institutions – that were established by our forebears, but also have been proven to be lacking, incompatible with progressive and more permissive and caring attitudes. It’s vital we respect history but also acknowledge that antiquated attitudes have no place in modern hospitality.

Don’t believe the hype

Talk of disruption within the hospitality profession is invariably associated with technological advances and there is a tendency to market even the tiniest innovations as ‘disruptive technologies’, built on the promise that they will truly alter how commerce operates. I’m less sure. Do DoorDash, Uber Eats and their ilk genuinely offer a marked departure from what came before, or merely an alteration in method of delivery; capitalizing on existing technologies and familiar modes of behavior in order to tap into an existing market? Or are they merely a product of hype, cheap money and frothy VC-backed pitch decks? The recent cool down suggests – to this observer – that it is very much the latter.

More important, relevant, and significant are the disruptions that are happening within kitchens. Recently several high-profile chefs have been called out for unacceptable behaviors ranging from abuse, sexual assault and discrimination to bullying and lying about the provenance of ingredients or dishes. The overarching macho culture of kitchens is being called into question and with it the foundations on which the industry is built. Those that have come forward to tell their stories and call out the – in some cases – very high profile, powerful and influential figures within the industry are incredibly brave. In several cases they have been women, those who identify as LGBTQ+ or black. They have risked further ostracization from a profession that is skewed against them anyway and yet still come forward to tell their stories.

We now have an opportunity; this is our 1968, let’s not make the same mistakes that were made back then.

The Secret Chef