Kitchen Confidential: The secret chef on humanity in hospitality

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Are the customers really the most important people in the building, asks regular columnist and industry insider the Secret Chef

As far as we can tell, the origins of hospitality lie in the classical world. The ruins of Pompeii, a city both destroyed and preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE, have left us with an unprecedented insight into some of the earliest foodservice establishments. Among the hundreds of shops, houses and municipal buildings that have been excavated to date, there are also dozens of food stalls, each seemingly specializing in a particular dish. Some even boast an upstairs area where customers could dine in, rather than taking their purchases away with them.

The etymology of the word ‘hospitality’ lies also in the Roman Empire: originally, the word from which we glean our modern definition – hospes – referred to a stranger, or visitor.

Contemporary behavioral norms and expectations required that the stranger should be made to feel welcome. What better way to make a visitor feel comfortable while far from home than by giving them temporary shelter and tasty food and drink? The path that led from here to the evolution and creation of the restaurant as we know it today is a long and complex one, but at its heart, this core principle remains: that a visitor should be made to feel welcome once they enter through the doors.

Often, we make conscious and extensive efforts to ensure the happiness of the strangers and visitors that we encourage into our establishments. For restaurateurs who understand the core principles of hospitality, every element of the customer experience is analyzed, examined, scrutinized and picked over.

Fixing on the minutest details often requires the longest meetings: swatches of fabrics, chair samples, paint charts, lighting plans, acoustic analyses – I’ve lost countless hours to all of these. And that’s before we even get started in the kitchen where things inevitably take a turn for the complicated once crockery, cutlery and food join the party.

Feeling safe and welcome

What often gets lost, amid this desire to welcome the stranger, is the need to make comfortable and happy those that are most familiar to us: our staff. These are the people we see every day and on whom we rely on to deliver our vision and make a reality of our expectations and desires.

What continually baffles me, then, is why hospitality workers are often treated with such contempt by those that employ them? Why – in a profession that is built on the principle of making people feel welcome and safe – are those that we expect to deliver that experience not shown the same grace and respect as the customers, in whom we place such value?

This dichotomy has long baffled me. Initially as an outsider with a near fetishistic interest in kitchen life, and latterly as an active participant, once I realized that the only way to fully satisfy that obsession was to fully immerse myself in it.

Why, when our calling is one that requires our basic interactions be, at the very least, civil, is there such a simmering undercurrent of vitriol in the way we treat our workers?

A very basic understanding of human nature would suggest that nobody is able to deliver their best service either on the back of, or presented with an ever-present threat of, being bawled out for the slightest perceived malfeasance. Nor should exhaustion – either mental and physical – be an accepted or acceptable state in which to do a job.

Yet these are tropes that are commonly accepted both within and outside of the industry, ones that will continue to dominate until there is a universal realisation that, contrary to 2,000 years of tradition, perhaps the strangers aren’t the most important people in the room.

The Secret Chef