Kitchen confidential: The secret chef reflects on a flawed system

Sometimes foundations need to be shaken and rules re-written in order to make meaningful change, says The Secret Chef

Just do the work. We’re raised on this phrase in kitchens. Check the fridges, write the mise en place list and start prepping. It’s a simple demarcation and an easy binary existence: either you are ready for service or you are not.

The quality of that industry is more subjective, but there is certainly no place for Schrödinger in the kitchen when it comes to readiness. Just do the work. It’s a foundation that the profession has been built on since the birth of the restaurant in 18th century revolutionary France (or so goes that commonly accepted trope).

I’ve been thinking a lot about foundations recently. Pandemics, closures and rapidly changing business models have a tendency to shift thoughts back to first principles and weightier matters than the mere cutting of vegetables into neat brunoise or breaking down a few dozen duck carcasses.

The constant white noise of Covid-19-related matters has also played as a background hum to more explosive issues: resonant, collective action and vocalization of issues that remain endemic in societies across the world and, consequently, within our own profession.

The truth is that hospitality is built on a foundation of fragile egos and unacknowledged privilege. Of standing on shoulders we have no right to stand on, and using wilful ignorance to ensure the quo remains in status.

Last summer, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates and sought out interviews with black and minority ethnic chefs, particularly Kwame Onwuachi whose searing memoir Notes from a Young Black Chef lays bare the inequalities within hospitality, particularly inside the rarified echelons of high-end dining.

Learning from mistakes

Early this year I was made acutely aware that this was only the beginning of an education that I now know needs to last a lifetime. I was invited to take part in an online charity event and agreed without a second thought. When the (unapproved) press shot was released shortly after there was an inevitable – and justified – response to the entirely pale and male nature of those featured. I was suddenly aware that the lack of diversity made it look like an event from a previous time,
a tired relic of an era that I hoped we have moved beyond.

The organizer was presented with an opportunity to alter the line-up to more fairly represent the nature of the industry, but they declined, fearful that doing so would draw more attention to their mistake. From there it was an easy decision: I backed out.

This isn’t a story about doing the right thing. It’s a tale of making a mistake and resolving to do the right thing next time. I messed up by not asking the question before implicitly agreeing to something. While that lack of awareness might not necessarily be perceived as racist per se, it was insufficiently anti-racist to make any meaningful difference and that is the stance we have to take in order to work towards a fairer world.

This too, is an easy binary existence – either we endeavor to uphold the system that is in place: a system that is broken, exploitative and unrepresentative, one that suppresses people of color, steals their ideas and their culture and accepts systemic racism; or we choose to fight against it, to pose uncomfortable questions, to ask more of ourselves and to speak out when we see something that we know to be unacceptable or unfair.

The system is flawed. However, as always, the answer is a simple one: if you want to be ready for service, just do the damn work.

The Secret Chef

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