Choose a Better Kitchen Culture

What makes a kitchen a place that we want to spend our time? What makes us stay? We all have felt the pressure, worked the long hours. Know the results of physical labor on our bodies. Learned how to tolerate the verbal and physical abuse.  We understand that stress to make the restaurant and only the restaurant your life’s priority.  The damage done to your body, usually with no or little health care included.  What makes us spend our days in a place like that?

While I’ve heard and even myself answered this question in multiple ways, I’m going to change my patented answer and say something a little (okay a lot) crazy that might surprise you. Or, maybe not, considering the source.  Don’t. Don’t stay in a place that’s abusive, that’s not supportive of your growth and your sustained inclusion as part of the staff.

I’ve experienced the kind of work place that treats commis and cdps like toilet paper. Turn and burn through them like you would a guest at a ‘fast casual’ joint.  Get what you can out of them, see who sticks it out, see who falls apart, and move on to the next warm body who shows up at the back door.  I’ve gritted my teeth and worked my way up despite the expectation that I would fail.  To be real, in some of those places, I learned a lot. Who I am as a cook today started in those kitchens. The skin I have has been hardened and burned by what I learned to let flow off of my back.  There were also several jobs where I could add very little to no new skills after a stint of excessive verbal abuse. Just flat out wasn’t worth it. In one or two, I wasn’t even comfortable putting them on my resume, I despised their treatment of people so much.  It’s a crapshoot sometimes, which is why gaining experience at more than one place was valuable for me. I learned that not every job is the same, that I can expect better for myself and for others.

While it may be tempting to bear through it for the boost of a famous name on a resume or for the kind of training and pressure that can hone one (like a diamond, no?) into a better cook; fine. Bear it if must. Just don’t stay too long or drink that second helping of Koolaid.   (And make sure when it’s time to leave, it’s in a gracious way that’s not going to ruin all of that hard work. Read: give appropriate notice).  And once you’re out, remember a couple of things:

  • 1. Having a social life outside of work can create or re-enforce perspectives that are valuable.  You are less likely to forget why eating out is enjoyable in the first place if you don’t let yourself fall into the tunnel vision of being an insider.  [Yes, you and your fellow industry friend are the only people at the table annoyed that the restaurant copy of the check is not on top, no one else noticed, get over it].
  • 2. Other creative outlets or pursuits do not take away from ones ability to create in a kitchen. In fact, for me, having other passions and activities helps my creativity become a stronger muscle when I can flex it in multiple capacities.  I can be a photographer and a writer and a vocalist and and… without being any less of a cook.
  • 3. When you run yourself ragged, and do not nourish your body, it does not help your performance at work.  Rest days are important.  I’m guessing that all of the hard work being put into a cooking career isn’t just so you can turn around and open a yoga studio in a few years.  If you don’t rest and rejuvenate your body and your mind- it increases the risk of burnout.  To make it the long haul, we are all going to have to start treating ourselves like athletes who are running a marathon rather than a sprint.  Exercise, rest, food, mental health care, dental care, medical care etc will have to become priorities. [Ugh, it all sounds so gross and responsible.] For real though, take care of yourself, so that you have the ability to take care of others.  Also, you and I both know that kitchens are dangerous places full of hot and sharp and heavy things.  Injury increases when you are not well rested and not thinking clearly. This includes the infamous hangover [sorry guys]. Try and keep the partying to the non-school nights, maybe?

And here I’ll add a little bit of the party back in, while tying in to #1 and #3: vacations are not something to feel guilty about.  Use them as part of your toolbox for creating a varied perspective and a well balanced human.

Very Importantly:

  • 4. Fear does not make the best food. Sure it can make good food sometimes, even great for a moment, but can it sustain past that moment? If you are constantly running through cooks and training new people, don’t you lose something during that training period? Couldn’t a well trained, experienced staff who has been around each other for a significant amount of time create more consistently great food? And- Perpetuating the cycle of fear does not help you feel better about what you went through. It just creates more miserable people.

Anyways, lets go back to my crazy revolutionary idea:

Don’t even try and bear through the kind of place that makes one miserable at all.  Just, skip it entirely.  When I started 11 years ago (yikes I’m old) I didn’t have that option. At least, not that I was aware of.  “Sustainability” was not a buzz word then.  Kitchens with grizzled old chefs throwing pans and knives wasn’t totally uncommon.  I’m not saying it was the stone age. I’m saying that now there are a lot more options. And there are a lot more open networks.  It’s easier to find out from current and former employees where the good teachers are.  Where the worthwhile stage might be.  It’s also not such a taboo to talk about where the miserable people go to work and where you are more likely to spend your internship picking herbs and little else. So make the extra effort. Do your research, seek out good connections.  Push for kitchen jobs with better kitchen cultures.

Think of it as a buyers market. Restaurant growth has increased exponentially in the last decade.  Which means there are more of them looking to hire you.   If you “buy” your experience from the kind of place with a sustainable kitchen culture, it will put pressure on other kitchens to “sell” the kind of culture that you are “buying”.

Of course, some of the things that come along with being a cook are going to be the same even in the dreamiest of places.  If you want to work in fine dining, you will very likely put in the long hours.  And feel every extra step that you took in your bones as you walk out the door.   The job provided healthcare coverage is iffy at best anywhere outside of a socialist country, a corporate job, or a very rare restaurant group with more diversified funding. The value of a stage at a great restaurant will still be something to consider.  Even if it affords you no to little pay and a crappy place to stay.

What I’m trying to say is that the life of a cook in training, or a cook doing the long haul will probably not be easy street. There a lot of challenges that all of us face.  Boredom from repetition, mistakes that will be made and must be learned from, guests who simply wont like their experience for no fault of your own, holidays with family that more often than not will be missed, that one extra socially inept coworker that makes everything awkward, days that include scant hours for sleep, and coworkers that you will see more often than anyone else are just a few examples.  Ultimately, it is a job.  So- you should probably try and find a job where those coworkers that you see everyday are people who you respect, and who will treat you with respect.  Have high expectations for yourself and for the people around you. Have high expectations for the value of your work and your time.  Be the kind of person that you would want to be around; cultivate an environment that you would want to stay in for longer than the toilet paper takes to burn.

Whatever you do, wherever you work, you should be gaining something that you value. Whether that be monetary, educational, communal, etc.

And to come back to that “patented answer” that I chose to sideswipe earlier, but is also still true: We do this job despite all of it’s challenges because we are passionate about cooking. Because we’re a little crazy.  Because- maybe we should stay behind that kitchen door with the rest of the socially awkward humans that we come to love.   Or something like that.   So let’s all work together to put pressure on the industry and on ourselves to create a more sustainable culture in which we work and live.

As usual, I wish you the best, and am here for your questions.



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