By any measure (rising food costs; stagnant consumer wages; Brexit), the next few years promise to be turbulent for the restaurant industry. A recent spate of abrupt closures and ostensibly buoyant brands entering administration suggests this upheaval could soon turn traumatic.
In any such crisis, those who see cooking as a vocation and, in particular, chef-owners, will come under enormous pressure. That is why, this January, in the spirit of fresh starts, all head chefs would be wise – for their own wellbeing and for that of their business – to scrutinise their behaviour in the workplace. How do you lead your team? How do you manage stress? In short, chef, when the going gets tough, do you behave like a dick?
In recent years, some of the romantic gloss has come off the figure of the tyrannical chef-genius, à la White Heat Marco. From Dan Doherty’s progressive emphasis on a sound work-life balance for his staff at Duck & Waffle to the collegiate atmosphere visible in open kitchens, such as York’s Skosh or Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In, a new generation is rejecting that kitchen tradition of macho ball-busting. But progress is patchy. Restaurants evolve slowly. Ridiculous in-service tensions, insanely long hours, verbal abuse and angry confrontations are still common in UK kitchens.
You will know this either because you have endured it (even taking a perverse masochistic pride in toughing it out), or because you have read a famous chef performing a public mea culpa on this subject. From René Redzepi’s seismic 2015 Lucky Peach article (“I’ve been a bully for a large part of my career… ”) to Midsummer House chef Daniel Clifford’s recent admission to that a second Michelin star turned him into a “properly terrible” manager, there is now a story arc established for our successful chefs.
Early on, they work like dogs. Gradually, the pursuit of perfection sends them slightly bonkers. Increasingly, they lash out at their team and ruthlessly dispatch anyone who cannot endure this explosive pressure. Later, in a moment of existential crisis, they realise the error of their ways. Finally, success and Michelin stars secure, they pledge to change.
Even then, however, far too few chefs question the wider culture around elite restaurants and whether chasing fame, peer-approval and Michelin stars, is really worth the pain. Can an industry that generates such a whirlwind of mental health problems, alcoholism, divorces, neglected families, etc., be said to be anything other than deeply dysfunctional? No.
Kitchens need discipline and leadership. But they also need chefs who can put this work – their craft, creativity and ego – into perspective. To paraphrase Micky Flanagan on Gordon Ramsay: “You’re only cooking dinner, mate.”
Real change will only happen when intelligent chefs seek to create holistic businesses that provide a sustainable, healthy working environment. That means not chasing Michelin stars at all costs (figurative and literal). It means designing venues where chefs can work sensible hours for fair pay. It means leading by calm example and jettisoning chefs who do no treat colleagues with respect.
“Namby-pamby nonsense!” old-school chefs will snort. But all the anecdotal evidence suggests that nurturing kitchens are more efficient, produce better food and enjoy greater staff retention. You may laugh at reports that the new Pied à Terre chef, Asimakis Chaniotis, has ‘banned’ swearing, but in reality (staff are still allowed a “bollocks!” if they drop a soufflé), he wants to eradicate aggressive behaviour. Chaniotis is trying to foster an atmosphere of mutual support. In 2018, all head chefs should follow that lead.
This column first appeared in the January issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK’s restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.