With ubiquitous open kitchen concepts, you might have come across hot-headed chefs who lose their cool during dinner service. How would you react, asks June Lee.
Sitting at the front row bench of an open kitchen, my colleague was recently privy to the protracted altercations between the head chef and a junior staff. While a pot of hot soup was not thrown about a la Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen, such experiences are indeed rarer now that the chef profession has been cleaning itself up.
Physical and verbal abuse in the past were well documented, with such abuse taken as par for the course, or even warranted in the quest for perfection. Chef Éric Ripert reports in his memoir that Joël Robuchon exerted so much pressure that “some guys
shook all the time. Some went downstairs and cried in the stairwell. I saw a few guys punch the walls. Some guys suffered crippling anxiety attacks.” Chef Tomonori Danzaki, who led the opening of Joël Robuchon and L'atelier de Joël Robuchon at Resorts World Sentosa in 2011, was served with a lawsuit in 2015 by two former staff. According to press reports, Franck Yoke said Danzaki "treated us like dogs, morons, less-than-nothing".
For many diners, witnessing a meltdown in the kitchen may be a new experience. Which of the following describes your reaction?
A Turn a blind eye
The easiest thing to do is often to ignore the situation – if it doesn’t seem too serious. After all, the kitchen is a tense place with short tempers, hot stoves and sharp knives. We’ve all been conditioned watching Hell's Kitchen since 2005, haven’t we?
On the flip side, unchecked bad behaviour can lead to toxic or dysfunctional restaurant culture, the kind that toppled restaurateurs Mario Batali, Ken Friedman and John Besh after the #metoo movement. For the consumer, being alert to endemic types of behaviour such as excessive sexism, disrespect and foul language can be the harbinger to stop supporting a restaurant.
B Take your business elsewhere
While chefs do discipline their staff when necessary, sometimes it goes too far – especially in full view of diners. PR practitioner Jill Sara recalls visiting a brand-new restaurant a few years ago, where the chef-owner grabbed the arm of another chef who was trying to pipe dishes during a full service. Says Sara, “I remember observing the chef-owner closely before deciding what to do next. The former continued talking very harshly into the other person's ear while jolting his arm every now and then.”
With such experiences leaving a sour taste, customers may not return, especially if the chef’s less-than-hospitable manners transmits to the dining environment. Says Sara, “I know most people would say it's none of our business, but must a bloody accident happen or for someone to be gravely hurt before any of us take appropriate action?”
C Call it out on social media
From #foodieporn to #kitchenfails, social media has changed how the world dines in the past 10 years. Can it also change kitchen culture? With a younger generation of chefs and diners who are equally well equipped to shine a light on how things work, the industry isn’t as rough and gritty as it once was – in modern Singaporean kitchens at least.
However, the dark side of social media also includes sensationalism, where any and every perceived fault in the restaurant can go viral.
D Give the benefit of the doubt
Drew Nocente has seen chefs giving their staff ‘the eye’, but as a diner he’s not seen physical or verbal abuse here or elsewhere. He says, “Discipline does happen in the kitchen and to us, each staff is different in his personality and is trained differently. Hence, we reach out to each staff differently, it could be a private conversation or a stern warning or anything like that, but definitely no yelling or screaming.” The chef-owner of Salted & Hung has worked at a succession of open kitchens, including Skirt at W Singapore and Maze Grill in London (yes, the Gordon Ramsay one).
“The kitchen environment is intense and stressful, depending on the expectations of guests and chefs. To deliver food at a level that is celebrated, chefs are pushing the envelope and doing as much as they can, with all they got.”