FOOD TALK

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.

Epicure - - CONTENTS -

Hot­headed chefs

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.”

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