After I wrote a story for TVO about restaurants using day rates to exploit their cooks, one reader, who recognized his former kitchen by the phrase “the mandatory 14,” got in touch. He told me about other abuses he witnessed there — including the chef/owner explicitly instructing him to lie to job applicants about the number of hours they’d be expected to work.
But lower-grade abuses are rife in the industry: recently, a Toronto cook told me he was paid as little as $80 for 14-hour shifts and got berated by the chef on a daily basis. At the Willows Inn, an upscale restaurant on an island off the coast of Washington state, the U.S. Department of Labour found that “entry-level kitchen staff worked a one-month trial period for free, then for wages as low as $50 a day for up to 14-hour days, with no overtime.”
Customers are typically ignorant or complicit, turning a blind eye until something particularly odious leaks out — as when celebrated Toronto-based chef Susur Lee got the public’s outrage machine humming after it was revealed Lee had an “IOU” policy at his restaurants, requiring staff to pay for mistakes out of their tips.
When I was a cook, chefs invoked Lee as a sort of bogeyman. If we complained about our 12-hour days (with 30 minutes to sit for a staff meal), they reminded us that the days were longer for Lee’s cooks, who, by the way, ate standing up. In a 2007 Toronto Star article about Lee’s labour practices, a manager admitted that yelling at staff was an everyday occurrence.
So why do cooks put up with it? Perhaps because the big-league chefs they work for resemble another group of people who blur the line between taskmaster and unloving parent: cult leaders.
That may sound extreme, but consider three of the most common characteristics of your average cult:
1. Economic exploitation of followers by the leader.
2. Brainwashing that compels followers to act against their own interests.
3. A charismatic leader who is not accountable to reason.
Let’s look at chefs through this prism.
1. Economic exploitation
To start, the cult of chefdom requires acolytes to take a vow of poverty. Chefs are fond of asking, “Can you believe we pay you for this education?” as they assign line cooks to brush the dirt out of chanterelle mushrooms, but the fact is, they aren’t paying much. Bring up fair pay and the thorny subject of “passion” arises. Any talk of sub-legal wages will elicit the response, “We don’t do this to get rich” — conflating fair and legal pay with greed. Keep pushing, and your faith is questioned. Then the excommunication begins.
For every mechanism intended to make chefs pay their cooks properly, there’s a loophole that allows them to avoid doing just that. They can have cooks come in early, off the clock. They can pay day rates that drop below minimum wage when shifts last 12 to 14 hours. Consequences for breaking labour laws are rare. Salaried employees often put in 70- to 80-hour weeks. Just last week, a chef told me he started employees at $120 for a 13-hour day. I know a pastry chef who was fired for her version of work-to-rule: she put in 60 hours a week.
“Chefs can be charismatic and authoritarian,” says New York-based psychotherapist Daniel Shaw, who treats former cult members. “When those two characteristics are present, it’s a fervent mix. Followers can become trapped by the belief that their loyalty to the leader is their only road to salvation, fulfilment and personal success.”
And the more celebrated the chef, the more cooks are willing to be economically exploited by them. When the Michelin-starred chef and TV personality Michel Roux Jr. was questioned last year about paying his cooks less than minimum wage, he described the benefits of working for him as “intangible.”
For financial exploitation, I give chefs four Jim Bakkers (out of five).
Any subculture worth its salt has a process of indoctrination: whether it’s the CIA or ultimate frisbee, group membership means a sense of belonging, an “us vs. the world” elitism.
Those outside the group will never understand your values, nor the importance of your sacrifice. So it is in the restaurant business, where chefs encourage cooks to see themselves as artists or outsiders. In this way, they obscure their employees’ daily reality: standing for 10 to 14 hours without a break, preparing food for rich people.
It’s easier to brainwash people in isolation, and lucky enough, cooks who work in fancy restaurants often become cut off from their friends and family. In a recent LA Weekly memoir about the dangers the industry can pose to employees’ mental health, chef Ari Taymore recalls 90-hour work weeks and leaving “family and friends behind for unpaid stages in far-flung corners of the world.”
“We are so focused and single-minded,” she writes, “that anyone who doesn't share that passion seems like an alien.”
Part of the indoctrination into chefdom is the heaping of praise on those cooks who work the longest hours, through sickness, with broken arms or legs. The other part of it is the heaping of scorn on those weak cooks who ask for a break so their body can heal.
The chef who contacted me about “the mandatory 14” told me that one day, having worked from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., he showed up 10 minutes late for his next shift — at 9 a.m. The chef, he recalls, “went ballistic on me.”
Shaw says we’re often too quick to label subcultures cults. But he advises any cook who feels unduly exploited to be aware of how they are treated by their chef. “Are you regularly intimidated, belittled, humiliated?” he asks. “You’re not building strength of character. You’re being broken down. And for the benefit of the leader, not yourself.”
For indoctrination, I give chefs three and a half L. Ron Hubbards.
3. Lack of accountability
A real cult is led by a charismatic leader, one who’s not accountable to reason, and who doesn’t adhere to a consistent value system or orthodoxy. “In cults, leaders set up the rules according to their mood,” says Shaw. “The leader is the only person who has a say.”
That sounds to me like a number of famous chefs who, once granted artist status, are prone to changing their minds on a whim without providing anyone an explanation.
David Chang and Rene Redzepi are celebrated as artistic geniuses, trailblazers who do things their own way. In the last couple of years, they’ve both published “I used to be an abusive boss but now I know that’s bad” essays that, while suspiciously light on details, still get shared on my social media feeds, which then fill up with unquestioning praise from apostle cooks. It’s as if Moses had returned with bonus tracks to the Ten Commandments. No matter what these chefs do, their followers interpret it as a demonstration of their brilliance.
“Blind loyalty during service, ask questions later”: it’s a refrain I’ve heard far too often in the kitchen. Back when I was a cook, I had a boss who insisted on combining red snapper with an espresso gelée — a dish every bit as gross as it sounds. Week after week, we butchered fresh fish, tossing the resultant mess into staff-meal burritos when it didn’t sell (the coffee Jell-O went straight into the trash).
For lack of accountability, I give chefs three Father Yods.
There are a few clear indicators that chefs aren’t cult leaders: most notably, while they may not be accountable to reason or an overarching morality, they are accountable to market forces. They don’t get the tax breaks some phony religious leaders do, and they have to turn a profit. Also, I was glad to learn that personal safety in the workplace, at least, is one area where cooks won’t employ the Nuremberg defence. Staff at Poutini’s House of Poutine, in downtown Toronto, recently staged a walk-out in response to unsafe conditions.
But like other passion-driven businesses — tech start-ups are also notorious for having outsider/artist/revolutionary/visionary atmospheres that breed workplace abuse — top restaurants do flirt with cultishness. The managerial style of some chefs swings dangerously close to guru.
We helped create these cults by deifying their leaders. In print and on TV, food media has built false idols, promoting the brilliance of chefs over the labour of cooks, glorifying individual achievement over the coordinated efforts of the team.
In grade five I accidentally called my teacher “Dad.” The class was loud. Few kids heard me. And Mr. Smith was a good sport about moving on quickly before anyone had a chance to tease me. Still, I was mortified.
It was an understandable mistake. At that age, I spent more hours of the day with my teacher than with my father. So it seems equally natural that, when a cook devotes 14 hours a day to following a chef’s orders, they might become confused about that chef’s role in their life.
The best chefs are leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and teachers. But we need to stop feeding this myth of the chef as infallible nexus of creativity and attention. Because chefs are not our moms or dads. They are not our priests, rabbis, or imams. When we tell them they are prophets, we give them the right to treat their employees like disciples.
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