OPINION: Bullies in the restaurant kitchen leave sour after-taste

Allegations have been made about the restaurant run by celebrity chef Tom Kitchin, left, over bullying of staff

Allegations have been made about the restaurant run by celebrity chef Tom Kitchin, left, over bullying of staff - Credit: Getty/BBC

My work often takes me into professional kitchens, whether to interview chefs in their workplace, research recipes or photograph the magic happening.

Every time I end up by the stoves, my admiration for the people who work so hard to produce the gorgeous plates of food we enjoy in the serenity of the dining-room goes up another notch.

Working a professional kitchen is tough.

It’s physically demanding, often long hours in oppressively hot environments, working to tight deadlines and under pressure to get it right every time.

It’s stressful, and pressured. But in the right kitchen, also hugely creative and rewarding.

I wouldn’t want to do it, but I understand the motivations of those who choose this career.

Thankfully, there is an increasing awareness of the toll that relentless pressure can have on the wellbeing of the people who cook for us when we are out.

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Many restaurants are reducing shift numbers so that chefs have a proper weekend, or even three days a week off.

This isn’t done out of altruism, but out of a growing realisation that people are not machines, and if you keep grinding them down, they will eventually either quit or break.

Whatever the motivation, though, professional kitchens are – gradually – becoming a better place to work.

So it is particularly depressing to read allegations made by 12 former employees of the Michelin-starred The Kitchin restaurant in Edinburgh, owned by celebrity chef Tom Kitchin.

They say they were abused, assaulted, denied food, water or even lavatory breaks during 18 hour shifts, and that senior staff were guilty of the worst kind of bullying of staff at the restaurant.

Allegations included staff being deliberately burnt, repeatedly punched if they were not fast enough, and even sexually assaulted.

I stress that these are just allegations, but they have not been denied by Kitchin, and he has suspended two of his senior staff.

But depressingly – and inevitably – the Masterchef judge trotted out the old trope about professional kitchens being ‘high-pressure, frenetic and challenging’ environments where ‘emotions often run high’ – as if this excuses creating a toxic culture in which it’s OK to assault your employees.

I have news for any arrogant chef who thinks like this: it’s only dinner. As regular readers will know, what I eat and drink is massively important to me, but even I can keep a sense of perspective.

If underpaid nurses can act with dignity in Covid wards and operating theatres – the very definition of a workplace which is ‘high-pressure and challenging’ – then you should be able to keep calm when you’re cooking my lunch.

Many on social media have called for Kitchin’s restaurant to be stripped of its stars.

Frankly this is unlikely, given that the Michelin Guide is too closely aligned with the powerful interests which run the world’s hospitality industry.

But it may not be necessary. As Kitchin is finding out, for many diners, reports of bullying in the kitchen leave a sour after-taste among paying customers, who will vote with their feet.

Whilst the blame for such bullying lies squarely on the shoulders of those who think it’s OK to assault and harass their staff, the pressure behind such behaviour is often driven by many of those same customers.

Once upon a time, if the kitchen got something wrong – and chefs are only human, so mistakes happen – most people were happy to point out the error and give the restaurant a chance to put it right.

But nowadays too many people are ready to vent a kind of instant anger on social media, with the result that the world knows about things that have gone wrong before the waiter has even had the chance to ask if everything is OK.

I can’t help thinking that this is contributing to an increased pressure in the kitchen, which in turn leads to a reduced tolerance of mistakes, and that drives the kind of unacceptable bullying we are starting to hear about.

Let’s be clear: comments on social media are emphatically not an excuse for abusing staff, however much pressure there might be. Chefs who bully their employees should be called out, and should expect customers to give their restaurants a wide berth.

But if you are one of those who is quick to post your disapproval, then I would ask you to pause, and think about what your actions might mean for the human beings working in tough conditions to ensure you have a nice time – and perhaps cut them a little slack.