We talk to real chefs about ‘shouty’ kitchen culture – and how it’s got to change

15th Jul 19 | Lifestyle

Ella Walker speaks to chefs about the working environments they’ve experienced, and why traditional kitchen behaviours are now thoroughly outdated.

Portrait of two chefs

In his New York Times essay Don’t Eat Before Reading This, American chef, writer and documentary maker Anthony Bourdain wrote that “professional cooks belong to a secret society whose ancient rituals derive from the principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, fatigue, and the threat of illness.”

He added that “the members of a tight, well-greased kitchen staff are a lot like a submarine crew. Confined for most of their waking hours in hot, airless spaces, and ruled by despotic leaders.”

Over here, much of our understanding of chefs and their fraught, knife-wielding world, is taken direct from angry, shouty, sweary celeb chefs like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. The view has long been held that cheffing is a man’s world, where nightmarishly long, horribly unsociable shifts collide brutally with aggression, ambition and addiction. It’s not a career you pick if you want to spend Christmas with your family, or like knowing what evenings look like.

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But things are beginning to change. While you have chefs like Ynyshir’s Gareth Ward, who has openly spoken about how his aggression in the kitchen almost cost him everything, chef Sat Bains has restructured opening hours so his employees have a better work-life balance, and new platform Hospitality Speaks hopes to share anonymous stories of toxic behaviour and positive solutions within the hospitality industry.

“Things have changed, of course for the better,” agrees James Martin (James Martin’s Great British Adventure, Quadrille, £25), formerly of Saturday Kitchen. “It’s hot and it’s bloody sweaty, but I don’t condone violence, it’s horrific, and I’ve been at the receiving end of a lot of it when I was a young kid.

“But back then, I used to just put my head on the pillow and tomorrow was another day. A lot has changed and rightly so, and the people who were doing that are now not around anymore.”

He says that at 21, as a newly minted head chef, he quickly learned to manage people. “It’s all to do with building up confidence in people,” he explains. “You turn around and shout at everybody, well, in a week there’ll be nobody behind you.”

Nathan Outlaw (Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Bloomsbury, £45) is all about running your kitchen the way you want to be treated. “I’m a bit of a gentle giant to be honest with you, pretty relaxed,” says the Port Isaac-based chef. “We make sure we’re organised so we can have fun while we do what we do, and I only open the restaurant four days a week, so the guys get three days off – it’s a very different environment.

“I’m trying to recreate an environment that’s like my home,” he says, noting that a family vibe is what he’s after. He’d rather have more women in his kitchen too, “but we don’t get as many female applicants – it’s a shame really. A good kitchen, you have a balance.”

For Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (Canongate, £30), her career started out at the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, started by iconic chef Alice Waters.

“There was a very feminine energy in there from the top down, so yelling or throwing or that kind of aggressiveness would never have been tolerated,” Nosrat remembers. “That’s not to say it was smooth sailing.

“There was a lot of pressure, absolutely – it’s not like everyone’s happy all the time,” she continues. “But the energy, it flows in a different way [when there are more women], and it’s certainly a much more humane and comfortable place to work.”

For MasterChef winner Tim Anderson (Tokyo Stories, Hardie Grant, £26), he’s honest about having tried differing disciplinary tacts.

“I’ve had a go at being an angry chef and I’ve shouted people, and the fact is, it just doesn’t get results and it makes everyone miserable,” he says. “It’s bad for everybody; the employees, the customer – if the chef’s feeling scared or unmotivated because their boss is an a**hole, or because the people around them are not cooperative, they’re not going to produce good food.”

He’s all for really taking your time when hiring, and focusing on building up young chefs, rather than flattening them with pressure and abuse.

“When we hire people here [Anderson runs Japanese fusion restaurant Nanban in London], we get guys in who are punctual, they show up, they work hard. They may not be very good chefs, or even chefs at all, but if we take time to show them how we want things done, and they work hard and keep at it, then eventually they’ll get it.

“A lot of chefs, they’d rather be an a**hole and have great food,” he muses. “But I’m the opposite. I’d rather have the food be a little bit worse, knowing that everyone in the kitchen is being looked after and not being terrorised.”

© Press Association 2019