Why it’s time to end the cult of the angry chef

Gordon Ramsay in Hell's Kitchen.

Gordon Ramsay in Hell's Kitchen. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Rene Redzepi knows that in restaurants, as in life, it can be difficult to keep your cool. Last year, the fabled Danish chef, whose way with foraged ingredients has sent a generation of young foodies scrambling for produce on forest floors and windswept beaches, admitted to lashing out at a female employee, who he refers to as "a girl from Columbia" in a piece for the cult food magazine Lucky Peach.

"One night, we had some big-time guests in the restaurant – journalists from somewhere I can't recall," recalls Redzepi, who booked out the recent Sydney outpost of his Michelin-starred restaurant NOMA in four minutes flat. "I had given her directions and she had said, 'Yes, Chef,' and then when it was time to do her task, she didn't do what she was told. I went completely crazy. I pulled her out of service, and I screamed at her: 'What the f---k are you doing? Go home. It was a really bad moment."

Although Redzepi goes on to atone for his actions, it's hardly as if dealing with fallout from a "bad moment" is a public relations disaster if you're a famous chef. From Marco Pierre White, the British culinary legend known to resolve arguments with his cooks by hurling fully-loaded cheeseboards, to well-known tyrant Gordon Ramsay (who may as well be the namesake for his show Kitchen Nightmare) to David Chang, who became as famous for blacking out with rage during service as he is for his pillow-soft Momofuku pork belly buns, the ability to induce terror is as much a part of the celebrity chef's arsenal as a knack for dreaming up dishes that go on to define the way we eat.

And as chefs, who were once anonymous beyond rarefied circles in London, New York or Paris, have fast become the new rock stars (complete with sell-out tours and reality TV empires) we view broken plates and spectacular tantrums through the same lens as trashed hotel rooms or post-gig bar fights – they're simply the hazards of extreme pressure, a confirmation that greatness comes at a price.


"By turning chefs into entertainers – whether performing onscreen or via the impeccable platings in their restaurants – we have widened the breach between ourselves and the once ordinary task of cooking," wrote Lisa Abend in a still-relevant 2010 Time article. Under this system, a cloud-like cheese souffle, flawless steak or a plate of fried chicken and caviar aren't just dishes; they're the product of talent and dedication so pervasive and all-consuming as to fly in the face of basic human conduct.

Give me a creative industry and I'll give you a self-styled genius with a carefully dented bad boy persona but I'm less worried by the relationship between creativity and morality – whose murky depths the world is wising up to – than a culture that reads a certain volatile eccentricity as the marker of a talented man. From Picasso, whose cruelty drove his wife, Dora Maar, to breakdown to Charles Bukowski, whose violent brawls got him regularly evicted to David Fincher, who tried to make Jake Gyllenhall cry to cure his earnestness while filming Zodiac, we're not indifferent to borderline abusive behaviour. We're just in thrall to a narrative that casts borderline abusive behaviour as part of the process by which Great Men make art – whether or not or not that art results in a Cubist masterpiece, poetry to delight a faux-intellectual dude-bro or a gastronomic marvel doesn't matter when the end always justifies the means.

In November 2015, Jen Agg, a talented Toronto restaurateur whose own penchant for cockiness and aggression hasn't added up to the fame enjoyed by her male counterparts (she's been branded a "sociopath" and a "lunatic" by the sages over at Reddit) wrote a New York Times editorial warning against a culture ruled by men who are brilliant and brutal and a "kitchen machismo" in which women often pay a price.

"Slapping with tongs, snapping bras, relentless grabbing – women chefs learn quickly to crouch, never bend over, when picking up a pot," she writes. "One woman I know, who worked as a cook at a well-known restaurant group with an outpost in Toronto, told me horror stories of a chef who'd do things like put her staff meal in a metal bowl on the floor of the kitchen because 'that's where the dogs eat'."

For too long, we've treated brilliance and brutality as inextricable, a necessary prelude to greatness rather than a pairing that's rotten at its core. The ability to induce terror isn't a marker of talent because tyranny can never achieve anything great.