When we idolise angry men

Date

Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

<i></i>

Bronte listened to the sounds of her own frightened breathing as she quickly ascended the stairwell leading up from the freezer room.  In the doorway a shadowy figure waited for her, knife glinting in his right hand.

‘I think you forgot something’ he whispered, leading her into the kitchen.

‘The ice-cream?’ she asked, her voice weak and strangled. ‘Someone turned the power off and now it’s all melted. It’s, it’s not my fault.’

‘If it’s not your fault then whose is it?’ he barked, ’mine?’

With that Bronte was flung against a wall. Slamming the knife down, he turned to her counter and upturned all of the mains one by one, swirling and flicking the ingredients with his knuckley fingers. 

‘You have made a mess, so now you will work in a mess’ he roared. ‘Do not touch this all night’.

This is not an excerpt from a horror film. No-one dies in the end. Bronte is a real life chef, a partner in fact at one of Sydney’s top restaurants. This happened to her when she was working as a sous chef in another of Sydney’s hatted restaurants. ‘It wasn’t that bad’ Bronte tells me. And she’s partly right. Anthony, a young sous chef, was once locked in the freezer room by an angry chef at one of Sydney’s top restaurants. John got used to being slapped in the face every time he made a mistake.  Marco worked in a restaurant where being late meant being thrown in the wash tub and whipped with wet tea-towels by colleagues. Kitchen-hand Jim had his pony tail set on fire for being slow.

Isn’t it extraordinary that such scenes of violence and tyranny are taking place while we clink wine glasses and murmur our appreciation of the tarragon and basil infused tarte au citron? In a setting that has become the very definition of modern refinement, nightmarish scenes of brutality are unravelling that could be taken directly from Dickensian London. What is wrong with our restaurant industry that it could create such intolerable, not to mention illegal, workplace conditions? And does our idolisation of chefs who proudly prefer their meals served with lashings of bile mean that we are complicit in this culture?

Most of us are blissfully ignorant of the precise nature of bullying in professional kitchens, although expletive-hurling troll dolls like Gordon Ramsay have made us well acquainted with the angry chef. And while sadism at point blank range has always made for thrilling television viewing, we have also collectively wondered what motivates this kind of behaviour.

Some say that it is simply because professional kitchens are pressure cookers: preparing elaborate meals for at least 40 people per night in a confined space at record speed is not going to be easy. On top of that you work on your feet for around 12 hours per day for minimal pay. Chuck in some booze, drugs and inflated egos and voila! You have yourself a dyspeptic culinary dictator.

But kitchens aren’t the only high stress workplaces. Nurses seem to manage without setting fire to each other’s hair and they’re dealing with life and death, not just kim chee. Perhaps it’s the need to work quickly in a group then?  Bullying is often a feature of hierarchical group structures as it teaches people to willingly submit to authority, ensuring that orders will be followed without question. Hazing rituals in the army are a perfect example. But while the army is (finally) promising reform after significant public outcry, no-one is demanding that restaurants change their culture of violence. In fact, quite the opposite. We love it!

It’s time to accept that the angry chef is in part our own creation. We may not have given birth to this Frankenstein's monster but we certainly nourished him when we elevated cooking to the status of high art. At this moment, the chef’s testosterone-fuelled temper tantrums become evidence of passion.  Far from being tyrannical overlords they are slaves to their art. Why? Because in the realm of high art we allow antisocial behaviour. The genius is always a well-loved sociopath.

What’s more, the genius is very rarely a woman. The distinction between a professional kitchen and a home kitchen is like the distinction between art and craft. The former is a labour of creative brilliance: masculine and handsomely paid if successful. The latter is a labour of love: feminine and unpaid.

On a national level, locating cooks alongside great artists also means that you are taking an activity traditionally associated with women and domesticity and placing it in the national hall of fame. For Australians this is no easy task. Our heroes have always been wild colonial boys roving across a desert frontier untrammelled by family. Becoming a proud nation of foochebags requires taking the nation out of the outback and into the kitchen. Foodie culture risks effeminising the nation. But by depicting chefs as muscular, powerful bad boys who would be out bending trees if they weren’t curdling ricotta we make this cultural transition much smoother.

In short, celebrating angry chefs means that we can stay rugged, masculine and exceptionally talented while twittering over the trifle.  We can have our spiced pear cake and eat it too.

16 comments

  • Angry chefs have been around since time began. It's not a new thing and it's certainly nothing "we" have created. For every Gordon Ramsay (Who i believe is universally hated) there is a Michel Roux Junior or a Jamie Oliver.

    In fact the only really angry chef's on TV are Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. 2 out of dozens of nice chefs who i could mention.

    Commenter
    Yeah Yeah Yeah
    Date and time
    December 05, 2012, 8:48AM
    • We simply love people who don't take any bull, set high standards and bring out the skills necessary in others to achieve high quality results. By not taking their bull, he teaches them them to not accept their own internal bull, that they have gotten used to hearing and instead only accept high standards of themselves.

      That's fundamentally all Ramsay does. With most people, no other technique of cajoling, smooth words of encouragement or whatever would produce such results.

      At the end of the day, all of these people are volunteers - no-one is literally holding a knife to their throat (unless they are, in which case they need to go to jail and/or an asylum).

      If they can't stand the heat, well you know what they say.

      Commenter
      Christian
      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 9:05AM
      • Nice one! Found this the other day, the jobs that are most likely to have psychopaths working in them. Chef is number 9!
        http://www.news.com.au/business/worklife/the-ten-jobs-that-attract-psychopaths-and-why/story-e6frfm9r-1226512127799

        Commenter
        Heisenberg
        Location
        thisaggression.wordpress.com
        Date and time
        December 05, 2012, 9:08AM
        • It's a high pressure job and tensions are elevated. That being said GR performs for the camera and that is not the norm as a rule. Plenty a harsh word will be spoken in most kitchens but the in-your-face stuff is not common.

          Commenter
          Mike basil
          Location
          Hobart
          Date and time
          December 05, 2012, 10:08AM
          • I would be absolutely gobsmacked if there wasn't already legislation in place to cover all of the bullying above. Why isn't this being used by those being bullied?

            Commenter
            Hurrow
            Date and time
            December 05, 2012, 10:17AM
            • I really challenge people (including the author of this article, who I'm guessing has not worked in a commercial kitchen) who have never worked in a commercial kitchen, to take time out and work in one to see if there is such a thing as zen-like calm.
              There isn't and there will never be.
              When the pressure is so high, and even higher now thanks to shows like Master Chef and viewers who think they are gastronomes, it only adds to the existing pressure. It is inevitable for a chef to be irate and it's also inevitable for other chefs to be the same way.
              Your article is slanted toward a female-male dynamic, but I'm betting that even the female chef in your story would have experienced pressure and anger as well. Everyone who works in a commercial kitchen experiences it and if they say they don't, they're either lying or their restaurant is about to close down due to the lack of service.
              I've worked in commercial kitchens for a year total. Couldn't handle the pressure or the angry chefs and kitchenhands as well. As they say, and someone mentioned: if people can't stand the heat...

              Commenter
              AM
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              December 05, 2012, 10:41AM
              • I worked my first ten years out of school in hospitality, a lot of that in restaurants as a 'plate monkey', as the chefs used to call me. When you're in the thick of service, and the kitchen is either not well prepared for the usual rush or the system in place does not plan its arrivals and order taking properly (or usually both), then the chaos begins around 8.00 pm and goes on until the last orders are out. Tension, stress, frustration, leads to abuse, threats,tantrums in the kitchen. nevertheless, this is not acceptable behaviour and does nothing to get through the bottleneck.

                On the other hand, I have worked in a restaurant of fine quality where the two chefs (women, I might add) would quietly communicate with each other, snap occasionally, but never yell and abuse each other of the staff, and always get through the most stressful of situations.

                Whilst it's all a bit of a laugh after service when you share a few drinks after the last customer has left, abuse is not tolerable.It is a sign of lack of foresight and preparation, a poor business plan and execution, and belongs in the world of petulant narcissists.

                Having said that, these days table waiting is now much more of a professional trade than ever and that, of itself, warrants a respect from everybody, including the master chef of the house..

                Commenter
                Dan
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                December 05, 2012, 12:44PM
                • There are a few out there like that, but they are an exception rather than the rule now . During my days in Kitchens, I worked with 5 head chefs and there was only one of those that was a bit of a tyrant. He didn't last long, I think that the trend towards open kitchens have meant that the industry has evolved and there are only a few dinosaurs left. While yes, a kitchen can be a high pressure, high stress environment, there is no excuse for people like Ramsey

                  Commenter
                  p
                  Location
                  Melbourne
                  Date and time
                  December 05, 2012, 1:08PM
                  • as a woman who has worked in hospitality for over ten years, both in the kitchen and on the floor, i feel something definitely has to change - this kind of culture really needs to stop being tolerated.
                    early in my own career i was frequently the subject of abuse and bullying, both verbal and physical. as a young dishwasher i regularly had hot fry-pans thrown literally at me, and was hit more than once. being berated by angry, self important chefs was a regular part of the day, regardless of whether or not i was at fault. i've seen chefs high-five each other for making waitresses cry (in more than one kitchen i've worked in this was considered sport), and seen an apprentice struck for being late.
                    the trouble with this type of behaviour is that it is counter-productive. i have been privileged in recent years to work in a restaurant where the kitchen culture is centered on professionalism and focus, thanks to the owners' refusal to tolerate aggression, and things run so much more smoothly in this environment. the absence of aggressive outbursts saves time and allows for a level of focus that is impossible amid the chaos generated by angry ego-maniacs. also, when waitresses aren't fighting back tears they are far less likely to stuff up taking the orders.
                    as the article mentions, there are countless other high-pressure professions where aggression of the nature exhibited by some chefs would never be tolerated, and rightly so. australia's kitchen culture needs to grow up, and rather than being lauded, kitchen tyrants should been recognized as the dysfunctional, melodramatic babies that they are.

                    Commenter
                    rouxtheday
                    Location
                    melbourne
                    Date and time
                    December 05, 2012, 1:12PM
                    • Chefs being angry, stressed and abusive to staff is common and an accepted part of the industry.
                      It has been this way forever, and has exactly nothing to do with reality television.
                      Not a thing. Way before reality TV chefs like Ramsay, there were aggressive, foul mouthed, abusive head chefs running kitchens around the country.

                      Commenter
                      Jon
                      Date and time
                      December 05, 2012, 2:23PM

                      More comments

                      Comments are now closed