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.