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If you cant stand abuse get out of the kitchen

01 Feb 2001

If you think the enfants terribles of the world of haute cuisine treat their customers badly, spare a thought for the people who have to work for them, says Cassandra Stout

Next time you are taken to lunch on the expense account by your chief executive to one of the swankier restaurants in town, spare a thought for a moment for the chef that created that mouth-watering platter before you. While those able to vote with their purses for free-range poussin rather than the oppressed battery variety consider the fowls miserable life, how often do they remember the person who prepared the bird? Long shifts, few breaks, physically hard work, low pay, hot temperatures, dangerous equipment, a difficult environment, little space and poor facilities are the usual lot of the chef.



And to crown it all there is the tension tension that at times spills over into verbal and physical abuse, from those enfants terribles of the world of haute cuisine, exposed in recent years by television documentaries such as Boiling Point, Beyond Boiling Point and Britains Worst Bosses.


But the bad boy image appears not to harm a restaurants reputation. Joe Public, or at least Joe Gourmet, appears to like obnoxious restaurateurs who throw out food critics, are snotty-nosed about letting you book a table, cook your steak rare whether you like it that way or not and generally behave as though they are in no way affiliated to the service industry. We indulge their pop-star-like petty moods and pouty sulks, believing perhaps they lend colour to an otherwise mundane existence.


It was Nico Ladenis who started the trend of ejecting customers but it is Marco Pierre White, whose louche, Mafia don poses in wide-lapelled pinstripes appeared in The Sunday Telegraph before Christmas, who has developed a real taste for playing the bouncer, boasting of throwing out as many as 54 in one night.


But if you think they treat their customers badly, believe me, its just the tip of the iceberg. Having worked his way through the kitchens of Raymond Blanc, Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann and Albert Roux, White opened his first restaurant, Harveys, in Wandsworth, in 1987 at the age of 25. Those commis chefs who couldnt cut the mustard or stand the heat of Whites regime in the kitchen were promptly dubbed useless cunts by the maestro.


Co-owner of 12 restaurants, he has mind-blowingly stupid ideas about women. For a woman to compete in the kitchen she has to become a man, to be able to do the hours, scrub the floors, take the bollockings like men. Take the bollockings, one assumes, is his euphemism for abuse. So says the man who has denied being a bully, despite television testimony to the contrary on a Channel Four documentary by MPW staff who talked anonymously (with faces obscured) about his assaults on them. Yet last year he was voted chef of the decade by fellow chefs.


It is the self-perpetuating cycle of abuse that becomes obvious when chefs talk. White recalls his first job: I used to get shouted at, screamed at, abused, it was part of that world that mercifully he has escaped, unlike the majority of his colleagues.


Born on a Leeds council estate, White is now his own best publicist, the first British chef to receive three Michelin stars. He created waves by suing The New York Times for suggesting he had had a well-publicised bout with drugs and alcohol last year, and had a dispute with his former collaborator at Quo Vadis, Damien Hirst. He was involved in yet another argument with the Atlantics owner, Oliver Peyton, who claimed Whites Titanic Bar was a copy of his restaurant. After winning his stars and confessing to forgetting whole patches of his life due to stress and exhaustion he has retired from the kitchen and is now worth around 35 million. He is a mellow, wealthy man.


But his former pupil, Gordon Ramsay, while rich, is far from mellow. Star of his own television series, Boiling Point, he became a talking point for his on-screen abuse of staff and famous for his staff development techniques. Are your brains in your fucking arse, fatso? was one of many gems he will be remembered for. So popular were his vitriolic outpourings that a second series was commissioned last year, Beyond Boiling Point. One of its highlights is Gordon cursing everyone when he fails to get his third Michelin star, allegedly because the assessors frowned on his style of people management.


Any chef whos striving for perfection would be a hypocrite if he says hes never lost his temper, says Ramsay. In a kitchen you dont get this far by pussy-footing around. Its the same everywhere. I used to get a boot up the arse, you just get on with it.


Ramsay started life on a Glasgow council estate and almost made it as a footballer. He played for Glasgow Rangers but was kicked out. He ran Aubergine restaurant, but brawled on the street and fell out with his backers. He has ejected the critic, A A Gill, from his restaurant and echoes his teachers Neanderthal views on women.


It doesnt do much for a womans sex life if she spends all day with her hand stuck up a pigeons arse, he has said. Listen, sweetheart, kitchens are ferocious, chauvinistic places. Cooking is anger, pain, sex, drugs and rocknroll. And if people dont want to do it they should fuck off out of it. Ramsay has also proclaimed that women should be kept out of kitchens because of morning sickness and PMT.


Lorraine Ferguson, who has chefed at the infamous LEscargot, believes that Ramsay epitomises the sexist catering trade. A lot of women have been held back in the industry because of attitudes like Ramsays. Gordon is the one permanently suffering PMT. He claims he simply doesnt want his chauvinist banter with his boys upset.


Claire Macdonald, owner of the Kinloch Lodge Hotel, Skye, dismisses his comments as pathetic. Poor man, calling women emotional is like the pot calling the kettle black. But such comments do not prevent the likes of White and Ramsay from not employing women.


But is this machismo in any way necessary to prepare a good meal? Ian McKerracher, chief executive of the Restaurant Association, thinks not. Kitchens are very stressful places. The combination of a hot environment, dangerous equipment, lots of pressure, high standards and a short time frame combine to make chefs behave in ways that those working in an office would find unacceptable, he says. In London very few buildings are designed to be kitchens, so that often basements with cramped conditions are used, he adds. There are good and bad operators and obviously both are copied by those who work with them.


Intense creativity and big egos dont necessarily produce people with the best human qualities. But every human being has a right to respect. You have to make your choice often the enfants terribles are the ones that commis chefs are queuing up to work for. Bad operators ought not to do well, but this is not always the case. Customers have the right to choose where they eat also. It is certainly a fallacy that a bad atmosphere is necessary to produce good food. There are just some trades that are more difficult than others stockbroking or working on an oil rig for example. I can imagine the air is a bit thick in those professions.


McKerracher believes the restaurant business has become bigger, better and more professional over the last decade. Business acumen and people management are becoming more important than ever before.


It would appear that chefs of the Ramsay model disagree. He has been advised by his PR advisers that if he really wants his third Michelin star some personal image remodelling is due. But if the hard nut is trying to improve his people skills, there is little documentary evidence. For the cameras he continues to throw tantrums and plates.


Chefs who say running a kitchen can be done in a gentle manner are homosexuals who run hairdressing salons or they stack shelves at Sainsburys. I just want to cook and speak my mind...You need a big pair of bollocks to get on in the trade.


In the most recent series, Beyond Boiling Point, the prima donna antics can be witnessed first-hand. Ramsay puts his staff through ritual humiliations with his unstoppable grilling. He picks on one poor lad or other with such a choice selection of vituperation that at times you get the impression he puts more energy into the lambasts than into the meals he is preparing. His chefs all duly answer Yes, Gordon to every insult no matter how outrageous, in the style of a new army recruit in fear of his life.


Cuts of the boys attending a stag night in Monte Carlo and ogling blonde bimbos (whom Ramsay also derides) may give clues as to why the boys put up with such serial abuse from their maestro. In interviews with staff, where they show off their oven burns with machismo pleasure, they admit Ramsay is tough to work with, but remain circumspect in their answers.


Members of the industry prepared to speak openly of the culture are rare. In part this is because their jobs depend on remaining quiet, and in part their self-respect does also. An unpleasant relationship between abuser and abused often develops where the abuseds perception is distorted to make them feel party to the abuse. After all, the voice of reason asks, why dont they just get a new job or career? But suppose the abuser is right and the abused is substandard, weak and a victim perhaps they deserve it? There is tolerance of humiliation in order to attain professional perfection. Few souls are brave enough to buck the system.


Dominic Roux-Salembien, who now teaches at Sydneys Ryde College of TAFE, was one of the few who spoke out and then emigrated to Australia to escape the backlash. He served his apprenticeship in a top restaurant in Bordeaux almost two decades ago. At the age of 16 he was beaten by the head chef and a huge wooden paddle was broken over his shoulder that almost broke his collarbone. I went public. I stood up for my rights. My parents backed me. The case went to court and the employer lost but I was told I would never work in the region again. So Roux-Salembien left France in 1986.


Abuse is common, says Roux-Salembien. In 10 years of teaching chefs he has come across hundreds of students who tell him their stories as apprentices. It is about humiliation, of being at the bottom of the end and not having any voice at all, not even being considered or being treated with disrespect. And females are still having a very hard time in the industry. Brutality is inherent in the kitchen to a point. When you think about it, its a unique environment of constant danger extreme heat, boiling oil, slippery floors, sharp knives, naked flames and hot stoves.


But he believes it is the brigade system, the hierarchy of power in the kitchen, that is to blame. Kitchen culture is entrenched in the Middle Ages a pyramid structure with apprentices at the bottom, rising to commis, to chef de partis, then to sous and chef.


Add megalomaniac egos to this recipe for victimisation and it is not too hard to imagine the result. Kitchens are dominated by those who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. White and Ramsay like nothing better than to reminisce about their childhood hardships, except to boast about how they have made it now. I have created a world in which I feel comfortable. I have made myself prime minister of my own world, says White. He believes in staff loyalty of a rather specific nature, They must give loyalty not breed loyalty. Those who breed loyalty demand it for themselves and will end up betraying you.


Apparently he has shared this intelligence with Lady Thatcher she was impressed with its perspicacity.


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