Columns: The macho mindset in kitchens goes beyond sexism

The double-edged knife: The macho mindset in kitchens goes beyond sexism

Aki Guomundsdóttir // Columnist

It’s quite hard to refute the often-heard claim that kitchens are pretty sexist work environments. But I’ve worked for enough female head chefs to realize that old-fashioned gender discrimination is just one ugly offshoot of a multi-headed beast.

What do you call it when a male head chef is abusive towards male subordinates, or a female head chef is abusive towards her female subordinates? What do you call a pervasive discrimination towards vegetarian and vegan cooks in meat-heavy kitchens, or more widely, discrimination based on lifestyle choices? What about the unspoken rule not to hire short and overweight people because kitchens are narrow and vertical storage goes pretty high? Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a catchall term that we can start picketing against. But I fear the root of these problems is a delusion that must be killed.

Admitting human emotions such as exhaustion, frustration, doubt, hunger, thirst, or longing for a vacation should not be tantamount to career stagnation or suicide, but in professional kitchens, they are. There is nothing inherently exclusive to kitchens that make it impossible to apply a regular 40-hour work week to all staff, or to treat people with respect, or to allow meal breaks, sick days, vacations. The only thing exclusive to kitchens is the delusion that your life is simply destined to be way, way harder than everyone else’s. Because you are tough.

Until this past summer, I had a senior non-management position at a very busy, popular restaurant. The head chef was a truly tragic case: a textbook example of an abusive alcoholic with no innate or acquired leadership skills, very poor mental and physical health and very little to show in terms of culinary skills, talent, or business and management acumen. Unable to earn respect, she resorted to the destructive method of constantly demanding it: a daily, hourly, non-stop aggressive nagging and hopeless scapegoating of staff for her faults in maintaining a painfully inef cient work ow. A guarantee to drive staff away, which happened so frequently that the owners’ failure to notice the problem and act on it was terrifying to me.

A few of my co-workers believed she only behaved like that because that is how she was treated her entire professional life. Talked down to, harassed, ridiculed, told that a woman doesn’t belong in the kitchen. Of course, women belong in the kitchen if they wish to belong, and like any other job, they deserve equal opportunities to succeed based on merit.

But she had gotten a head chef position for reasons other than merit: maybe sheer perseverance, luck, or shortage of options. That much was clear to everyone. I wasn’t willing to accept either that any past abuse she might have suffered should serve as a justification for her behaviour.

So, I felt compelled to be vocal to everyone that, irrespective of her gender, she was by far the worst head chef I’d ever worked for. I was as objective as I could be, fearing that management and front of house staff may mistake my sharp criticisms as sexism, and might belittle the cooks’ unanimous complaints. It’s a kitchen, after all. Abuse is the norm, we should all bend over and just accept it.

Most of the staff was on board, and I decided to stand up to every single instance of her bullshit. I didn’t fear getting red, and I didn’t want her red. I wanted her to acknowledge her need to change and seek medical attention: stop fucking up the orders, stop tightening the schedule, stop blaming new cooks for how poorly you trained them, stop showing up late every morning with alcohol on your breath… baby steps.

If I needed time off, say, for non- emergency reasons such as going on a honeymoon, or spending time with my ageing parents who I see every four or so years, I’d be either ridiculed and belittled or be expected to “repay the favour later on.” Each time, I explained why I was claiming time off, rather than requesting it and awaiting approval. It drove her crazy.

Obviously, to those deep in the self-destructive toughness mindset, I should live my life in their footsteps: alone, miserable, burnt out, malnourished, aggressive, constantly drugged and with nothing but gin and Netflix to soothe my sorrows at the end of the night. I’d get up in the morning, consume enough caffeine, sugar and cocaine to wake up Daenarys’ dragon back from the dead, and get on with the downward spiral to hell, bringing along whomever I can sweep up along the way. Because I am tough, right?

I tried for months, my horns always out, ready for battle and no results came from it. It started to affect my personal health, so for the first time in my career, I walked out of a job without notice and I had to draw a line in the sand: I will not anymore, under any circumstance, adapt to or connive with abusive behaviour at work. Nor I will put that much effort into someone else’s massive health issue that only the best doctors can attempt to cure.

You see, for a while, I actively looked for work for female head chefs because I was certain they’d be less overbearing than most male head chefs with their pride and arrogance and their heads all the way up their asses. If you have heard rumours that most female head chefs are pretty “butch”, I’d counter that though that seems to be generally true, that “butchness” is probably more of a workplace personality, a Darwinian adaptive trait to a macho environment, rather than a previously held trait that they brought into their professional lives.

This happens to pretty much everyone: however meek your personality may have been before you entered a professional kitchen, soon you start inserting swear words in every sentence, sometimes racial slurs become accepted by all as harmless quips, and a general “bro” attitude comes over you.

At times you look in the mirror surprised that you’re not a wearing a baseball cap and drinking 12-packs of warm Budweiser out of the back of your rusty pickup truck. Head chefs with decades in the business usually behave like full-blown grab-’em-by-the-pussy rednecks, and if the industry suffers from the stigma of widespread sexism, they’re hugely at fault, because their raunchy talk and put-on macho “charisma” has made kitchens basically inhospitable to women, who are still in the minority.

But as I’ve tried to point out, it’s worse than only sexism. All types of discrimination are facilitated when your job demands you to appear tough at all times and not show fear, concern, or anger at co-workers or people in charge.

Hard work does not need to be – should not be – self-destructive. For as the long as this culture of self-harm for the sake of hollow “toughness” continues, you cannot hope the abuse issue in kitchens to go away. These issues – sexism, substance abuse, mental illness – all go together because they are a forcible denial of our natural human tendencies and vulnerabilities.

We are not tough. We are just human. That’s the slogan kitchens really need.

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