Three years ago I had aspirations to work my way up to the top of a career as a chef. However, right from my time at the first restaurant I worked at, I experienced growing feelings of frustration and doubt which built up around the work environment I was investing my time in.
It’s not the physically exhausting work involved, or the hours, or even the stress. Sharp knives, hot oil, heavy trays and searing-hot steam combine with prolonged periods of intense psychological pressure from the demands of both orders and food preparation. After a period of time, all of these things become second nature to you. Your body develops a physical resilience you didn’t know you had. You get an addictive high, knowing you have worked in a team; and that under all this intensity and organized chaos, you have produced a perfect dish that appears effortlessly at the front of house.
It is a tough industry. So what’s the problem? Of course there are high and low points, like anything in life. But where do you draw the line when the balance is tipped for too long?
The frustration came not from the work, but from experiencing repetitive instances of harassment directed towards myself and other members of female staff, both in back and front of house. It’s fair enough to have a joke to liven the atmosphere – there is a lot of stress involved in this industry and people need to let off steam to be able to cope. But when it comes down to persistent threatening and dominant behaviours specifically directed towards your gender, it is a serious issue. This highlights an underlying concern: why is something like this this so casually accepted in hospitality on a daily basis, when it would be grounds for harassment charges in other lines of work?
Julia, a 24-year old chef who previously worked in Glasgow and is now a full-time commis-chef in Belfast, offered her perspective. She felt that the hospitality industry can be a good field to work in, although it does have a darker side. In previous restaurants, Julia frequently experienced unwanted advances from male chefs, including physical grabbing and expletives. She wanted to keep her job and so says that she had to adapt her mental attitude towards the situation, learning to be wary and cautious of others’ intentions. She observed that in front of house, waitresses were chosen by managers on account of their physical appearance and presumed “viability” to be flirted with. Overall, she felt that managers were not approachable but in fact contributed to the problems she observed.
Following up on Julia’s experiences I had a short interview Rachna Dheer, owner and chef at Babu Bombay Street Kitchen in Glasgow, a business she has ran for five years now. Rachna noted that while you do have to prove yourself in a kitchen, this is due to the demands of the role rather than necessarily being female. The fact that sexism occurs in kitchens is not so much down to working in a kitchen specifically, but from the fact that these attitudes plainly still occur in society. A notable point she brought up was that the way in which chefs towards each other were learned behaviours passed down from head chef to his trainee.
A cyclical pattern of both dominant and passive-aggressive negative behaviour can occur which, in the process of progressing a career, becomes regarded as a signature of authority; not always of skill but of social standing within the work environment. The higher the position you have, the less shit you take from other people and the more you can give (and people are willing to take). In behaving in such a way, aggressive authority is reinforced on a daily basis.
It is important to note this does not universally apply to all kitchens, people, or places of hospitality – there are always exceptions to the rule and there are plenty of dedicated and decent people working in the industry in all levels. But it does highlight an underlying status quo of machismo mentality that can occur behind the scenes. It’s tough, so you have to be tough. This affects everyone in a hospitality environment; and sexism in this sense affects both men and women alike.
The truth is that there is no easy answer, perhaps not even a foreseeable solution. Each question seems to reveal another issue that people shy away from. For now though, think of sexism as a dirty tissue making its way round the hospitality system like a bit of paper stuck in the washing machine. It maintains a permanent equilibrium, reinforced by a misogynistic authority and quietly noticed by those who come into contact with it. It leaves traces here and there: people notice it but can’t quite define the source because it has become so dispersed. We are left only to pick up after the constant debris and wondering how it happened to be there in the first place.