Restaurant kitchens serve up hostile working environments

By Iman Sheikh - Published on October 9, 2015
a busy restaurant kitchen
The pressure-cooker environment of restaurant kitchens often results in abusive work relationships. Fifth in a series on food and labour.

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Sophia Banks would not recommend working in a restaurant kitchen. To anyone. Ever.

“It’s one of the most toxic environments I’ve ever encountered,” she says. “I’ve worked as a cook on and off for 13 years and it’s just pure abuse.”

As a transgender woman, Banks should know. She lived as a man for ten of those years. She’s seen the work environment from both sides, and it isn’t pretty.

“Women were treated like shit,” she says. “It’s very much a bro culture, and if you can’t relate to the guys, you’re not in the club. This means you don’t get the good shifts, you don’t get the raises. Women often get stuck doing appetizers or toasting bread for brunch. There’s a lot of sexism even in terms of what people think women are capable of.”

This mindset has lasting effects on women who make restaurant work their careers: a 2014 Bloomberg study found that women hold just 6.3 per cent, or 10 out of 160 head chef positions, at 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups. Sexism in kitchens is a long-standing global phenomenon that only recently gained mainstream publicity in Toronto when pastry chef Kate Burnham’s sexual harassment case was made public. Burnham filed a human rights complaint this past June against three senior chefs at Weslodge in Toronto, alleging that she was called sexualized names, had pictures of male genitalia drawn on her work station and routinely had her breasts and crotch groped. The case was solved through mediation last month, although few details of the settlement were made public.

But it’s not, however, just women’s careers that suffer from testosterone-fuelled kitchens. Banks, who lived as a man for most of his career, understands Burnham’s complaints all too well. She found what she describes as “dude bro” behaviour in kitchens upsetting.

“The guys made misogynistic, racist jokes all day long. Often if it’s busy and you go through the dinner rush, guys will be like ‘Whoa, I just got raped on that rush.’ That’s such a horrible thing to say. No wonder women leave the industry.”

Kyla Zanardi, a partner at Toronto’s Fidel Gastro and Lisa Marie restaurants, says that patriarchy affects men in kitchens if they’re not the stereotypical male.

“There’s a certain type of masculinity that does well in a kitchen atmosphere,” she says. “Understanding sexism is a very complex thing.”

The Weslodge case did help raise awareness of the issues hidden behind the doors of many restaurant kitchens. It prompted restauranteur Jen Agg, owner of Toronto’s Black Hoof and Rhum Corner, to organize “Kitchen Bitches,” a high-profile conference with the tagline “Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time” last month. But while kitchen abuse awareness is increasing, any change is incremental, according to Toronto lawyer Gillian Hnatiw, a partner at Lerners LLP.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that changes overnight because it’s embedded in the individuals who still work in those kitchens,” explains Hnatiw, who specializes in claims arising from abuse, harassment and assault, “and it’s not until they face some sort of consequence of their action that they are motivated to change.”

There are other reasons why the culture lives on. For one thing, Zanardi says, there is generally a growing kitchen staffing shortage in Toronto—and there’s a lot more men available than women.

“We have a lot more male applicants applying for jobs,” she notes. “It’s mind boggling to me. How do we get more females in the kitchen?”

Another contributing factor is that most kitchen workers aren’t even aware of their rights. Sometimes, says Hnatiw, little bit of information about worker’s rights can give someone enough confidence to change his or her circumstances. According to Hnatiw, even a pattern of conduct involving belittling and intimidation is enough to go on.

“I think people are really surprised that you can sue for sexual harassment or sexual assault,” she explains, “and sometimes there’s a weird stigma around seeking compensation.”

Sexism and harassment is just one reason kitchen culture is toxic, says Banks, who often didn’t get time to eat lunch or go to the bathroom while working a shift. And God forbid she should fall sick.

“Say you have the flu and you’re puking,” she explains. “You’re not allowed to call in sick. You’d be fired. There’s so much pressure to work through it.”

Even though the Ministry of Labour employment standards state that an employee must not work for more than five hours in a row without getting a 30-minute eating period (meal break) free from work, this almost never happens in busy restaurants, Banks says. Neither does the Ministry’s rule that a worker gets 24 consecutive hours off work in each work week. The worst part, according to Banks, is that she isn’t even properly compensated for it.

“I have 13 years of experience as a cook and I make the exact same wage I made when I was 18,” she says. “Now I’m 35. They’ll always find someone willing to do it for $11 an hour.”

Adding to the problem of toxic kitchen culture is that the intensity of a high-pressure job with long hours often leads to ‘letting loose’ in the form of excessive alcohol consumption and drug abuse. Well chronicled in many books and reports, it’s seen as par for the course in the restaurant industry, and some chefs, such as Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations fame talk openly about their struggles with heroin addiction, cocaine dependence and binge drinking.

Isabel Sanchez, formerly a chef at Buca Yorkville restaurant in Toronto where she said kitchen staff was 50/50 on gender, and now manager of Zanardi’s Lisa Marie, agrees that binge drinking is systemic of the industry as well.

“A lot of people drink,” she says. “You’re standing for 17.5 hours at a time, at the end of the day that’s what people do to decompress. It definitely gets to extremes and I don’t think it’s healthy.”

This aspect of kitchen life is often glamourized by high-profile chefs such as Bourdain, who once famously declared on his show ‘"Unlicensed hooch from a stranger in a parking lot. Good idea? Yes, of course it is."

Banks, who couldn’t find steady kitchen work in Toronto after coming out as transgender, moved to Montreal last month. She found the discrimination at work getting worse, and because of decreased shifts she could no longer afford her rent.

The answer, according to Zanardi, is that managers need to step up and have the uncomfortable conversations with employees.

“When the Weslodge article came out, we had some interesting conversations with our staff about how it made them feel,” she says. “I wish there was an inclusivity training that kitchens could have access to. There’s nothing out there for the restaurant industry. At the end of the day, I don’t want my staff to go into another kitchen and be misogynistic and patriarchal. I would rather be the person to have that conversation with them.”

Who grows, sells and cooks your meals, and how can their jobs be made better? Each day this week, TVO.org explores an issue on the intersection of food and labour in Ontario.

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