Why chefs no longer reign supreme in restaurant kitchens

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A photo taken in 2011 of American celebrity chef Mario Batali at one of his restaurants, Otto, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He left his restaurants after a series of sexual assault accusations in 2017.

NEW YORK • For decades, the chef has been cast as the star at the centre of the kitchen.

In the same way the auteur theory in film frames the director as the author of a movie’s creative vision, the chef has been considered entirely responsible for the restaurant’s success. Everyone else – line cooks, servers, dishwashers, even diners – is background, there to support that vision.

This way of thinking has informed the industry’s culture at every level. But the power of the chef-auteur as an idea is fading, and as restaurant workers organise and speak up about abusive workplaces, toxic bosses and inequities in pay and benefits, it is clear the restaurant industry has to change.

The elevation of the chef to front and centre is relatively new. Until about 40 years ago, chefs were considered unglamorous, trolls of the stove, hidden behind the kitchen’s swinging doors.

With a few exceptions, they were not thought of as artists or visionaries. They could not generally aspire to magazine covers or amass devoted, cult-like international followings. They did not get book deals, discuss their inspirations in interviews, star in documentaries or hire publicists to make horrific scandals disappear.

As chefs inched towards auteurship, they were finally recognised for gruelling, previously undervalued labour. They were also given more room to reimagine dishes and menus, to tinker with how restaurants worked and who they were for. They made restaurants an infinitely more exciting place to dine and work.

Kitchen Confidential, by the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, was also canon. Throughout his career, Bourdain called for attention and respect for immigrants, workers who were in the country illegally and the many underpaid, overlooked roles essential to a restaurant.

But he was also a celebrity who upheld a romantic ideal of a chef’s work as the kind of brutal, impossibly demanding, but ultimately meaningful work that exalted misfits, drawing them together with a sense of purpose – at least, for the duration of dinner service.

This complicated, shared understanding of restaurant kitchens was often used to justify the work, the hours and the unreasonable expectations in service of excellence and glory. It explained away the gross, systemic deficiencies of the business and normalised abusive work cultures.

As chefs built big restaurant businesses, often referred to as empires, they became powerful brands, capable of obscuring abuse, assault and discrimination. And if they continued to make money for investors, they often maintained their power – as in the case of Mario Batali.

Batali became one of the United States’ most high-profile chefs and restaurateurs, opening popular restaurants, hosting shows on ABC and the Food Network, publishing a series of popular cookbooks and playing a central role in Bill Buford’s vivid book Heat, published in 2007.

But in 2017, several women spoke up about Batali’s pattern of sexual harassment and assault. It was not until last year that he divested his shares in the Bastianich & Batali Hospitality Group and stopped profiting from the restaurants he had established.

In the same way, chef April Bloomfield severed her partnership with restaurateur Ken Friedman in 2018 after he was accused of sexual harassment. She conceded in an interview that she had not done enough to end the abuse.

The idea of a chef-auteur is tenacious and sly – it limits the narrative and it sustains itself.

Look at the homogeneity among major industry best-of lists from organisations such as the James Beard Foundation, Michelin and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

White male chefs who already fit neatly into the stereotype of the auteur are over-represented, praised for a highly specific approach to fine dining, then rewarded with more investment and opportunities to replicate that same approach.

So many alternative kinds of food businesses are never considered for awards or investments.

They do not fit into the chef-auteur framework, and in some cases have no desire to do so – community farms with food stalls, roving trucks or family restaurants where three different cooks take turns in the kitchen, depending on their childcare schedules.

The pandemic has exposed the fragility and inequity of the restaurant industry, disproportionately affecting black people, people of colour, restaurant workers and those who keep the food chain running in US factories and farms.

Bolstered by the power of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, workers are speaking up. The model for the industry, as it exists now, has to change.

Menus are collaborative, to some degree or another. Chefs lead that work, perhaps assigning tests, approving new dishes or tasting them, editing them and in most cases making the final decisions that shape the way the food comes to the table. But in some cases, dozens of other cooks could be involved in the process.

Restaurants are the work of teams, kitchens full of cooks and dishwashers coordinating with dining rooms full of servers, runners and bartenders.

Each role, each day, plays a part in a restaurant’s success.

NYTIMES

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