On the Ethical Treatment of Cooks

Sometimes this happens to you:

-You're on the fish station. The night has been a mess. Last night you stayed out with that cute hostess, drinking rum (which you don't even like) and smoking camel lights. (which you really, really don't like.) This morning you woke up and tried to drink a cup off coffee, but just threw up instead. When you stumble into work, you find out that a dishwasher and the grill guy called out sick--they were at the bar with you the night before. The chef has called in 'b-teamers' to cover. Meat came in late, so you get to butcher two rib-eyes and twenty dollar a pound snapper--both of which you get a poor yield on. Service starts, and you realize you didn't cut enough shallots. Around nine, you 86 snapper--but not before you burned seven portions. Your chef looks at your sweaty face, cracked lips, and stained jacket, and screams at you like he has never screamed before. The kitchen goes silent, and you take your beating.


-You're on the fish station. You've been killing it all night. Last night you stayed late and scrubbed any carbon off your fish pans, then went home and read McGee's chapter on fish. Waking up in the morning, you had your coffee, flipped through A Passion For Seafood, then headed to work. The 'a-team' is in full effect--a group so tight that obscure hand gestures and mono-syllabic grunts are enough to communicate through the entire night. The group finishes prep early, makes family meal, and begins service. The snapper special has been so popular, and so perfectly cooked and plated, that around nine you only have three portions left. Your chef walks down to your immaculate station, and screams at you like he has never screamed before. The kitchen goes silent, and you take your beating.

Every menu around nowadays has some line about how they use sustainable and humanely raised produce/meats and seafood. So why is the staff being treated so poorly? A cook I worked with once said "Cooking is the last frontier--a place where you can say almost anything." Almost all the chefs that I know came from yelling kitchens. Old school chefs, especially those who embrace the military aspect of brigade cooking see yelling as their duty--a way of keeping their pirate ship from turning to mutiny. They would tell stories about their days--crazed chefs in coffee filter hats throwing copper like it was a frisbee.
When my pastry school instructor at culinary school told me about his mentor, he said that he thought the man had killed someone before. I laughed. He didn't. Despite alleged homicidal tendencies, alot of chefs and cooks alike think that the former abuse helped them become the chefs they are now. For me, the yelling changed me in two ways:

  1. In trying to avoid these miserable nights on the line, I wrote lists, and planned, and obsessed about work. My technique improved, and so did my awareness. When I did get yelled at, I listened to every word...sometimes sheepisly asking advice on how to avoid this in the future. I began to understand the need for intensity in the kitchen.
  2. And I started yelling too.
The first few times you run a kitchen, you are never in control. You don't speak loudly enough, and get your tickets messed up, and send food to the wrong tables. It's scary. If you have menu items coming off your station, it's really scary. I dont remember how I started yelling, but I noticed that it was effective. And I could barely control it.

I started to feel like cooks younger than me, with less experience should have to go through what I did...that they had to pay dues. I thought it would make them better. Sometimes it was a good cop/bad cop routine to make a cook get their shit together: I would go in and yell, and Rossi would come in after me and help them put it all back together again.

It wasn't always fair though. Cooks that I respected wouldn't get yelled at--and there were times where some serious shit would go down with one of them, and they would get a pass. It was as if I thought that the stronger cooks deserved a different level of respect. The kitchen would fragment...and there were nights where the cracks would really start to show.

On one particularly hard night, I came to a realization. On my best nights running the kitchen, I never yelled. Everything ran smoothly, and mistakes were few. Cooking was supposed to be fun. My favorite moments had been talking to new cooks about what we were doing...why I thought we were at least. It was my craft. It was meant to be taught to less experienced cooks.

There are some chefs that believe if they let up on their staff, things will unravel--that everyone will begin to get comfortable and feel entitled to a certain type of behavior...and in some ways I agree with them. A cook that hasn't been dressed down in some form or another might have a dangerously enflated ego...or might not be responsive when they are disciplined. The cooks I respect say it's not their style...that trust and friendship are the only ways to build a successful brigade.

-i got a box from my mom today that contains pictures, letters, and mementos from when I was 11-22. It was like getting a time capsule, and kinda strange to look through.
-so, so chilly today.
-kentucky bourbon is better than irish whiskey. there, i said it.
-iphone 3g. now im one of them.
-zombies cant swim, but they can make zombie dolphins
-to all young cooks: try not to touch your fingers to the racks inside the oven. those things are hot.



shuna fish lydon said...

this is gorgeous.
and thought provoking.
and nightmare inciting.
and brave.

i barely scream, or yell. but many many a cook has been scared of me. and dare i say (chefs too.) have seen a lot of tears, but none as many as my own.

expediting, though, that's another story.

for someone so little, there's a lot of voice in me.

so much to say. maybe i'll respond on the 'beater.

thank you again. and again.

Vincent said...

congrats on this post - enlightening right?
screaming at any person gets you nothing.

you are a leader, not a teacher

think about that man.

lead them.

leader and manager are 2 very different definitions

never manage

lead and they will follow

Robert said...

Great post on a great blog!

I very much feel that i am in the same boat as you. I started out in a yelling kitchen. And I feel as though it as helped me out alot in my cooking. but when I stated to yell also I wasn't sure if I really wanted to be that chef that I hated. I think it may be used as a good tool to check some cooks egos. and it can be used to help some cooks out who don't have there shit together. But I also think there is a line that can be crossed by yelling.

I very much agree that some of the best nights on the line are the ones where you don't need to talk very much at all. And if I could work with people that can keep up, make their own educated decisions, and take care of their own stations issues or be able to ask for help before its too lateI dont think I would yell at all. and I would have no problem with that.

Thank you

Waleed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Waleed said...

(Sorry for the long post, btw)

I leave for cooking school in 6 days. I've been reading your blog for a month or two, just to see the difference between the fast-food and diner/cafeteria style kitchens I ran in the past, and where you work.

Screaming/Yelling, like every form of communication, has it's place in a kitchen. Let me go off on a tangent first.

In a high stress, high speed situation it is prudent for people to be following your orders without any other thought in their head. They cannot be second guessing you, and for that, they have to respect you. Respect is tricky. You have the type of respect between those who are your "equals" in the kitchen (rankwise), those who are below you in the kitchen, and those who are above you. For me these types of respect are very different.

For the respect of those above you, it is fairly simple to receive it. You show up to work on time every single time, and you damn well better not call-in. You work like a possessed immigrant on methamphetamine, then smile when you (on your last ounce of energy) are given that extra job that you KNOW will keep you late tonight. The only tricky part is navigating that line between becoming your superior's "bitch" and his "go-to guy".

For your equal's respect, it gets alot trickier. You have to make sure to not undermine the respect they receive from others. While doing this you also have to make sure you go out of your way to "be friends". It's a kitchen, you have to know as well as I do how important that is. Also, refrain from diddling anyone of equal rank who you work with on a regular basis...it sucks. Also if you failed to navigate that line with your boss, it becomes impossible to gain the respect of your peers.

For the respect of those below you, which I believe is the most important, it gets alot harder. This is where the yelling comes in. You can't be friends with someone below you, WHILE AT WORK. When it comes to people working underneath me, the second I put on my uniform they become androgynous students. You have to, for lack of any better terms, intimidate (through your skill, not fear)and inspire them.

Sometimes it is necessary for you to make sure people remember that you are in charge. Be it by yelling at the new prep cook for spending 6 hours doing 2 hours of work, by making sure the staff get at least one good meal at work this month, or just by being confident in yourself. You are right that there is no need to dehumanize someone to lead them, but sometimes it is very very necessary to be the slobbering monster to put someone in line.

As a leader in the kitchen you could help that new kid in the kitchen get on track and start a career, or even help a guy get his head out of a bad place and get back on track.

Don't discount yelling just yet, just realize it's like every tool, it has it's place and it's time. You don't use a hammer for heart surgery and you don't use a scalpel to drive a nail in.

Camille said...

All the places I have enjoyed working in my career have had non-yelling chefs. In fact, they all think they're too easy on their staffs. Trust me, I will work 10 times harder for someone who seems to appreciate what I do. There's never a reason to publicly humiliate someone, even if you really think it's necessary (and believe me, I have).


Michael Walsh said...

Screaming is motivation. I've never been more motivated to work hard in the kitchen other than when the prospect that you might get screamed at is present. I've also looked at 'chefs' who couldn't hold there own, never had to hold there own, and they didn't motivate me by using a loud voice.

If your the chef, you have your shit straight, and you are in charge you basicly have free rein to scream at anyone, anytime you deam appropriate. Yet when such screaming stops motivating the staff, it's time to change stratagies.

Let's face it, a pat on the back, or a, "good job" isn't motivating, it's comforting. Cooks don't need to be comforted, they need to be motivated. Let their moms tell them they do a good job on sundays, but on saturday they need a large grown man to scream at them in order to get the best work out of their hard heads.

Unknown said...

Can you hook me up with that cute hostess?

Next time I'm in the resturant I'll be pissed if I can't hear you yelling from my table.

Colin said...

For the most part I am not a screamer. I find belittling a person whether at work or anywhere else does little good. I find organization, consistent standards and a lot of coaching (which includes a kick in the ass occasionally) are the keys to a successful kitchen. I lead by out working my line cooks and teaching them when I can. But I won't except inferior dishes and they will be remade as needed. I am on the firm side of fair. We can all learn from each other and I try to make my kitchen a collaboration.

Matt said...

I agree with camille..especially if you get yelled at for no valid reason..you'll spend time thinking about why it happened and dwell on it instead of focusing on the work at hand...i had a sous chef who was a yeller...and recently i had a chef that i eventually aspire to be...he would let you know you let him down but not by berating you in front of the whole staff..i think it hits home more a little harder when youre told in a calm manner that you didnt live up to someone's expectations...the alternative usually gets you all riled up and sort of angry yourself..in my experience anyway..

awesome blog as well man..there was a span there where it wasn't updated for a while...i cried myself to sleep each night..

Anonymous said...

Whoa. People really go at your blog!... I'll just say this, I'm super proud of you Richie! That despite ups and downs, you're making your way in the oh-so-competitive SF restaurant industry and doing what you love!

Unknown said...

There's a point that I think Danny Meyer makes that has been echoed by Chef Timmy over there at Poleng. There are certain people that respond to yelling and some that don't. You can try to categorize the people that need the rigid structure but that may not always be true. I've personally found that a non-yelling environment is great when you have a good group of mature and responsible individuals who share a common sense of respect for each other (Nopa kitchen is one of these). However with younger employees I've found this doesn't always work, some people just bring in too much emotional baggage to break through to them, and I'm saying this from managing the front of the house. I've driven people to crying and they decided to quit themselves. I still don't feel good about it.

I've heard there are some places that are rigid and the chef will lay into you like a certain high end place in SF that offers trios...It's not fun to be constantly reminded that you're easily replaceable. Sure, if you don't want to be replaced you should work harder to shine. But this can be communicated without yelling.

Personally I think the best way approach is a "human development" method. Everyday this person has to ask themselves, "Am I happy?" and "Am I going where I want to be going?". If they're not asking this question, it's your job to ask them. At least if you want to keep them and see them become better and more valuable parts of your team.

Watchman said...

to me, yelling and swearing are in the same category. anyone can lead that way. It takes a thoughtful, self disciplined chef to inspire through means other than intimidation. I dont know how people stay in that kind of environment. Nice post.

oogmar said...

It's interesting to me, because I used to be a screamer, and a creative, mean one at that.

Nowadays, now that I'm a calmer cook who excels in speed and efficiency more than decibels, I often feel like the screamers are the ones who don't have any control. They're letting their ticket, their food, their job defeat them. Most of my coworkers cut any conversation and go straight calm line chatter when in the middle of a rush. The ones who need to scream often are doing so because they're behind on their station and need to blame somebody else...

Which can derail a slightly behind pantry or middle and make everybody else suffer.

Last few times I remember raising my voice on the line was to curtly cut off somebody building into a marathon browbeating.

I loved reading this, thank you for writing it.