Men of Anger

January 19, 2011 § 8 Comments

“We’re all the same, the Men of Anger and the Women of the Page.” -“Virginia Woolf” by Emily Saliers

I was listening to this song, over and over, when I decided to start this blog. This line, in particular, always sticks with me.

My namesake called them The Professors in A Room of One’s Own. The equivalent in kitchens are what one of my chefs in school used to call Certified Screamers. But I think Emily’s description is pretty accurate: The Men of Anger.

A while back, a blogger I read made a brief, inconsequential post about Gordon Ramsay and his show Hell’s Kitchen. He clearly enjoyed the program, and just wanted a bit of banter about the reactions of the contestants when they came up for dismissal. It could have been an interesting topic, I guess, if I were interested in talking about what makes for good TV. But all I could think to say was, “Fuck Ramsay.”

And of course, some goddamn male cook had to jump to his defense and say he’s a genius, and talk about how that behavior is perfectly normal, and what kind of kitchens had I been working in that I didn’t think so. I, relatively patiently, explained that it’s not a matter of whether or not it’s normal, but of whether or not it’s acceptable, and that I am pretty firmly in the NOT camp.

What it is, is abusive.

How many professions are left where that’s acceptable behavior?

A few, I’m told. But generally it’s unprofessional behavior. There are few offices in which that shit will fly.

Because here’s what we’re talking about. Ramsay yells and screams at them, insults them, and curses at them. He throws their food in the garbage. Marco Pierre White, Ramsay’s former mentor, once actually cut open the back of a cook’s jacket and trousers with a paring knife because the man complained of the heat. (White is also known for racist language, and for having made Ramsay cry. And for being an amazing chef, but if he wasn’t, what would be the point in bringing him up?)

Contestants on Ramsay’s show break down crying, scream back at him, threaten him with cutlery, and generally react badly. Some people attribute the depression that led one of his contestants, Rachel Brown, to kill herself to her time on his show. And, as that male cook said, this is not just on TV. This happens in real, professional kitchens.

Why the fuck is this considered OK in kitchens? Why the fuck do we put up with it? Why does anyone put up with it?

Yes, yes, I get where it comes from. It comes from the military manner in which professional kitchens have been run for a century or so now. It comes from the current trend of casting chefs as artists instead of managers, and from the notion of “artistic temperament” — a pretty, romantic euphemism for an ugly and unbridled temper — being something people should just put up with as the price of genius. It comes from a culture of adrenalin highs and extreme behaviors and bigotry. It comes from the idea that because professional cooking is a difficult, physically taxing and stressful job, you must be tough enough to endure anything.

It is complete and utter bullshit. Abuse does not make for a tighter, more efficient crew. It breeds resentment and hatred, drives out talented and skilled cooks before they can achieve their full potential, and creates fear, none of which is good for creativity or precision.

I have now fired two kitchen managers for (milder versions of) this kind of behavior. It made for a terrible work environment, not just for the kitchen staff, but for everyone. A chef who treats their cooks that way will also treat front of house staff, managers and owners that way.

I’m asking you not to support this behavior. Don’t watch the shows of celebrity chefs who behave this way. If you’re in the industry, refuse to work for or with abusive chefs. If you’re a restauranteur, refuse to employ them. All of you, refuse to patronize restaurants with abusive chefs. And all of you, tell people why. As long as we put up with and reinforce this behavior, it will continue to be accepted and even encouraged. Help me make it unacceptable. Please. If you don’t support abuse in your personal life, don’t support it in your professional life, and don’t support it as a consumer.

Abuse is never ok.

This post has taken me more than two months to complete. I simply could not focus on the topic. It’s too upsetting, and was too close to home as I dealt with a kitchen manager who felt free to vent her anger on everyone at my restaurant. The righteous fury I felt when I began this piece faded to pain and weariness and sorrow. What began with a backlash ended with a plea.

What I have asked you to do is the only thing I can think of to fight the pervasiveness of this behavior. The abuse continues because it is accepted, and even rewarded. Most people are not in a position to prevent it, but they are in a position to refuse to accept or reward it.

§ 8 Responses to Men of Anger

  • delicious friend says:

    I’m completely on board with this idea. But how will I know? Are there ways for customers to tell?

  • Ginny W says:

    If there’s an open kitchen, keep an eye on it. If not, sit close to it and listen. Or strike up a conversation with your server. How do they like working there, how do they like their coworkers, what’s the chef like? Watch the cooks if they come into view. Read the restaurant section and see if it comes up, if it’s a very nice or popular place.

    You can’t always know, but you can get a sense of it.

  • Kristine says:

    I have worked in several restaurants as a server and luckily this behaviour was never tolerated in the places I happened to work. That is why I have often got into arguments with people who believe this is just how it is. Who believe people like Ramsay who say this is how it is supposed to be. Ramsay is popular because of the shock value. People for some reason enjoy watching him have a tantrum like a three year old. My husband and I even created a drinking game around how many times he kicks a garbage can or says “come here, you.” It’s ridiculous.

    But you are right it is also abuse. I don’t watch the show any more because it is just too much. And if I know a place is run by someone like him, I am pretty sure it would turn me off from ever going there. Kind of like how I won’t shop at Walmart due to the abuse of employees going on there.

    Thanks for having the guts to write this and to get rid of managers who abuse their staff. I am sure everyone is grateful.

  • One of the problems with “reality” TV is they do things for effect, others pick it up because they think it’s cool or funny or what-have-you, and then it spreads.

    Yelling, screaming, cursing, etc at people who work for you (because you can, or because you’re mad, or because they made a mistake, or you think it’s funny, or whatever other bullshit excuse) is abuse. I’ve seen it in software. I’ve been the lead who’s telling another lead to cut it out, and no, it’s not comfortable, but it’s worth doing.

  • Chris says:

    I totally agree that that kind of abuse cannot and should not be tolerated, and the fact that it is ‘celebrated’ on tv is abhorrent.

    Society was just starting, finally, to come to terms with the fact that more subtle things can and do actually constitute abuse in professional situations. And now we are being socialised to see this kind of shite as maybe a bit over the top but ultimately admirable…?

    What is it about some people that they just dont feel good unless they are making other people feel bad. As a middle aged person I still don’t get it.

  • frasersherman says:

    Since I’ve never watched him, I can’t stop, but I did like your post. I really hate the Artistic Temperament/I Am An Artist I Cannot Abide Your Social Conventions bullshit (never encountered it in real life, happily). And regarding the previous post, good for you for sticking up for your staff against the drunks.

  • […] two minutes after she get home), so yay! West coast restaurateur Ginny W. blogs about Gordon Ramsey here. The gist: She finds him a nasty, abusive creep and can’t stand the “but he’s a […]

  • I wonder to what extent that kind of behavior is allowed to keep kitchen work an all-male “tough boys” club? I mean, it’s fine to be redefine chefs as artists so long as they don’t then start being feminized…

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