Into the fire? The culture of restaurant kitchens in Canada today

Restaurant kitchens and drama seem to go hand in hand, or at least that's how the industry is portrayed on television. Popular shows like "Restaurant Stakeout" and "Kitchen Nightmares" encourage viewers to find amusement in the struggles of this high-pressure work environment. But when it comes to real-life examples of kitchen nightmares, no one is amused.

Earlier this month, Toronto cook Kate Burnham alleged that she had been sexually harassed at the popular restaurant where she used to work. A Toronto Star article reported that Burnham was “was routinely sexually harassed and abused,” from July 2012 to January 2014.

The shocking accusations have left many people questioning the culture of restaurant kitchens. While there is no doubt that aggression, harassment and even abuse are happening in kitchens across the country, several industry experts are saying that the work environment in most kitchens has actually improved over the years.

Todd Perrin, chef and owner of Mallard Cottage in St. John’s, Nfld., says that abusive behavior isn’t very common in kitchens these days.

“It’s not as common as it used to be,” said Perrin. “I mean there’s no question that it still exists and it’s out there, but it’s not like when I started [my career] almost 20 years ago.”

Perrin says that he has worked under chefs who would physically grab employees by the shoulder, or shove people out of their way. He has also worked in kitchens where employees, both males and females, were reduced to tears while on the job. Those experiences have influenced his management style at Mallard Cottage.

One of the reasons why I wanted to open my own restaurant is that I’ve always been a believer that the restaurant industry doesn’t have to be this stereotype,” he explained. “It doesn’t have to be a place where people yell and scream, and rant and rave, and hate their jobs. I’ve always believed that you could have a kitchen environment, where the people that work there can have as much fun as the people that eat there.”

Perrin isn’t the only restaurateur who believes in maintaining a positive work environment.

In my experience, yelling chefs wind up having to go nuclear more often. If a chef starts with yelling, pretty soon he or she has to yell just to be heard. And yelling kitchens are places where it's easy for things to get personal fast.

—Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy

As the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, a popular restaurant in New York City, Amanda Cohen takes a calm approach to leading her team.

“I try to keep my kitchen quiet, focused, and I don't yell,” said Cohen.

She says this is mostly because Dirt Candy has an open kitchen, and the last thing she wants is a customer to hear is shouting. However, she also believes that when chefs start yelling, situations will escalate.

“I've worked in yelling kitchens and non-yelling kitchens, and there is no one standard for the industry,” said Cohen. “But in my experience, yelling chefs wind up having to go nuclear more often. If a chef starts with yelling, pretty soon he or she has to yell just to be heard. And yelling kitchens are places where it's easy for things to get personal fast.”

The former Torontonian has learned that treating her employees well makes them perform better at their job.

“I want my team to do things right, which means that if they screw up I have to make sure they understand what happened and how to fix it,” she said. “I can't do that if they're scared or intimidated. I find that I get a lot more mileage out of respect than fear.”

Cohen added that she doesn’t mind being yelled at because she did a bad job, but that kind of criticism can lead to personal attacks, and “before long you're being yelled at because you're a worthless person, or a waste of oxygen, and that's when things get toxic.”

Martin Kouprie, co-owner of Pangaea Restaurant, agrees that there’s a difference between constructive criticism and abusive language.

Being criticized comes with being a cook in training,” said Kouprie. “You are always being told to do better and go faster. However, criticism should never be personally directed.”

He also says that an occasional outburst, or someone losing their temper in the kitchen is normal, but a “sustained pattern of abuse” is never acceptable.

Unfortunately, many cooks who become victims of abuse feel that they have to accept it, in order to keep their jobs.

Donna Dooher is the President and CEO of Restaurants Canada, a trade association that represents the hospitality industry across the country. She says that people are often hesitant to complain, because they afraid of potential repercussions.

“I think that people are reluctant sometimes to come forward because they feel that they will be ostracized by their peers, or that they will be jeopardizing any chance of career advancement,” said Dooher. “We have to instill a sense of confidence in them that it’s ok when you’re being compromised, or put in a difficult position, to come forward and talk about it.

Dooher is a trained chef, and has worked in the restaurant industry for over 35 years. Over the years she has seen how ineffective aggressive management styles can be.

“I’ve worked in kitchens where, yeah, it’s been the angry chef at the top who feels that kicking over the garbage can and yelling at people is going to be effective,” she said with a laugh. “It may be effective in the short term, but not in the long term.”

While power-tripping executive chefs are common in the industry, Dooher says that restaurants are not exempt from the standard workplace health and safety rules. When it comes to physical abuse and sexual harassment, she says that “never, under any circumstances whatsoever, is that acceptable behavior in any work environment.”

Dooher claims that if someone were to reach out to her organization, seeking help with a difficult situation, her staff would immediately point the person in the direction they need to go to get a resolution.

“The ministry of labour in Ontario in particular has very clearly defined regulations and laws pertaining to discrimination and harassment in the workplace,” explained Dooher. “There are processes that people can go through to resolve their issues.”

In her conversation with Yahoo Canada News, Dooher made it very clear that real restaurant kitchens aren’t like the ones that are shown on television. She says that those programs can portray the industry in negative way.

“I think there’s an embedded mindset with the public that this is the way kitchens operate, and people love that entertainment value that’s attached to that,” she explained. “But in reality, kitchens are not all like that. They’re actually very good places to work. They’re hard places to work, they’re demanding places to work, but they’re also very rewarding at the same time.”

Perrin agreed that many culinary television programs don’t accurately depict restaurant life.

“Food television is full of ranting, and raving and failure, and that’s what people have decided is entertaining,” said Perrin. “The time has come for the public at large, and certainly young people interested in the food biz, to be see the positives and successes [on TV].”

Surely, success stories would show glimmers of hope in an industry that often gets a bad reputation. While positive changes seem to have been made over the past decade, there is still room for improvement in the atmosphere of restaurant kitchens.

Perrin says that chefs can cut down on the aggression and stress, if they would just take a step back and remember what it is they do for a living.

"We’re just making food for people,” he explained. “That’s all we’re doing, and we’re trying to have a good time. We’re in the entertainment business. We’re in the make it happen business. And if it takes an extra five, or ten, or fifteen minutes… well then that’s not worth getting upset about, and that’s not worth upsetting someone over.”