On Creating a Positive Professional Kitchen Culture

With the damaging allegations of rampant sexual misconduct that have arisen recently within the restaurant industry, many of us have dedicated time to thinking about ways we might evolve professional kitchen culture for the benefit of our staff and our industry as a whole. To that end, I would like to share three actions I have found useful in creating a positive kitchen culture:

1. Take steps toward an “open kitchen.” From day one, I’ve believed that an open kitchen — one that all our guests can see — is a regulating force. When guests can watch our cooks craft their meals, we find that both professionalism and pride increase. Foul language is curtailed, as is a lot of clowning around. Even when a professional kitchen is behind closed doors, keeping it up as though it were on public display, as well as inviting guests back to visit it, goes a long way creating a positive professional kitchen culture.

2. Take strides toward balance in the workplace. I grew up in a family restaurant that was roughly half male, half female, and I found that balance to be one of the most important regulatory aspects of positive kitchen culture. I’ve found that men and women behave differently — more respectfully — when they are in groups of roughly equal proportions. Plus we need both male and female perspectives to achieve our greatest potential. I know that many male chefs like to boast that kitchen work is too difficult for most women. But it’s simply not true. Yes, we have a few young guys who glory in the fact that they can carry hundred-pound bags up stairs (which I can’t do); I find it just as easy to break the bag into smaller containers and transport those. Kitchen work is very physical work; men and women who love physical work (as I do) can equally do the kitchen jobs.

Additionally, there are positions in many kitchens that can be held by older people — prep jobs, tortilla or bread making, you know what they are. Sure the physicality of certain kitchen positions is more easily suited to younger people, but not all of them. When older people are part of your kitchen culture, they offer a balancing influence as well. When you think about the fact that most of us talk differently in front of our moms, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

3. Cultivate respect for each other. In kitchens that are run in an exclusively hierarchical manner, it’s easy for respect to be lopsided: All the cooks are expected to respect the chef, while the chef may not necessarily reflect back respect to the cooks. We all recognize that the chef is the linchpin of a successful kitchen, the person without whom service stalls, chaos reigns. Still, as leaders, when we respect our cooks as essential cogs in the restaurant’s wheels, we make great strides in creating a positive kitchen culture. If, as chefs, we approach our cooks as people who come to work to do a great job (and, with very few exceptions, I am convinced that they do), a great job is what we’ll get from them. For this to work, however, we must recognize our responsibility in cultivating an atmosphere of mutual respect plus our responsibility to give our cooks the training and tools they need to excel.

For me, these three actions have emerged over decades, regularly being reevaluated and reconsidered. My understanding of each has deepened the more I appreciate the evolution of the restaurant kitchen, especially in the United States.

Here’s the way I see it, in case it should help you, too.

The Evolution of the Restaurant Kitchen, from the Bayless point of view

What most of us know as the traditional restaurant kitchen structure was developed in France over a century ago and has been adopted and passed down through professional culinary schools in the United States. The French codified most aspects of the professional restaurant kitchen and, though aspects have evolved, it is still the system that is taught to all aspiring chefs. That original French structure was based on French military system of the time: both were predominantly male, designed to take 14-year-old apprentices who needed to learn focus and precision, and succeeded only when the group functioned as a whole.

I am sure that all of us are aware of the bullying, hazing, excesses and less-than-respectful behavior that have long been associated with a boys-will-be-boys culture anywhere in the world. Those behaviors have been associated with restaurant kitchens as well.

Though the complex and professional French method was taught in culinary schools, it didn’t penetrate deeply into American culture. Our government recognized kitchen personnel on a par with domestic workers — the folks that cleaned and cooked for the more privileged class. I grew up in a restaurant in the ’60s, and I can attest that saying you were a cook (we rarely used the word ‘chef’) was to ally yourself with workers at the bottom of the employment heap.

Louis Szathmary, a Chicago chef who was born and trained in Hungary, a country where professionally trained chefs were considered on a par with other professional trades, led a successful campaign to both elevate the quality of America’s professional cooking and have its cooks legally recognized by our government to be working at a skill level equal to electricians, plumbers and auto mechanics.

In the 1970s, an alternative kitchen sprung up, mostly as a result of Alice Waters’ work at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. It was inspired by a desire to celebrate and share incredible seasonal ingredients, much the way a mom might invite family and friends to share her table at the height of fresh corn season, say, or when a pig had been slaughtered in early fall. Though there had been notable professional female chefs before Alice Waters, she was the muse who brought the most attention to an alternative approach to envisioning a restaurant kitchen. And many, including me, followed her lead. Many women and male-female couples, a lot of them concentrated around San Francisco, opened restaurants and began to define a different kitchen culture.

This newly emerging ’70s kitchen culture was typically less militaristic than the one developed in France. It was the artist’s kitchen. It was a kitchen that made room for feminine sensibilities.

Seeded by Julia Child and James Beard in the ’50s and ’60s, and fueled by Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck and many others through the ’70s and ’80s, we experienced our culture’s growing focus on and demand for better food at home and in restaurants. Being a restaurant chef, especially if you owned your own place and created a unique menu, began to be seen as a viable — if a little offbeat and artistic — profession. Culinary schools began to flourish as young people with aspirations toward the professional kitchen sought training to ensure success.

Working in restaurant kitchens during the latter part of the twentieth century, it was easy to experience of jumble of our country’s restaurant history. Some kitchens were run by those who equated success with military precision, others were filled completely with unskilled workers, and some were directed by smart, free-thinking culinary artists who were figuring things out as they went along.

I noticed the beginning of another change with the publication of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (2000). A new chef type emerged, a type that almost seemed a hybrid of the bottom-of-the-barrel cook and the artistic outcast: the bad boy chef. Coupled with the rise of food television and culinary competitions, the bad boy (and, occasionally, bad girl) chefs found a sounding board. Food media, from newspapers and magazines to video and Instagram, chronicled and celebrated these chefs’ every move. Woven together with the “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” life styles, their kitchens often reflected a heavily male-dominated atmosphere, what my colleague chef Dana Cree calls a “pirate ship” atmosphere. Unfortunately, we appear to be reaping the fruits of that atmosphere these days as more and more misconduct allegations surface.

Yet I believe we’re at a profound moment, one in which those now-accepted norms can begin to crumble. It will take the leaders of today’s kitchens to keep us moving in the right direction. It will require an approach that combines the organizational professionalism of the classic kitchen, the respect for craftsmanship that Chef Louis Szathmary fought for, the artistic and cultural sensibilities of Alice Waters’ generation, and the hipness of today’s chefs — all wrapped in the cloak of a balanced, proud and respectful workplace.