A study from earlier this year looks at how food media has influenced the behavior of real-world chefs.
Over the weekend, the author, restaurateur, and food columnist J. Kenji López-Alt posted a link on his Instagram account to an academic article titled “The Normalization of Violence in Commercial Kitchens Through Food Media,” writing his his caption, “I have been quite vocal for years about how the casual glorification of kitchen abuse on television by chefs like Gordon Ramsay (@gordongram) can lead to real world abuse.”
Curious, I downloaded the full article and found it to be incredibly instructive. Even if its conclusions do not feel new, exactly, it offers an undeniably clear look at the ways in which abuse continues to manifest inside professional kitchens. I reached out to the authors, Dr. Ellen Meiser and Dr. Penn Pantumsinchai — hosts of the podcast The Social Breakdown — to talk about the article’s origins, their findings, and where we can go from here.
What first made you decide to examine this phenomenon?
Ellen Meiser: I went to CIA for baking and pastry, and worked in the culinary industry. I thought I was going to be the next Anthony Bourdain because I love him, but this paper comes from a bigger study, which is my dissertation. The purpose was not to look at violence in kitchens. I was instead looking at how people in creative industries, like cooking, perceive the success-failure spectrum: success, averageness, failure. I didn’t even ask about violence. That was not something I probed for; it just organically came up. And two names that came up over and over and over again were of course Anthony Bourdain, because he’s such a huge figure in food media, and Gordon Ramsay. With Gordon Ramsay, it was about how he was influencing the culture in various ways, through entertaining — people thought he was genuinely funny — but also how he’s a bully. One thing Penn and I want to make clear is that the reason we cite Bourdain and Ramsay specifically is because that’s who the subjects were talking about. We don’t cite them because we are anti-Ramsay or anti-Bourdain; it’s simply what the data showed.
What was your method going into this research?
EM: I went out and interviewed people, which are the interviews we outline in the article. I also did participant observation in a kitchen — 120 hours of observation with field notes — and I surveyed 258 kitchen workers online, so that’s a quantitative aspect. That’s where the study started, trying to investigate how we think of success in a creative industry that’s also very commercial, where there are clear signs of success: a full dining room versus an empty dining room, getting James Beard nominations or not, getting written up or not. This particular paper and the chapter that it comes from is really about how people use violence as a way to dominate those around them in the workplace, and how that can actually lead to success. If you can wield power over your chefs, your sous-chef, your line cooks, and your prep cooks, you can get them to do what you want them to do, and you can be successful. But if it’s not accepted by the group, I write in my dissertation, that can lead to failure or averageness, because people rebel and resist.
The detail that most stands out to me is your finding that a show like Hell’s Kitchen can be a first introduction to the restaurant industry for many people — this cartoonish version of an abusive kitchen — and it creates a scenario where people actually enter the industry expecting that abuse to exist. Were you surprised when people told you this?
EM: When this theme of violence started to come up, it was not special to me because I’ve worked in restaurants. I didn’t think it was fascinating. But I did a presentation — Penn was there, my adviser was there — and it was something I brought up, thinking we’d move on. Their reaction when they heard about, for example, someone throwing an industrial-sized box of cling wrap across the line over hot oil, was, “That’s interesting — I didn’t know that.” That’s when I realized, this is abnormal. But I don’t think it’s just Hell’s Kitchen. If you look at other media representations, there’s a trend of violent chefs. Bradley Cooper has a movie, Burnt. He’s so violent. He’s grabbing Sienna Miller’s collar and screaming at her. Even if you look at Pixar’s Ratatouille, there’s a chef, Skinner, who is an aggressive, angry person — and that’s a children’s cartoon!
Is this a situation where the environment already existed, so media depictions take that, flatten it, and amplify the most compelling aspects, and then that feeds back into the environment itself? Like a snowball effect?
Penn Pantumsinchai: You’ve got it. It’s that cycle of influence. Really what we’re getting at here is the power of celebrity, and the idea of an “influencer.” That’s kind of a new term for our understanding of how the media works, but there have always been influencers in the media. So people look to those individuals as inspiration to join an industry, and then those individuals help set the expectation of what’s coming. We’re not saying these individuals cause violent behavior, but it informs the context and normalizes that behavior. An individual enters the industry and sees something, and thinks, I saw that on TV and nobody else is reacting so I guess it’s okay, even if, in any other workplace, something would result in an HR complaint. You don’t expect your boss in an office environment to throw a stapler at you, but in the kitchen environment it seems “normal.” We have to put quotes around everything because, coming from sociology, these are all just social constructions; people create these ideas and then act upon them as their lived reality.
With Bourdain’s work, he often talks about an abusive environment and the camaraderie it forms.
EM: It’s like hazing.
He describes cooks like they’re pirates — a band of debauched troublemakers working together toward a common goal — but with Ramsay, the abuse is its own end. His shows are about how entertaining he can be as he insults people. In your paper, you quote someone who says he sits around with chefs talking about how funny they think Ramsay is.
EM: Absolutely. I think Bourdain uses the word “miscreants” — he has amazing style when he writes. He romanticizes it, because he writes about it in such an eloquent way and you think, That’d be cool to be in that environment. And then Gordon Ramsay normalizes it in a different way. It’s entertaining and it sets an expectation where that type of language, and that type of behavior, is what a chef does. Gordon Ramsay has how-many restaurants, how-many TV shows, and Michelin stars? If it worked for him, maybe it will work for other people. If you look at his initial trajectory into food media, he was in a documentary called Boiling Point. He’s slapping people, yelling at them, pushing him out of the way, and that’s what got him later deals. People who have worked with Gordon Ramsay actually really like him. He’s a nice person behind the scenes. But onscreen, he’s “Gordon Ramsay” the character, and that’s different.
PP: And what do viewers want? They want that. It’s hard to trace it to its roots: Were chefs violent first, or did the media create it? That’s why we aren’t talking about causation, but the environment and how that behavior is normalized. It reminds me of “locker-room talk,” writing it off as the behavior of “people like that” who work in kitchens, and it’s okay because that’s how these people communicate, but that’s not really the case. We don’t want to stereotype people.
EM: And I think that very peaceful, soft-spoken kitchens — of which there are many, with a trend moving towards that — prove that this type of behavior is not necessary. These alternative kitchens, if you want to call them that, will be the norm in a little bit. Those kitchens, when they’re successful, prove that this behavior is not necessary.
PP: But I’m not sure that sells on TV. If they made a show about that, there’s nothing exciting happening.
Even you’re talking about these environments in extremes: Either it’s abusive, or it’s silent. It reminds me of another quote from your article, someone who says they expected any boss they had in the restaurant world to either be Ina Garten or Gordon Ramsay, and there would be no in-between. That’s a pretty big difference! But there’s a spectrum, obviously, and chefs can be curt, or expedient with the instruction, without also being abusive.
PP: That goes back to the context. Having these celebrity chefs as point persons, and they represent the types of kitchens where people work.
EM: I agree. Part of it has to do with our media representation, or maybe just representations in general. We talk about extraordinary, outstanding things — we don’t talk about “average” kitchens or “average” behavior. We talk about somebody blowing up, or somebody who is very quiet. I’m sure you’ve sat around a table with cooks who talked about the worst burns they ever had. Nobody talks about little burns, or going a whole week without cutting yourself, because that’s not very interesting. We have this psychological tendency to remember those extremes.
Your article also includes a section about workers preparing themselves to enter kitchen environments. You quote one female cook who told you she would prep her jokes ahead of time to be part of that locker-room culture. How common was that, people girding themselves to enter into this career path?
EM: I had people say, “When I drive to work I have to literally psyche myself up and get ready to get into this environment.” Or in preparation to calm themselves down so that they don’t get riled up when something happens.
The article is also clear that people can disassociate themselves from the abuse by saying, in effect, “This is for the sake of my career, so I’m going to endure this before I move on. I don’t care about the restaurant, but I care about my own growth and this is what I have to go through.” Is that a fair characterization?
EM: What we found was that people who are victims — so, not just your general kitchen worker, because not all kitchen workers are the targets — but those who are regular targets of psychological, sexual, or physical violence in the kitchen, they did do that. They prepped themselves. We also had people who, like you said, rationalized what they were going through when they were enduring this type of violence. People said things like, “This is an amazing restaurant. I want it on my CV. I need a year here, so I’m going to do a year.” Other people said things like, “Oh, they’re just being honest.” Violence was evidence of honesty. “The chef is not holding anything back, telling you as it is.”
PP: That’s what Gordon Ramsay says, too. He calls it “brutal honesty.”
But you can be honest without calling someone a fucking donkey.
EM: There are different ways that people rationalize it. There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance there. Nobody wants to be treated that way. You’re putting up with it and you’re trying to make sense of why you’re putting up with it. Humans can make up reasons for a lot of different situations.
PP: In a way, you have to disassociate yourself. You’re like, “Why am I going through this?” And that’s going back to the idea that it’s a process. Bourdain talks about that, an evolution for a cook to go to the next stage of becoming a better chef. Again, it’s a hazing process.
As a cook, you can say, “I have to endure this, but when I’m in charge, it won’t be like this.” But I’ve also talked to a number of chefs who privately lament that they now have to talk to cooks “differently.” The attitude becomes, I went through this, so why can’t they? And it just becomes that familiar cycle of abuse. At what professional levels did you talk to people, to get a sense of how far along these ideas tend to penetrate workers’ careers?
EM: My study population was people who were chefs, or aspiring to be chefs, so on the trajectory. Somebody who was really interested in staying in the profession long-0term. And I think it’s split. There were people who experienced violence early on in their careers — and they tended to be women — who then pledged to never have a kitchen where that behavior is the norm. They purposefully make sure that won’t happen. And then on the flip side, I did have study subjects — some of whom were women — that were upset that people were turning into “namby pambies.” Why were they trying to take off work because they got a cut? Go, get your five stitches, come back, and you get on the line — that was the thinking. I don’t know if there’s a certain point in somebody’s career trajectory where that switch flips. I didn’t find any evidence of that exact moment, so I can’t say. I think it’s dependent on each person’s experience, and how tough it was for them when they were climbing the ranks of the kitchen.
I know that’s an extremely broad categorization, but was there a noticeable difference in the way that women and men talked about their experiences? Not just in the literal sense, but the ways that they experienced things internally?
EM: Definitely. In the article, we talk about who the victims are. Overwhelmingly it was people who are lower down in the hierarchy — prep cooks, line cooks — but also women, regardless of their position. It could be sous-chefs. It could be the chef, and the owner would say something. Or their brigade would give them shit. At least in this study, women are overwhelmingly targeted. There’s a fantastic book called Taking the Heat that looks solely at women kitchen workers. One aspect is of course violence and abuse. We found there was definitely a difference. Men seemed to not even notice in many instances, especially sexual abuse. They didn’t think it was anything weird, and many times they thought it was fun. It was “pranking.” It was joking. It was that type of framing, versus women, when they framed their experiences, it was always like, “He propositioned me.” It was very clear that they had taken an action as abuse; it was not joking. Even if they partook in the jokes to join the group, so that they could be accepted, it was never a mystery what was happening. So there was that gender difference.
Do you think that it’s changing? There’s a conscious effort in the media to call attention to bad actors, and to the prevalence of this behavior. Do you see the journalistic efforts actually translating to changes in kitchen environments?
EM: That’s a little tough for us to say because we didn’t ask about that. It wasn’t the purpose of the original study. What we did notice, because interviews were done after the Mario Batali scandal, was that people pointed to him and said, “You can get sued now for that kind of behavior.” So there was this recognition that making formal complaints — be it lawsuits or complaining to HR if you’re working in a corporate kitchen — was a possibility to call out abusers. But when the respondents talked about it, it’s almost like, “Oh, you can do this now.” It’s like a brand-new thing that popped into people’s heads as a way to deal with the violence. In our interviewees, it looks like there’s a shift toward calling out that type of behavior formally. And in media, of course, with all of the coverage of these chefs, it does feel like there’s a shift. But whether there’s that shift in actual kitchens is, I think, out of the scope of our study, so it’s hard for us to say, but we hope so.
PP: And think about all the other reasons an individual becomes aggressive in the kitchen — things that we’ve touched on like the need for high efficiency, and the expectations of the diners in the restaurants who want immediate gratification.
EM: Right, it’s not just the media. There are other reasons, like the cyclical nature where the abused becomes the abuser. It isn’t until you break that cycle as a chef, while commanding your own kitchen that the violence actually ends.
PP: Even working in a hot kitchen. Being uncomfortable will cause people to become more aggressive.
EM: The other big thing that people don’t really pay attention to, but it’s very sociological, is how we, in the kitchen, use this language of war. “Let’s strap up.” “We’re going into battle.”
PP: It’s another instance of psyching yourself up.
EM: And if you are verbally in this context of being at war against your stove or against your diners or against your expo, you get into a mind-set where violence is a part of war, therefore if somebody does something violent, it’s fine.
PP: The kitchen is a battleground.
EM: Exactly. So there are a lot of different factors at play in terms of what is fueling or normalizing violence within this particular space.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.