It’s a familiar scene in Hollywood movies, top-rated reality shows, and bestselling murder mysteries: Volatile, demanding, unreasonable chefs who make life miserable for their staff, especially those working side by side with them, and have sous-chefs and waitstaff alike in tears. The fictional character is, unfortunately, all too real in many professional kitchens.
It’s a stereotype – and a reality – the industry is actively working to change. With good reason. While the out-of-control gourmet mastermind may play well to movie-goers, reality TV junkies, and whodunit aficionados, it is, quite simply, bad business.
“Creating a professional and respectful work environment is critical to the restaurant industry. The industry continues to experience challenges in attracting interested and qualified staff, especially back of house,” says Jeff Dover, president of fsSTRATEGY, a Toronto-based management consulting firm that specializes in the hospitality sector.
He notes that employees, especially younger workers, value the quality and social aspects of their work environment and actively compare their work experiences with their friends. “They want to make a difference, want input into their work, and crave constructive feedback to validate their efforts and help them grow. While remuneration is important, so is the overall quality of work experience.”
The value equation
For many currently working in the restaurant business, their work environment is actually making them feel devalued. Global research conducted by Unilever Food Solutions found that one of every four back-of-house restaurant employees has been physically abused on the job, and nearly two-thirds of restaurant chefs have suffered from depression because of their work. The research also revealed that roughly 74% of chefs lose sleep to the point of exhaustion, more than half feel pushed to their breaking point, and 34% feel underappreciated on a daily basis.
“It’s no surprise why kitchen turnover is so high and why many young people are forsaking restaurant careers to pursue jobs in other field,” says Kyla Tuori, Unilever’s corporate chef for Canada, who is based in Toronto.
To help make professional kitchens more respectful and create a culture shift that values respect and good health, Unilever has launched Fair Kitchens, a movement focused solely on building a better future for chefs and cooks in the industry through support and acknowledgement of mental and physical well-being.
Tuori notes there are five core values that can significantly change the industry. On an emotional level, these include staff feeling encouraged and comfortable to talk openly as well as praising staff for a job well done. On a practical level, chefs must make time for staff breaks, for fresh air, daylight. “We rest, relax and recharge where we can,” says Tuori.
“It’s no surprise why kitchen turnover is so high and why many young people are forsaking restaurant careers to pursue jobs in other field.”Kyla Tuori, Unilever’s corporate chef for Canada
The first step en route to a respectful and positive workplace is to hire carefully, says Dover.
- TIP: “Select candidates with an attitude that suits the work to be done. Skills can be taught; attitudes are challenging to change.”
He also recommends restaurant owners and chefs engage with employees.
- TIP: “Define expectations clearly, review progress, and provide constructive feedback so they can grow in their positions. Encourage creativity.”
Empowering employees to make decisions will also allow them to excel at their work and give them an appropriate level of control over what they are doing. Another of Fair Kitchens’ five core values is linked to this tenet: Exciting passion. “We train, mentor, and inspire the next generation. We fuel their flame,” says Tuori.
The final value in the Fair Kitchens’ movement calls on staff, especially those leading the team, to work collectively. This is about embracing diversity and respecting individuality. “Employees usually quit their bosses, not their jobs,” notes Dover. “Owners and managers must treat employees the way they expect to be treated and understand the value each and every employee brings to the success of the business. Two-way communication of these values is crucial.”
Creating a new culture will take time, but it is an attainable goal. “You know this has been achieved,” says Tuori, “when the work environment is full of energy, creativity and there is passion to serve great food, where everyone works as one team, and can succeed without sacrificing well-being and a personal life.”
What’s in a name?
A Fair Kitchen is defined as:
- a financially stable business with a high staff retention and diner loyalty because it reflects their values.a human-centric, positive, and structured workplace led by the head chef.
- one that follows a code of conduct with clearly outlined behaviours and five core values designed to change the industry.
To learn more about Fair Kitchens, visit https://www.fairkitchens.com/en/About.html
About the Author
donalee Moulton is the principal of Quantum Communications, a full-service public relations and communications firm based in Halifax. In the course of a busy career, she has worked in the private sector, for all three levels of government, and for non-profit organizations.