Is being a bully a chef’s natural temperament?

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History tends to portray the typical chef as a loud-mouthed bully unable to prudently hold liquor, who uses colorful language, is hot-tempered and works in a hot kitchen.

Understaffed and working with a semi-trained potpourri of employees from diverse ethnic origins, they drive their bodies and brains to levels few other professions would accept on a daily basis. Through all this, they endeavour to achieve budget targets set by ill-informed and incompetent managers, accountants or HR administrators who have very little idea of the constant pressure and time constraints in the day-to-day operation of a commercial kitchen.

In the name of an addiction commonly called ‘passion’, the hard-worked chef attempts to satisfy a voracious dining public who are convinced they know more about the preparation, presentation, and service required of the dishes on the menu than does the trained professional who has slaved to indulge their fantasies. But do these stressful – and occasionally deplorable – physical and emotional working conditions make it acceptable or excusable for chefs to bully and abuse their staff?

The irresponsible bullying or abuse of staff is not acceptable in any circumstance, irrespective of the working conditions. We all know there are legal obligations that justifiably protect the rights of staff in the contemporary commercial kitchen. However I would like to explore the bullying issue beyond just the legal perspective.

Having enjoyed a career that has involved just about every style and level of responsibility a professional chef can achieve — and in the latter part of my career assuming associated roles with direct links to professional cookery — I have seen and experienced just about every workplace scenario imaginable. Fortunately I discovered very early in my career that managing a commercial kitchen is all about motivation, and definitely not intimidation.

I have had the privilege of working with many accomplished chefs who were superb with their food philosophy and skills on the plate. However, when I reflect on my experience with these great kitchen leaders, I find that the ones who really stood out from the crowd were not ill-tempered, nor did they browbeat their staff, despite having to work physically and mentally hard in a demanding environment.

In addition to being gifted cooks, they were smart enough to realise that they needed to surround themselves with a great kitchen team and treat their brigade with dignity. Calmly, clearly and with propriety they would seek to develop the skills of their team. Whether it be an apprentice cook or sous chef, these leaders helped and encouraged them to perform at a high level and to exceed the expectations of the establishment.

They built a team that operated on mutual trust, respect and loyalty. One such leader used the designation “chef” as an accolade and a mark of respect. The head chef’s (Chef de Cuisine) reputation was influenced and accentuated by his staff who admired, supported, protected and even went to substantial lengths to defend their leader at every opportunity. This was loyalty which worked from the top down and in both directions, born from mutual respect.

Every era has its challenges, however significant and measurable changes in kitchen working conditions have evolved. The modern chef is quite fortunate not to be expected to operate in conditions which engender appalling behaviour.

Most commercial kitchens have air-conditioners, evaporative coolers, extractors, safety equipment, lighting and numerous other appliances making the contemporary working environment a safe and healthy one. Improved working hours, sophisticated communication and realistic expectations by competent managers and better educated employees now encourage a team spirit and a reasonable and pleasurable work environment.

As such, there are absolutely no ethical rights or grounds for bullying in a modern kitchen. Commercial kitchens no longer have the culture or physical conditions that condone violence or abuse, and if a supervisor or the chef is a bully, it’s time they left the industry and took their “attitude” somewhere else.

There can be many reasons for inappropriate and unprofessional behavior in a kitchen. Bullying or aggressive behavior, and to a lesser extent swearing, are usually pointers to the chef being uneducated, insecure, or a sufferer of depression.

Swearing at staff fundamentally demonstrates immaturity and an inability to choose suitable language to apply appropriate descriptions to the situation. It is time that employers or supervisors, managers or head chefs in small or large kitchens who lack fundamental leadership skills be trained or shamed.

Chefs associations in Australia endorse a common moral code of conduct for professional chefs and must take their obligations seriously to enforce them. In our advanced professional environment, we should not operate within only a minimum legal framework.

The word professional has two interrelated connotations; one is a trained person who earns a living in a specialised discipline, and that definition is inseparably linked to a person who manages their own standards. Never has the reality been clearer — if a chef can’t tolerate the heat, he or she needs to get out of the kitchen. Chefs, it’s not as hot as it used to be.George Hill 10:19, 30 July 2012 (EST)

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