"Kitchen Culture Is Tough For A Reason"

July 20, 2020

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This took a lot longer to write than expected, because I realized it’s impossible to divorce the 2 main concepts from the bigger cycle of capitalism — how it has made food into a commodity & restaurants a means of private wealth accumulation. 

 

This is NOT about blaming small business owners for trying to survive within an oppressive system. Instead, it’s to surface the need to de-commodify a basic necessity (food) because “the ‘highest and best use’ of any commodity is where it can get the best price, regardless of the social, ecological, or humanitarian consequences.” (Food As A Commodity by Fred Magdoff)

 

WE need to make this change because capitalism has proven social issues can't be solved w/ a free market. Take hunger: “One of the great illusions...was [that] market-led food security would achieve a nourished population, as long as the world’s average wealth increases.” Instead, the world's billionaires have more wealth than 4.6B people & hunger is still a major issue. (Food As A Commons by Jose Luis Vivero Pol)

 

To combat this, Pol suggests a tri-centric governance structure where:

 

1. Food as common good: “Civic collective actions” at a local level w/ the goal of regenerating food for the community

2. Food as public good: Gov. action to enable the framework of these community orgs (which should include restaurants!) 

3. Food as private good: Private biz acquire surpluses from owners (who benefit from common goods) by providing discretionary goods they want to buy/eat

 

I hope this would translate to:

 

1. People from all backgrounds have the means to succeed & thrive in our industry (as employee or owner)

2. Community / gov. incentives for starting foodservice biz with a mentality of food as public good

3. Competitive standards in public / semi-public foodservice so private biz must offer high levels of worker benefits

4. A shift in consumer views that allow for prices that accurately reflect the value added inputs, from growing to service

 

I'm in the same boat as everyone else with more q's than answers, but I do believe that if we start advocating for change & experimenting now, our future food industry can look a lot different from what it is today.

“Kitchen culture is tough for a reason. Those who don’t like it shouldn’t be here.”

 

Kitchen culture is not inherently tough, toxic, rigid, or any of the other unsavory things we often associate the term with. It simply encapsulates the relationships management mechanism of a restaurant’s most valuable inputs (human staff), which in turn influences their ability to generate the necessary output (food/beverage/experience).

 

Currently, when we advocate for certain styles of kitchen culture it is done through a financial lens. That is, evaluating what kitchen culture will most effectively serve the restaurant’s purpose of creating profit for private owners.

 

For many in the “old guard”, the toxic standard of fear, intimidation, & financial duress are effective means to enforce worker output and thus require little to no change (or at least until the potential 

profitability of the restaurant is threatened, often through public backlash, e.g. Sqirl).

 

Opponents of this type of kitchen culture - often professionals with marginalized identities who have experienced the brunt of toxic kitchens - explain that poor working environments with fear of harassment, discrimination & retaliation lead to lower productivity, creativity, and teamwork. (This has consistently been proven to be true.)

 

However, both of these arguments are rooted in the same financial reasoning: that kitchen culture exists to ensure consistent, quality output to generate ROI. In this context, our perception of a “good” kitchen culture is generally measured by the absence of harm (e.g. no yelling, no violence).

 

As long as the kitchen culture is not detracting from output, there is no intrinsic need for more "unmeasurable" & holistic benefits like time/mental space to freely experiment or learning new skills unrelated to the worker's main task. The baseline relationships here are uni-directional:

 

Workers --> Kitchen Culture --> Food/Bev/Hospitality --> Profit --> Owners

 

Even with the best intentions, the easiest default within this framework is a game of minimums. What is the minimum viable kitchen culture (incl. pay & benefits) to keep workers “satisfied” & productive? Remember social acceptability of minimums also change over time (e.g. slavery, child labor), making this a dance of catching up with minimums, not a proactive effort to raise that bar.

 

For lasting, positive change, we need an ideological shift so both the kitchen culture and the restaurant are built to serve the workers. This would require a regenerative flow of relationships within the restaurant system, so the end goal doesn’t stop at private wealth accumulation but loops back on itself, such as:

 

Worker Owned Co-Op

 

Workers = Owners --> Kitchen Culture --> Food/Bev/Hospitality --> Profit --> Workers = Owners

 

Some other ideas include:

  • Socially driven for-profits (with community and/or worker benefit mandates)

  • Community-oriented nonprofits (with direct or indirect benefits to workers)

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

When both the financial & ideological rationale for kitchen culture is to fulfill the needs of workers, its overall purpose is no longer just about productivity but to move workers up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: a living wage; safe working conditions; positive interpersonal relationships; opportunities for professional growth; acceptance, even encouragement, for workers to leave if it may help them achieve self-actualization.

 

If there's an additional mandate to contribute positively to the wider community, it is then in everyone’s interest for kitchens to cultivate a culture that is inclusive, generous, and regenerative; that teaches teamwork & leadership skills like adaptability, advocacy for the marginalized & uncentering oneself for the greater good.

 

It isn’t enough to combat bad kitchen culture through financial reasoning if we want long-term change. We need to alter how our restaurants exist in relationship to its workers, which requires an extensive redistribution of the types of restaurant models we enact in our society. That brings us to...

 

“Our restaurant model is broken. We need to band together to fix it, and worry about other stuff later.”

 

Restaurant workers have known the restaurant model was broken for a long time. But now, with COVID crushing the profitability of those who had managed to stay afloat (however precariously), and BLM empowering marginalized workers to demand widespread change, owners are also incentivized to help overhaul the system.

 

It is imperative, then, that we do not just change the tactics (the restaurant model) and allow for the same purpose (generating profit for a small # of owners, which is also unevenly distributed).

 

We've seen time & time again when structural obstacles surface (e.g. rising real estate costs), the default in the current system is to oppress & exploit the most vulnerable (e.g. hiring undocumented workers at below-min. wage & no benefits) to maintain margins for owners.

 

"Rescuing" the broken model is not just about fixing what is within its four walls; it requires us to redesign who & what the restaurant industry serves.

 

If we collectively assemble around a new industry purpose of creating an ecosystem that supports workers’ well-being, fights for peoples’ right to food sovereignty, and advocates for the de-commodification of food, it becomes clear we can't do this w/o addressing all facets of inequality in our industry. This includes "other stuff" like access to capital, cultural appropriation, representation /perception of what is/is not "valuable", & how restaurants contribute to gentrification.

 

The refusal by many industry leaders to examine unjust systems while rallying around "fixing the model" is a clear sign that their commitment for change only extends to tactics and not purpose.

 

This is not to say we shouldn't band together, but it does mean we must hold ourselves accountable to ensuring the forthcoming change we're working towards uplifts an intersectional everyone.

 

If we accept that food is a basic human right, and understand that restaurants serve an important public purpose as a primary way people access food, we can recognize our industry's responsibility is to establish an ecosystem where:

  • The community can access a public good (food) in affordable, culturally appropriate, nutritionally beneficial ways directed by community members themselves

  • There is equal economic access and opportunity for everyone who desires to be part of the industry, and the presence of restaurants continually expand the economic opportunities available to its workers and the community  

  • Restaurants contribute to wider de-commodification of the food system using conscientious choices in vendor & capital relationships (& help shift consumer sentiment)

This isn't to say food can't exist as private enterprise, but that we need a system where a variety of models are financially viable & incentivized.

 

This is a shift that is far bigger than just restaurants. Ultimately, we need to put our efforts towards reformulating our society's approach to food — the growing, harvesting, processing, distribution, creation, and service of it — as one rooted in public benefit, which includes actions like:

  • Championing biodiversity, regenerative agriculture, and prioritization of planting nutrient-dense food for humans (vs. as fuel)

  • Supporting nimble processing & distribution with spokes into all communities

  • Advocating for oversight of CPG’s & foodservice to de-incentivize calorie-dense but nutritionally void products (especially at prices that undermine the affordability of fresh foods)

As described in Food as a Commons: Reframing the Narrative of the Food System:

 

“Features of food as a private good are merely social constructs that can be deconstructed and re-constructed in a different way provided there is a common agreement within our societies.”

 

 

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