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"Kitchen Culture Is Tough For A Reason"

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