Anti-Intellectualism in the Restaurant Industry

I received a lot of requests for a slideshow about anti-intellectualism & the brigade system after posting a snippet to my Stories, so here is a fuller post about the cyclical, reinforcing relationship between the two. I tried my best to make this explainer graphic not so dense, but there was a lot of background to be established before I could jump in — thank you for bearing with me!

I want to be upfront that while the @StudioATAO team & I have been working on a lot of content about anti-intellectualism, I am by no means an expert. This is a subject with so much history & nuance, and I am well aware of the mountains of academic research I haven’t breached. However, there are currently no accounts of how anti-intellectualism functions in the food world despite it being a rampant issue I've personally experienced & heard from many others. I hope this slideshow better explains how anti-intellectualism is a pervasive, insidious, and complicated web of thinking that holds great influence over our industry.

Just as we are socialized to believe & adhere to the principles of white supremacy culture built into our society, anti-intellectualism manifests as both an external power struggle & a toxic thought process that exists WITHIN us. Resisting anti-intellectualism is an ongoing commitment of unlearning, because none of us are immune to defaulting into anti-intellectualism when situations threaten to upset our own privileges. Additionally, we must also be willing to scrutinize & critique intellectualism (and its proxies, e.g., academia), as it can very well also perpetuate prejudices such as racism, classism, and ableism.

If this post has piqued your interest & you want to learn more about the history / evolution of anti-intellectualism and how to combat it, head over

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Anti-Intellectualism in the Restaurant Industry

why an equitable future requires overhauling the brigade system

First, Some History on the Brigade System

The creation of the modern kitchen brigade system is attributed to Chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier, and is  outlined in his book Le Guide Culinaire (1903). The brigade system has always had two defining features:

  • A strict, hierarchical chain of command where orders from the top are to be obeyed without question

  • An intense specialization of roles per worker, with enough repetition to the point of rote memorization

Escoffier drew inspiration from the military’s precision & order to inform who has power within the brigade system, clearly delineating those with (or without) authority. Executive Chefs/Chef de Cuisines serve as “generals”, Sous Chefs as 2nd-in-command, and Chef de Parties overseeing separate stations (e.g., garde manger). There is no question whose words were “final” and who holds power over whom. (This system is also replicated in FOH.)

Escoffier also adopted goals of the Efficiency movement, characterized by its focus on maximum output & reduction of any waste (in materials, time, energy) — by separating out the workers (those not in ‘managerial’ command) to do specialized jobs. These tasks were to be memorized & performed as quickly as possible, with purposefully limited variations.

The resulting power dynamics in workplaces (including restaurants) were naturally imbalanced, with no built-in opportunities for future change. One of the justifications used by Frederick Taylor, one of the key leaders of the Efficiency movement, for these rigid inequalities was that there are fundamentally 2 types of people: managers (thinkers) and workers (doers); in his own words:

"One of the very first requirements for [a worker] is that he shall be so stupid and phlegmatic that he more resembles in his mental make up the ox than any other type.”

(That is, stupid, animalist, perhaps even less than human – does that sound eerily familiar?)

Next, Some History on Anti-Intellectualism

American anti-intellectualism is a social attitude that systematically undermines science-based facts, authority of the intellectual “elite”, and the pursuit of theory & knowledge. Contrary to popular understanding, there are

3 types of anti-intellectualism, per Prof. Daniel Rigney:

1/ Anti-rationalism: rejection of reason, logic, and fact in favor of emotions, morals, and religious absolutes (e.g., believing anecdotal evidence that “feels right”)

2/ Anti-elitism: rejection of “elite” institutions as well as those categorized within the social and/or intellectual “elite” (e.g., anyone from professors to social workers)

3/ Unreflective instrumentalism: a belief that the pursuit of theory & knowledge is unnecessary unless it can be wielded for practical means (e.g., profit)

While our colloquial discourse of anti-intellectualism tends to focus on its methods, in particular anti-rationalism’s disregard for science (e.g., anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers), the hallmark of anti-intellectualism is its purpose of stalling & halting change – especially when it comes to changing existing power dynamics.

Whenever there are shifts in power, resistance via anti-intellectualism can be witnessed. For example, Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species challenged creationism and was met with public fury & church-sanctioned backlash over such amoral, heretical ideas. After slavery was abolished, white Americans refused to accept Black Americans as equals, and used incorrect assumptions about race to implement Jim Crow laws & the KKK to maintain previous systems of segregation & subordination.

It is important to understand that anti-intellectualism is not a cohesive school of thought, but a set of disparate strategies used to discredit the people, practices, and knowledge that threaten the beliefs of those in power, as it calls into question the privileges they currently enjoy.

Anti-Intellectualism and the Brigade System

The most insidious power of anti-intellectualism is its ability to distort the way people perceive power structures; by cultivating fear & disdain of an unknown future, even those hurt by oppressive policies may consciously & unconsciously resist, deny & delay change that benefits them. The brigade system has been very effective in fostering an anti-intellectual mentality that romanticizes restaurant culture as being “tough for a reason” — as if exploitation & unjust systems of power are integral & natural to the identity of restaurants & its workers. For example:

1/ Workers are pressured to sacrifice mental, physical, emotional well-being for the job, as this is ardently believed to be necessary for maximum output (despite evidence that proves otherwise). Instead of addressing the root problem of workers needing additional paid hours, workers are taught to internalize this as an issue of their own ability. As a result, practices like clocking in after you’ve already worked several hours remain widespread.

2/ Leadership has consistently resisted implementing any learnings from numerous studies on workplace best practices by fostering an “us” (hard-working hospitality workers) versus them “them” (elitist, educated, white-collar academics) divide. This makes it easy to dismiss outside suggestions on workplace equity as irrelevant (“that’s just for fancy offices”) and gaslight anyone in favor of reform as “lazy” workers unwilling to “pay their dues”.

Additionally, by requiring cost/benefit “justification” for creating channels of safe, bottom-up communication and feedback (or portraying existing systems as “HR mumbo-jumbo”), those in power have intentionally damaged opportunities for constructive, employee-led change.

3/ Systemic issues of abuse are treated as singular scandals to avoid acknowledging the larger inequities that affect the workforce. Privileged defenses such as, “We just want to focus on providing excellent food & service to our guests” are used to place the feelings of owners over the proven realities of our sociopolitical structures that marginalize & harm certain groups of people.

4/ By creating a constant state of anxiety in the kitchen (from the “sense of urgency” clock to yelling & violence), workers are conditioned to not try anything that may reduce overall output. Experimenting with new ideas naturally takes time, energy, materials, and thought – instead of framing learning as a process, any action that doesn’t result in a tangible product (e.g., a new dish) is deemed a “failure”.

5/ Expanding knowledge of culinary theory beyond specific applications on the job is characterized as unnecessary, and deprioritized against “real” line experience. This idea is packaged as a rejection of “elitists” who like to think but not act (often witnessed through the distaste of those who “ask too many questions”), when in reality this keeps workers as perpetual cogs by intentionally limiting their repertoire.

Similarly, BOH/FOH are discouraged from learning relevant business practices (e.g., intellectual property rights) by othering “corporate” work as lofty, different, and unrelated. This makes it easier to take advantage of workers while robbing those without privileged backgrounds of necessary tools to grow into positions of leadership & authority.

Looking Beyond the Brigade

Ironically, the modern brigade is not at all what Escoffier intended. He had hoped his system would free up time for working class chefs to engage in leisure activities; instead, his system has replicated longstanding socio-structural problems within a restaurant environment.

Despite the failure of the brigade (and the restaurant model at large), little "sense of urgency" has been applied to industry-wide change until now, because the pandemic has also stripped away the power of those at the top.

In this time of "sudden" enthusiasm for change, we must demand accountability in the form of overturning existing power structures. Our priority needs to be in creating systems that give power to those who have historically been exploited, harmed, and erased in restaurants. Power comes in many forms, such as autonomy, knowledge, financial independence, decision-making ability, time to experiment, influence over work culture, programs for career advancement, and pathways to leadership.

We cannot do this in an environment where anti-intellectualism is still allowed to flourish. To uproot anti-intellectualism requires us to address where it exists within our own psyche, and scrutinize how (and when) we allow it to influence our decision making & relationships. This includes rejecting false binaries such as "one right answer" (which ignores the complexity of change & puts the responsibility of education onto marginalized identities) and ideas like failure & progress being mutually exclusive.

If we desire to not slide back into the unequal power dynamics of today, we must cultivate an inclusive restaurant culture that proactively incentivizes questions, feedback, critique & positive conflict - esp. from entry-level workers & BIPOC. Learning in all forms should be encouraged, because the goal is to develop critical thinking skills & offer opportunities to apply it on the job & beyond.

After 100 years of the brigade system, we are unlikely to find a solution overnight. Taking the first step towards a new future requires the exact action the brigade system has long discouraged: imagination.

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© 2020 Jenny Dorsey Culinary Consulting, an arm of Hump Day Encounters LLC