Why Abusive Restaurant Culture Will Never Go Away

2018 was a momentous year in the restaurant world. It will go down in history as a precipice—when the world finally learned how fucked up we are. The shameful skeletons amassed in our closets had outgrown our ability to hide them and finally burst into the public eye. The restaurant industry has been dysfunctional for as long as chefs have worn hats—so the revelations come as little surprise to those of us employed by it, who have become accustomed to the misogyny, abuse and bullying. We may never go back to the way things were, but it feels premature to declare the era of “Men Behaving Badly” in restaurants over. Anyone who thinks that is ignoring how poorly—prior to these public scandals—we’ve policed ourselves. How do you think we got here in the first place?

If not for the persistence of journalists exposing what the restaurant business couldn’t expose itself, these abuses would have continued unfettered. Now that we’re under a microscope, the industry is more attuned to these problems, but real reform requires real accountability not just excommunication of the worst offenders. In hospitality, we’ve always been conditioned that looking the other way makes everyone less suspicious. How can we expect victims to speak up about inappropriate behavior if the only people who can effect real change are the perpetrators? Sadly, it’s easy to imagine a world where restaurants slide back into their bad habits.

Cultural issues in the workplace typically start from the top and get passed down the chain of command. Restaurants owned by aggressive people tend to rely on aggression and fear-mongering as tools to increase productivity. Since they can’t be omnipresent, some restaurateurs train management to be aggressive by proxy. No matter how competent a restaurant’s HR Department is, it rarely has the authority to discipline the owners when the owners are the problem. This is why malpractice among CEO’s is tolerated more than offenses by middle management (See: Weinstein, Moonves, Kalanick). Subordinates who are victims don’t challenge executives because they worry their complaints will be construed as treasonous. 

Aggression is used in restaurants to test loyalty. The competition in elite establishments is cutthroat, which creates a cult-like atmosphere that coerces employees into accepting mistreatment. Management often subjects new hires to unofficial “hazing” to weed out prospects with weak constitutions. There are still many chefs and managers who believe that fear is the most effective tactic for ensuring the proper level of motivation and complicity. 

restaurant culture

Adrenaline fuels our business. Though it can be relentless, chefs thrive on the frenetic pace and the rush they get from powering through a busy night. But often, the endorphins of a chaotic service cause tempers to flare and egos to clash. Harassment and aggression in the restaurant world may be more violent than in corporate environments because we aren’t confined to offices and cubicles. We have a tendency to behave like uncaged animals, abusing each other to survive. Tomorrow, all may be forgotten but the psychic baggage we carry around with us is burdensome and usually bubbles to the surface in deviant ways. 

A friend recently told me a story of a drunken restaurateur dining in his own restaurant becoming abusive with the staff serving him, smashing a glass out of frustration because he was waiting too long for his drink. Thankfully, no one was hurt but several people who witnessed the behavior admitted that they thought it was fruitless to report what happened. Misconduct by owners and upper management happens everyday in the restaurant business and most subordinates know that there is very little they can do to stop it. Complaints aren’t taken seriously and individuals aren’t willing to jeopardize their standing within the organization to call attention to the guilty parties. The dynamic is remarkably similar to abuses that have transpired among priests within the Catholic Church. Victim’s voices can’t be heard if the organization is only concerned with its own sanctity.

The most public restaurant harassment scandals—Batali, Friedman, Besh, Hallowell—have one very obvious element in common (aside from their all having been perpetrated by men): They were all the owners. It’s unfathomable to think that aggressive male owners will properly design safety mechanisms to protect employees from aggression when many of these male owners consider their aggressive tendencies to be the key to their success. Being a tyrant requires a lack of concern for the feelings of the people in your kingdom. Dictators ignore societal mores because they believe they know what’s best for their constituency. Restaurant owners who exhibit tyrannical tendencies rarely face criticism from their lieutenants, who must choose loyalty over ethics if they want to keep their jobs. 

In the meantime, while we wait for the next chef-shaming exposé, we move forward without having drawn a road map for accountability. It’s hard to imagine—since moral compasses have long since betrayed us—that without a map we wont end up driving off the same cliff again. 

We Have a Restaurant Fetish

In an episode of “Ugly Delicious,” chef David Chang and comedian Ali Wong are having a conversation at Din Tai Fung Restaurant where they refer to the liquid that squirts out of a soup dumpling as “dumpling jizz.” Later in the show, we see it physically manifested when Chef Chang sensually bites into a Sheng Jian Bao and hot broth gushes like a geyser from the swollen dumpling. He groans euphorically while the juices roll down his chin. It’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable witnessing this epicurean money shot, but we can’t turn it off or we’ll miss the noodles.

Satisfying hunger has always inherently been a restaurant’s primary concern, but modern diners—raised on a steady diet of food porn—have more carnal appetites. The dining experience has morphed into an event that must be captured to maximize enjoyment. We objectify our food—and the chefs who make it—scrutinizing the dinner table with our smartphone cameras like forensic detectives preserving evidence at a crime scene. Eating is secondary to achieving the perfect Instagram-able moment.

No restaurateur has exploited these voyeuristic impulses better than the swarthy Turkish chef slash Steak Whisperer slash viral YouTube sensation Nusret Gökçe—more commonly known in social media circles as “Salt Bae.” Legions of lusty fans line up from New York to Miami to Istanbul for the privilege of having Chef Gökçe wield his phallic sword and carve their steak. Before they can enjoy it, however, they must wait for him to climaxshooting his proverbial load—in the form of snowy white salt crystals erotically cascading all over their sizzling meat. It might not seem totally out of place if he also cuddled and shared a cigarette with his adoring fans after the check comes.

Restaurant Fetish

The popularity of open kitchens in the early Oughts may have foreshadowed the dynamic of Chef as “Bae.” A chef’s work was no longer shrouded in secrecy. Television cooking shows had flung the kitchen doors open and invited diners in to see how the sausage is made. Guests were now privy to what was happening backstage and restaurant experiences had transformed into something meant to be observed. Long before social media, dining out had already become a voyeuristic experience. We learned that having someone cook for us, like sex, is even more fun when we get to watch. 

The cumulative effect of objectifying restaurants is akin to the effect of consuming too much pornography—entertaining these impulses obscures one’s actual desire and makes satisfaction difficult to achieve without perversion. Increasingly, people don’t enjoy restaurants as much as they fetishize them. Whether they realize it or not, most of today’s diners measure enjoyment by arousal rather than nourishment. We talk about our restaurant experiences this way, too—“The food was good but nothing I ate was orgasmic.”

In the midst of this narcissistic spectacle, industry professionals have had to accept the unwanted role of being fluffers for our guests. Metaphorically speaking, we dedicate an exorbitant amount of energy keeping our guests hard and wet, instead of quenched and full. Tableside service has become increasingly overstimulating as servers mug for the camera. Prostituting ourselves in this way has resulted in a difficult predicament—we know that allowing guests to take video and flash photography in the dining room is distracting but choosing not to cater to voyeuristic patrons may be construed as inhospitable.

One night, I colorfully recited the dessert specials for a guest who interrupted me mid-sentence, reached into her purse, discharged her phone and asked me to repeat myself for the camera. When I declined, she reacted as though I was being rude. Because I was designated to serve her table meant I shouldn’t have say over whether she could broadcast my image on social media. She made me feel like a sex doll—a pulseless facilitator of her urges—and it ruined the moment for her when I wouldn’t just lay there. 

This scenario also illustrates the way in which technology has eroded the personal connection that once comforted us about restaurants. It’s even more disconcerting to imagine a remote and distant future where embedded cameras in wearable devices will turn eye contact into video. Restaurants will deploy augmented reality applications as they search for ways of using tech to make guests’ experiences more immersive. Over time, these initiatives will only further exacerbate the problem of our objectifying restaurants, dissolving what’s left of the humanity in them where we once found sanctuary.

In this new world, traditional means of administering hospitality have become inert. For restaurant professionals, attentive service has always been defined by ascertaining the needs of our guests and doing everything necessary to fulfill them. But how do we forge a relationship with an audience that can only connect with us superficially? Hospitality professionals—perhaps with the exception of Salt Bae—want to be appreciated for the sacrifice that goes into pleasing others, for our minds not our bodies. Unfortunately, our guests are too horny to notice. 

The Hidden Cost of Hospitality

When restaurant people have grouchy fits about bad tables, our complaints usually fall on deaf ears. Everyone loves to remind us that we shouldn’t complain because taking care of people—even if they are difficult—is what we get paid to do. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it’s not just outsiders who revel in telling us to shut up and do our job, industry people are guilty of it too. The most orthodox hospitality professionals can be less forgiving than the entitled guests we serve. It’s just a bizarre reflex that kicks in for some of us when we talk about hospitality in unicorn terms and I, for one, am sick of it. I’m tired of people making excuses for guest’s improprieties when, undeniably, if the most felonious among them behaved this way in any setting other than a restaurant they wouldn’t be tolerated. It is not our “job” to facilitate people’s bad behavior.

Being mistreated by paying customers isn’t part of the job as much as it is our allowing them to mistreat us. Part of the problem is that, as an industry, we’ve convinced ourselves that unconditional love for the guest—even when it requires self-degradation—is the nexus of hospitality. We live for the glory of taking the high road and the promise of turning frowns upside down. But there is a hidden cost to our psychology—like NFL players who take too many blows to the head—not only in absorbing the trauma but also in believing that we shouldn’t have the right to stand up for ourselves to make it stop. It takes its toll on your self-image and also begs the question: How far should a restaurant staff be expected to go to please someone who doesn’t deserve it? Is there a threshold when a guest’s behavior should render them undeserving of accommodation?

The truth is that hospitality work shouldn’t have to include accommodating people who are undeserving. We shouldn’t have to “turn people around” when they are perfectly capable of turning themselves around without being coddled. Unfortunately, we’re still expected to be accommodating even in the worst cases of guests misbehaving. When someone shows up to a restaurant drunk and unruly, the staff treads lightly—careful not to bruise the person’s inebriated ego. We routinely pacify guests who throw tantrums about their food taking too long or being seated past their reservation time. We sidestep silencing noisy tables who are disrupting other guests because we fear we might offend the noisemakers. The list of ways that we’re forced to cower in the name of good service is endless.

Restaurant work often requires a firm hand, but because of these antiquated hospitality credos we struggle to use it authoritatively. When entitled VIPs or diva celebrities come in, kitchen and waitstaff are expected to break whatever rules necessary to make them happy because… well… that’s our job. In fine dining, we use the abbreviation “WTW” (whatever they want) and, in the wrong hands, it’s a blank check to satisfy the most sadistic impulses. When the dust settles, they leave happy but we leave physically and psychologically exhausted.

The exhaustion stems from giving up so much of yourself to please others that you end up depleting your own emotional resources. When you spend every night bending for other people, it’s only a matter of time before you break. But all of this is exacerbated by the fact that, as an industry, we don’t speak up when we’re asked to bend too much. If we complain about being mistreated, then we’ve committed the cardinal sin of putting our needs above the people we serve.

It’s not all the guest’s fault. We could take better care of ourselves in house, too. Combustible chefs could slow their roll. Managers could stop micro-managing. The staff could stop drinking themselves into oblivion after work every night. But who can blame us for needing an exhaust pipe for all this aggression? To decompress after a hard shift, sometimes it seems like only a dirty martini will make us feel human again. But no matter how much we self-medicate it doesn’t change the fact that the source of our psychic congestion is the inherent imbalance that good service demands. Over time, putting ourselves second has a way of making us feel second best. Even though the customer isn’t always right, they are most definitely always first.