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  • Writer's pictureChef David

Power and Respect: A Double-Edged Sword

This was another post from a blog website I made years ago. Enjoy!

Traditionally commercial kitchens were ruled with an iron fist - an iron fist that was made of fear, anger, and belittlement. It was believed that by breaking you down to basically nothing, the chef could build you into something better, something that would benefit their kitchen, and you'd be better for it in the long run. For some it would work, some not; it would solely matter on the person. Those kitchens are the ones of horror stories; chefs would throw pans/knives across the kitchen at a poor soul who would make a mistake, where fellow cooks would heat pan handles extremely hot and trick others to grab the handle, hazing was common, chefs would tell you that you were good for nothing and not amount to anything, etc. Generally treating employees like they were nothing.

Coming back to the modern world, there is a growing movement that is slowly pushing those traditional methods into the past. The movement consists of treating employees with respect, treating them as people, pay them a somewhat decent wage, and try to give them a life outside of work. The method usually is used in the understanding that if the employee is treated well, they will treat their work well, thus resulting in good quality products.

In a kitchen, one must be thick-skinned even if the kitchen is using the new method of management because a kitchen is not a politically correct domain. Racial slurs and sexist jokes are commonplace, and with the majority of the kitchen staff being male, sexual innuendos are very commonplace. Along with a kitchen being predominantly male, testosterone can be high which results in a lot of yelling, insults, power trips, and on occasion physical fights. Each kitchen usually finds its own balance in how it's run whether it's the old method of using fear and brute force to control it or the new method of creating a healthier environment for its employees. Each kitchen differs in how they run, and how they are run comes from the top down.

With that in mind, this growing trend in kitchens today has chefs who were forged in the fires of the traditional method that are now trying to make the adjustment into the growing trend. This can be conflicting at times and results in people being confused about how to act towards that person. One moment you're talking about last night's game, the next you're being yelled at for not having your station completely spotless. I agree that at times a verbal shove and having high expectations prove useful and tends to get results, and being too soft and babying can result in nothing getting done, so where is the middle ground? I have met cooks that demand, almost force, respect from others and treat the waitstaff like garbage, enforcing what I like to call the "Dark Side" of authority. Though this method can get results, the people follow the commands reluctantly and, at times, will not put 100% into it because they dislike the person that gave them the command. Resentment then forms between the people and that cook, and slowly the people will be reluctant to follow orders which causes the cook to get enraged, and a breakdown of communication and trust happens in the kitchen. On the opposite, you have cooks that are some of the nicest people you'll meet and they'd give you the shirt off their back. These people tend to be ignored by others in terms of authority because they are too nice, and tend to be soft-spoken. This can be a problem just as the "Dark Side" of authority can be, but in this case, relationships are healthy but productivity is decreased.

I believe that any style of leadership works from the top down, and if the management leads the rest in a poor fashion, poor production will follow. Every kitchen should be run with respect for each other with a clear chain of command in place. Rather than a chef that'll bite your head off for you asking for a weekend night off (this is sacrilege in a kitchen) because you haven't been able to spend time with your family for a while, a chef could compromise with the cook by granting them the request in return that the cook would work a little extra on a day they would need extra help. This would personally cause me to have respect for the chef for working with me rather than fearing an ass chewing for making a request. Even making the change of ASKING a person to do something rather than TELLING them to do something can make a positive change. A restaurant is a business and the management needs to do what it takes to keep the business going and that sometimes results in becoming blunt and throwing some weight around, but a level of respect can be achieved in those circumstances.

Most importantly I believe a chef, who has the power and authority in a kitchen, should be a leader for the cooks that work under them. Rather than a boss who just gives commands and expects them to be followed, a leader is on the front lines with their colleagues giving the commands while working alongside everyone else. Those who practice being a leader, especially a leader who is fair and open-minded, are highly respected in my opinion

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