A junior chef who has worked in some of London’s best restaurants is candid about the ‘culture of fear’ in kitchens across the capital.
The cook, who chose to remain anonymous but is named Derek, said: MyLondon he was threatened with death and often forced to work for 17 days in a row.
He recalled a particularly shocking incident involving a Michelin-star-trained sous chef who dipped a spoon into the deep-fat fryer so that it turned red hot and scolded a colleague on the back of the arm after they made a ‘little mistake’.
On other occasions, the sous chef, whom Derek said had a history of violence, threw frying pans at his junior staffers — often referred to as “commis” — and engaged in fistfights.
A junior chef who has worked in some of London’s best restaurants is candid about the ‘culture of fear’ in kitchens in the capital (stock image)
When complaining to their boss about the sous chef’s aggressive behavior, which he said was “non-stop,” Derek claimed he was pressed against a red-hot oven and said, “If you say another word, I f*** **g kill you.’
“From what I understand, he was treated that way when he was young,” Derek told MyLondon.
‘The culture [is based on the idea that chefs should be] so afraid of making mistakes, because of the consequences, that they don’t. But it’s so backward, it’s counterintuitive.’
An “offensive” restaurant kitchen culture has permeated the industry in recent decades and has been brought to the attention of the public on TV shows such as Hell’s Kitchen, in which Gordon Ramsay adopted an aggressive style and spouted out dirty diatribes against chefs.
But accounts like Derek’s are likely to be damaging at a time when the industry is doing its best to recover from the devastating impact of Covid-19, which has shut kitchens across the country for months. It is now facing staff shortages due to the easing of lockdown restrictions.
In July, dozens of chefs called for an end to the “abusive culture” in the hospitality industry after two staff members from Tom Kitchin’s restaurants were suspended over allegations that former employees “had been collared and dragged for food, water or otherwise were denied ‘breaks’ during ‘grueling’ 18-hour shifts.
Derek recalled a particularly shocking incident involving a Michelin-star-trained sous chef who dipped a spoon into the deep-fat fryer so that it turned red hot and scolded a colleague on the back of the arm after they made a “little mistake” ( stock image)
Since the allegations were published by the Scottish Times, chefs across the UK have spoken out about their “lack of surprise” saying it’s “commonplace” and that “everyone in the industry knows what’s going on.” ‘.
Chefs’ union, Unichef, said allegations of bullying are “too common” and asked its members to “sign a petition aimed at stripping Michelin stars and rosettes from restaurants where abuse is taking place”.
Derek shared how he felt torn after his nasty encounter with the sous chef – on the one hand he wanted to leave, but on the other he was plagued by the feeling that he wasn’t good enough to be a chef in a top kitchen if he “couldn’t handle it.”
“It’s a toxic masculinity, but it’s also this feeling as a chef, that if you’re not exhausted, if you don’t have burns and cuts on your hands, you haven’t worked hard,” he said.
“You feel like you’re running yourself to the ground, otherwise you won’t work.”
Derek also spoke about the drug culture he witnessed in some of London’s top kitchens.
In an ITV documentary in 2017, Gordon Ramsay said cocaine use is rife in the restaurant industry, largely due to the long working hours and unforgiving conditions, and is known as the ‘dirty little secret’.
Ramsay’s Michelin-starred protégé David Dempsey, 31, who was head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, west London, fell from a window frame in 2003 after ingesting a potentially lethal amount of cocaine.
An “offensive” restaurant kitchen culture has permeated the industry in recent decades and was brought to the public’s attention on TV shows such as Hell’s Kitchen, in which Gordon Ramsay adopted an aggressive style and would engage in foul-mouthed tirades against chefs (pictured)
Derek said everyone took amphetamines, also known as speed, “constantly” and would drink alcohol at the first place they worked, adding that the chef was “massively addicted” to it, while the kitchen porter acted as a dealer.
Derek pointed out that working in a top restaurant kitchen meant having a lot of adrenaline that dissipated at the end of a shift, so some chefs took drugs to recreate that natural high outside of work.
The chef’s regular use meant he was getting little sleep and Derek felt like he was constantly walking on eggshells.
He himself admitted that he felt like he was going crazy for working so many hours – 17 consecutive days in December last year – that if he tried to fit in on a night out, he would have a “couple of ounces of Coke” and “pulverized fifteen beers.” out after work.
Another chef told MyLondon that he suffered from suicidal depression six months after opening a restaurant, and told how he saw dozens of mental breakdowns in kitchens over the years.
He talked about how some meltdowns often came about as a result of “sabotage,” where chefs deliberately ruined their colleagues’ pre-prepared ingredients if they made a mistake the night before.
“It was to teach you a lesson in front of everyone,” he said. “There are many mind games.”
In July, dozens of chefs called for an end to the ‘culture of abuse’ in the hospitality industry after two staff members from Tom Kitchin’s (pictured) restaurants were suspended over allegations that former workers had been ‘collared and dragged’ , food was refused, water or breaks’ during ‘grueling’ 18-hour shifts
Tom Kitchin was named Scotland’s youngest Michelin star winner in 2006. About the alleged abuse at his company, he said the kitchens in his restaurants were a high-pressure environment where emotions “often run high.” He added that the behavior had to meet the standards expected of the food and service.
He said he is ‘hugely proud’ of his colleagues and ‘where we have fallen short, we will address and remedy that’.
“Top kitchens around the world can be hectic, hectic and challenging environments, where emotions are often running high,” he said.
“However, the exacting standards of our food and service must be matched by the standards of behavior in our kitchens and wider operations.
‘In recent years, feedback from our team members underlines the great strides we have made to improve the often traditional culture in our kitchens, but we have more to do.
“I am extremely proud of my colleagues at the Kitchin Group and where we have fallen short, we will address and remedy that. That is our clear priority in the coming weeks, months and years.”