“There’s a streak of a faggot in you”, she jeered. In fairness, as time went by, the “streak” crossed all boundaries to include “psycho” and “fool” so who knows what shoe I fit into. Perhaps all three? The three shoed psychotic gay fool, like a character in a John Water’s movie, it’s no wonder I was roared at.
It was my first job in a professional kitchen and I was seventeen, eager, clumsy but hardworking and loyal. It was the “faggot” that clung like a lobster claw though, because even though I wasn’t out then, I was inwardly, and acutely aware of who I was. I felt entirely seen and vulnerable and even writing these words in recollection, I realise I was ashamedly, ashamed.
It was a small kitchen and essentially I assumed the quadrant role of chef de partie, commis chef, pizza chef and kitchen porter. That aspect of the work didn’t bother me; it was fast paced, exciting at times, and I had the youthful energy to rise to the challenge. In the modern era of kitchen horror stories mine appears tame, a stroll in the park even, but I still recall it vividly some 20 years later. And it probably put me off pursuing a career as a full time chef.
It might have been a part time job but even then I had a profound interest in cookery. I pursued my own education privately, immersing myself in books and luckily I was afforded the opportunity to experiment in the friendly environment of my home kitchen. Being the youngest, my mother was only too happy to pass on the reigns to satiate my enthusiasm and my mistakes were glossed over even when the overly critical, perfectionist and prone to mistakes teenage self, went on ad nauseam about his failings.
While my emotions on this are partly related to my own personal journey, with much talk recently about hospitality practices, I have been thinking a lot about working kitchens. While my time there was limited and also relates to some 20 years ago, I have some general insights and thoughts. Human interactions are mostly universal, even if we think that our own particular industry sails its own boat in a private sea.
As with everything in life, and considering your role, no matter how better paid than others you are or how lofty a status it provides, no matter how important you think you are, your job simply does not function without the graft and craft of others. Regressive and arrogant thought might suggest that everyone is paid for their role; you perform your job and if you don’t you’re dispensable, scraped away from the plate with the swish of a knife. For me, this hierarchical thinking is counterproductive. It can foster resentment and an ethos of a “them vs us” attitude. Conversely, instilling an overall presence of respect inspires a community of togetherness, in an “If I achieve, everyone does” frame of mind. Humility and empathy are possibly the most underrated, unappreciated and under promoted human characteristics in modern day society.
Acknowledgement is key: is everyone perfect? No, and I am sorry to say but neither are you. Understanding that we all, including you, make mistakes is a good start. Acknowledgement is not necessarily just an understanding of human life and its challenges, it’s also about recognising the importance of roles, particularly those “beneath you”. If you find yourself in a position of authority, leadership and decision making it is important to never forget this. Everyone struggles, not everyone every day, but every day someone is carrying an invisible cross. Acknowledgment of your mistakes and having the humility to apologise for unseemly behaviour (particularly for those in more senior positions) will generally harbour respect in any team.
And respect is key: Is your KP underperforming? Is your chef dogmatic and controlling? Understanding that everyone has their own stresses, regardless of their place in the order of hierarchy, is fundamental. Should you control your emotions better if you are paid more? Of course the answer is probably yes. Positions of management and seniority come with increased responsibility and are financially rewarded as such. The vital aspect often overlooked is that everyone is human and consequently we are prone to failings. The caveat, however, is that there is no excuse to being a bully, including belittling or abusive behaviour.
With this in mind, do NOT forget that while people are prone to mistakes, repeated and constant negative behaviour is NOT normal. Don’t accept repeated and excessive abuse as normal kitchen “banter”. The more that behaviour is called out and admonished, the better life will be in kitchens and all workplaces. Respect does not have to mean friendship. It is entirely at odds with human nature to think that we are all going to hold hands in a circle of peace and tranquillity. However, while I may not be your friend I can respect your role and you as a person doing your best to fulfil that.
Stress is 100% a factor. Kitchens are full on work environments. The pace and expectations can be extremely demanding. Sometimes the kettle boils too quickly and you’re just not ready to make the tea. This also happens in other workplace environments. To give an example, as a teacher I can say that classrooms are, and hold your judgements, a not too dissimilar environment. It’s a full on service, zero possibility to switch off with your focus entirely on the people in front of you, caring for them, feeding them (metaphorically) and if you don’t provide there can be all out war. Understanding and becoming familiar with our own stressors can really help in your relationships with your colleagues and ultimately make your own working life a much happier one.
All of this obviously does not account for people who are lazy (they exist), or have a bad attitude (unfortunately they also exist). Sometimes people are poor at their job but perhaps more focused training will help them perform better and subsequently reduce your own stress levels. There is no fool proof, all inclusive, universal theory in creating a working world where all will perform and evolve. Do people slack at times and pull the proverbial? Of course they do. And yet appreciating, embracing and highlighting the work of others not only promotes, but actually enhances the ability of each of us to excel in our own individual roles. It makes for a happier (good for all) but ultimately a more productive workplace environment. Respect for others doesn’t require a degree but simply a lesson in humility.