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Corey Mintz is a food reporter and author of the forthcoming book The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, And What Comes After.
The way we treat the people who produce food is atrocious. From field to table, the weakest link in the supply chain, after animals, has always been human workers. So at every opportunity we take advantage. Because we want food to be as cheap as possible, we import temporary farm workers, make them live in shacks and expose them to pesticides before shipping them back home. We pay servers a sub-minimum wage that incentivizes them to accept abuse from customers in exchange for tips. And we devise schemes to commit wage theft against cooks, expecting them to perform at Olympic levels of perfection while being screamed at.
In the spring, we looked at the health threat of COVID-19 and told our most vulnerable workers in agriculture and meat processing that they had to keep going – that they were expendable. From the fields of Southern Ontario, to the pork plants of Brandon, Man., we continued to pack humans close together in an environment where they could not possibly keep a safe distance. And guess what? They got sick. The agriculture sector was the second hardest hit (after nursing and residential care facilities) by the first wave. At the same time, because the hospitality field touches us, physically, because urban and suburban communities are interlaced with restaurants, we closed them down, asking the $90-billion industry to try to survive by operating take-out and delivery only. In some regions of Ontario, we did this twice. Not to protect workers, but to protect the public. It was the right thing to do, for containment of this virus. But because of the measures we’ve taken, because our safety came at the cost of so many businesses, the industry as we know it is gone. The U.S.-based Independent Restaurant Coalition identifies 70 per cent of restaurants as independent, and estimates that 85 per cent of those will go out of business.
Fast food brands such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Chipotle and Domino’s have been transparent about how these closings are real estate opportunities for them. In August, a collective of executives from chains including Ruby Tuesday, &Pizza and Qdoba Mexican Grill formed a company, FAST Acquisition Corp., exclusively to take advantage of the desperation among independent restaurateurs.
But small restaurants – neighbourhood restaurants, destination restaurants – defined by their cuisine and hospitality rather than shareholder value, number of units and same-store sales growth, will be back. They are too much a part of our lives. If I ever needed convincing of that, I was by Toronto Star photojournalist Steve Russell’s shot of a Toronto couple eating on a patio in the rain, clinking glasses of red wine with one hand while holding umbrellas to cover themselves. That’s how badly we yearn for hospitality – that we’ll sit outside during inhospitable weather, enjoying a half-assed version of our former lives just to remember what it felt like.
Still, restaurants won’t be the same. They can’t and they shouldn’t. What’s happening to the hospitality industry is a tragedy, but it’ll be worse if we fail to learn anything from it, if a post-COVID-19 restaurant landscape looks like the one it replaced. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redesign the DNA of restaurants. How do want that to look?
Good food is a given. I wouldn’t knowingly pay for bad food no matter how noble the cause. The issues that bother me are systemic and hard to change: wage theft and abuse of all kinds (physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, racial). They are exacerbated by the structure of chef-driven restaurants and the food media that perpetuates it.
I never again want to hear about how great a chef is unless it’s about how great an employer they are. We have been celebrating the Gordon Ramsay character – insulting, demanding, loudly cruel – for the past 20 years. If he was a character in a movie, he’d be the villain. But we have promoted the idea that this is what a winner looks like in the world of restaurants, through the TV trope of the screaming chef, filtered down to the ubiquitous print profile of the “difficult genius.” It wasn’t even that we held these people up as leaders, despite their cruelty. We exalted them as leaders because of their cruelty.
The idea that excellence is only achieved through the abuse and exploitation of workers is a corrupt premise. It’s time is done.
After a fire that destroyed California’s Restaurant at Meadowood, the San Francisco Chronicle published a generous elegy in which people remembered fondly what it was like – including how horrible it could be – to work there. Several former cooks commented that the abuse was “standard behaviour for a Michelin-starred kitchen and it didn’t bother them.” I’ve encountered this narrative repeatedly, both in my cooking and writing careers. You’ll find people in these kitchens who will say that they were treated and paid horribly, illegally even. But just as many who will say that the harsh conditions turned them into who they are today, for which they are grateful. Their accounts of what work is like – minimum wage or less for 12-hour days, screams and ridicule in front of peers for anything less than perfection – rarely differ.
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When the chef-driven restaurant relaunches, the insistence on running it this way should be as welcome as another wave of COVID-19. If you can’t run a restaurant without abusing workers, let that abuse be your reputation. And let it be the way we remember the legacy of fancy restaurants with their tweezer-assembled food, which was only achievable through suffering.
We take it as an article of faith that the brigade system, the rigid hierarchy of kitchens borrowed from the military, is the only way to run a restaurant. But I’ve spoken to restaurateurs, from Boston to Stratford, Ont., who have structured their businesses as versions of employee ownership, using tools such as profit-sharing, livable wages and open-book management. And they’ve done well.
These models don’t have to be rare. Private enterprise can do what it likes. It’s up to entrepreneurs to decide how to structure their companies. But it’s up to us to decide who we want to support with our dining dollars.
Food media needs to highlight the good work done by teams, and acknowledge the group, rather than laud the individual. If the chef deserves praise, it should be for leadership, not auteurship. Let’s focus on the work, the ideas, the food, the experience, and do away with the narrative crutch that there must be one person at the centre of every restaurant, someone who deserves to get levelled up, to be placed on a pedestal until such time that they can be torn down because it turns out they were a monster. The website Eater just made a great move, replacing their Young Guns annual list of up-and-coming chefs with the New Guard, a list of people helping to change the industry, expanding the criteria to include “community organizers, people engaged in mutual aid, non-profit workers, artists, provocateurs, farmers and advocates for a more sustainable food supply and community health.”
Readers need to reject the chef interview profile. You know what’s in every chef’s fridge? Expensive butter, half of a burrito and whatever props they decided to decorate it with the day of the magazine shoot.
Workers need to question their allegiance to the priest/jedi/guru status of the chef. As long as there are long lines of eager applicants, ready to supplicate and be exploited, these restaurants won’t change. The occasional mea culpa from celebrity chefs, the essay about how they used to yell at staff and they’ll try not to any more, taken in good faith, is a sign of a willingness to change. But it’s just lip service until they start paying staff like professionals.
As diners, in a postvaccine landscape, feel free to ask how cooks are paid or how tips are divided. I think the popularity of the Portlandia “Is it local?” sketch, in which diners pepper the restaurant’s server with queries about where the chicken is from and how it was raised, had an unintentional chilling effect. The lampooning of ethical dining made it an embarrassment to ask questions about a restaurant’s ethical positions. But don’t be afraid to ask how restaurants are run, how staff is paid, how tips are divided, if the boss ever yells at them and what for. If it’s impolite to ask these questions, consider what that implies about the answers.
When this crisis has passed, the chefs who terrorized their staffs, collecting accolades for their abusive personalities and credit for the group’s cooking efforts, should be afraid to go back to their previous behaviour. The insistence on running it the old way should be radioactive.