The kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants too often descend into alternative “moral universes” where bullies and bad behaviour thrive, a study has suggested.
While Gordon Ramsay may have made an entire television career out of swearing at people making food, when there are no TV crews or public around to witness what is going on then the dark side of restaurant culture is much worse for chefs, researchers at Cardiff University said.
Academics interviewed 47 chefs working at Michelin-starred establishments in the UK, Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. They found that bullying, violence and aggressive behaviour were widespread in top-end restaurants, where the kitchens “effectively become a different moral universe”.
They suggested that an unhealthy working culture often developed because commercial kitchens were usually closed off to outsiders and hidden away from public view.
Dr Robin Burrow, the lead author of the study, said: “Misbehaviour among chefs is something we know a lot about from TV and media coverage. Up to now research has blamed this on male-dominated cultures and extreme pressure to get things done quicker, faster and to the highest possible standard.
“What surprised us in our study was the importance of where chefs worked in the context of cultures of bullying, violence and aggression. The kitchen environment effectively became a different moral universe for them.”
These elite kitchens are the perfect setting then, according to some film critics, for Boiling Point, a new British film in which Stephen Graham stars as a stressed-out chef struggling to make it through a shift while his chaotic life falls apart.
In the study, published in the Journal of Management Studies, chefs commonly described their kitchens as “separate”, “detached” and “alienating” places to work.
Dr Burrow, a lecturer in management and organisational behaviour at Cardiff Business School, added: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how isolation can leave people feeling desperately alone, depressed and anxious.
“But our research also uncovers other, less well-known effects. We found that isolation can be experienced as a kind of freedom from scrutiny, and trigger a sense that things can be done that would not normally be possible.
“In the context of the hospitality sector our findings create a compelling case for bringing secretive, hidden-away workspaces — kitchens in particular — out into the open. In the open, violence and bullying can be seen, and the perpetrators more easily held to account.”
On the plus side, researchers said there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the chefs they interviewed.
Dr Rebecca Scott, a senior lecturer in marketing at Cardiff Business School who co-authored the paper, added: “Modern workplaces are often open, accessible and flexible spaces but the chefs we spoke to gained a sense of belonging from their collective experience of physical, stressful, fast-paced work.
“It was this feeling of community which enables our chefs to remain highly productive and committed despite the often brutal working conditions they experience.
“In this context, we might view the misbehaviour we see on TV shows and in the news media as a ritual performed by a community who accept that when they are in a kitchen they are able to act outside of mainstream roles and obligations.”