Is this why we are still bleeding talent?

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On June 30th, 2022, respected food writer Katy McGuinness published an article in the Irish Independent describing what is currently happening in some professional kitchens in Ireland. Dr Deirdre Curran from NUI Galway published her findings on a study of working conditions in the hospitality sector in Ireland. 70% of her respondents experienced bullying.

Anyone in the industry surprised by this (including industry bodies) is either under sedation or is wilfully ignoring an ongoing scandal in the restaurant industry. And it is ongoing, as late as last week, an industry colleague, who like me travels throughout the industry pondered why ‘celebrity bully chefs are not being outed by someone’. Of course, not all bullies are celebrities, many do their bullying in the myriad hidden ways of bullies the world over. The industry has bled and continues to bleed outstanding talent to bullying.

Why do owners shelter bullies at the expense of potential? Is it that a talented chef, male or female is so much more valuable to the growth of the business than a mere commis? Can it be as simple as that? Having attended the conference referred to in the article, I was sitting with a group of industry colleagues, some of them chefs, who were simply mystified that the chef we all knew was laying waste to good people, was on stage pontificating about positive kitchen culture. One young chef turned to me and said, ‘who allowed him on stage’?

The industry is still lamenting not just a lack of staff but a lack of any interest in the industry by those who need work. Why so, they ask? It was thought that a response to Covid and the awful challenges it threw up would help the industry to clear out toxic individuals but sadly it would appear that not only are they still in the industry, but it was many of the good ones who have left. The Chef Network, set up some years ago as a chef forum and support community is forging a new path towards a better working culture but not once has a bully been called out. Of course, litigation is the greatest weapon that is wielded and the fear of a small industry turning against a ‘whistle blower’. As whistle blowers across the globe know to their cost, the news you bring rarely confers hero status.

Bullies destroy people, they play games with your head and systematically unpick your self-worth until a mere cadaver of your former self remains. For those of us who love this industry, for whom it holds an attraction like no other, we have a moral duty to root out these people who are destroying it from the inside. Working with wonderful chefs, I have often asked the question, ‘why was the bully not dealt with?’ Answer ‘because s/he was a good chef and too valuable to the business to lose, so I left’.

Are catering colleges and cookery schools vetting kitchens before they send young potential culinary stars into kitchens? Are they refusing to send their talented students to the kitchens of known bullies? Are they taking instant action when students come back and report on toxic behaviour? When are industry bodies going to start taking this seriously? Surely one talent lost to the industry because an employer decides that the bully is too valuable to lose, is one too many.

Your thoughts welcome.