There is a proverb that states ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. Could it follow then that it takes a community to change a culture. The recent Kitchen Charter initiative by Chef Network to improve the working culture across the professional kitchens of Ireland, has to be commended for making what is possibly the first move towards eradicating bad behaviour. The industry record is not pretty. Countless, ongoing tales of appalling behaviour by infantile men and women in kitchens across the industry continue to chip away at its reputation. It is something experienced in this author’s work on an almost weekly basis.  A comment by a young chef recently ‘I got a pot thrown at my head and verbal abuse is a daily routine’ serves to underline the urgency of cultural change.

The Restaurants Association regularly bemoans the shortage of chefs and blames many factors for this. However, it regularly fails to mention the rot within. High profile chefs are behaving badly and getting away with it.  Chefs across the land, men and women are daily making the industry a ‘no go’ area for those who love to cook. They lay waste to the ambitions of young men and women with their withering put downs and abuse of fledgling talent, and fail to join the dots when chef after chef walks out the door and away from the industry for good. 

The industry has not yet had the courage to stand up and call out those who are at the top of their culinary game but at the bottom of acceptable behaviour in the workplace. There have been chefs who were once that toxic influencer and have found a different way to behave. No doubt that is in itself a painful learning process but to be welcomed nonetheless.

Many potential stars in the industry have been driven out of kitchens with their self esteem, self belief and their once unquenchable passion for the industry in ashes at their feet. Culinary colleges, who bravely send their charges for an industry taster to some of the best across the land, find them ‘put off the industry for ever’ by their first hand experience.

Why then has this been tolerated for so long? Why, in an industry which is termed ‘hospitality’ is it so inhospitable to those who cross its threshold? Why is it deemed acceptable to do things in a kitchen environment which would land the perpetrator in a court of law in any other context? Why do wider industry organisations allow it to continue, unchecked? Many questions which until now had no answers.

However, there is cause for great hope. As with behaviours across our society that were once tolerated and indeed lauded, perhaps the time has now come where a new culture will emerge. Kitchens which have adopted the Chef Network Kitchen Charter may not reach its admirable ideals at once, and there will be chefs who will ignore it, but just as a drip can eventually wear away a boulder, it will make a difference.

It may be subtle things to begin with, such as ‘Giving Equal Respect to Everyone’, the first of the exhortations of the Charter. Simple courtesies ‘Greet everyone, shake hands, speak to everyone on the Team’, ‘Say thank you and job well done’. Such simple niceties, but such a profound shift in attitude. ‘Be mindful of the way we speak to others’ and ‘have zero tolerance for discrimination and bullying’. Big ambitious targets but even if one chef in one kitchen stops and thinks, there is a different way to behave, there is a new way to manage this team; the Charter will have been a resounding success.

Congratulations to those who conceived of the idea and good fortune to those who commit to adopting it. Perhaps after all, ‘the community will change the culture for good’.