22 July, 2019
It’s the stuff of kitchen nightmares: last week, a young chef at Calcot Hotel and Spa, near Tetbury, Gloucestershire was hospitalised after a colleague put a hot buttered potato down his trousers.
Screaming chefs, searing heat, the flash of sharp knives and constant profanity was once the image of the professional kitchen, thanks to books such as White Heat and the antics of Nineties culinary superstars such as Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay.
But there was a feeling that conditions in restaurant kitchens had improved. Ryan Simpson, the chef at Orwells, in Henley-on-Thames, who once worked with Ramsay, told The Telegraph in 2018 that: “Bullying is definitely not the way forward. The days of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, it was trendy to be swearing, shouting and going mental in the kitchen.
“The industry has changed a hell of a lot, I know lots of top chefs who really promote how they are treating their young chefs and nurturing them, who used to be known as very hard to work for.”
“Back in the day, I worked in France with crazy French guys screaming at me. Nowadays it’s about enjoying yourself and treating your customers well and now all that kind of tense atmosphere is leaving the industry.”
Yet pictures posted by the injured 22-year-old chef Nathan Davies on Instagram showed savage burns which he claimed were an escalation of abusive “jokes” that had included “constant burning, punches (some causing black eyes) and being forced to eat items ranging from rabbit s*** to raw chicken”. Adding a warning, he wrote: “Everyone should be careful working in kitchens and not take abuse or anything similar to what I’ve experienced in case it ends up like this.”
Mike Robinson, former head chef and owner of the Michelin-starred pub The Harwood Arms in London and The Woodsman in Stratford Upon Avon said it was reminiscent of the “hard days” in kitchens 20 or 30 years ago.
“When I was learning to cook it was savage; there really was an institutionalised level of bullying. You had stuff thrown at you all the time and there was a lot of mental abuse. It was survival of the fittest and not everyone got through. There was a sort of pride taken in being the chef who’d had the hardest ‘upbringing’ in the kitchen.
“My immediate reaction to this story was that it was something between two individuals that had gone too far. In this day and age no one would run a restaurant where there is a culture of burning and bullying.”
The kitchens of certain famous restaurants do have a reputation for being particularly tough, he admits, but he’s never heard that of Calcot. However, it’s easy to see how things could quickly go wrong in any kitchen environment with the intense heat, the speed of service, long hours, the pressure of incoming orders –all while staff race around a confined space with hot pans.
“Usually the biggest arguments are around 10pm on a Sunday when everyone is totally exhausted after 10 eight-hour shifts,” says Gemma Ellis, head chef and owner of Clifford’s restaurant in London. “This is a mad story. I’ve never heard anything like it, but I’ve seen a lot of stuff thrown around. Chefs throw plates at each other often, or smash whole dishes into the bin if they’re sent back by tables – kitchens can be an aggressive environment.
“I knew a guy who was punched in the face in the walk-in fridge. It’s normally about jealousy – if you want to move section, you might be coming directly up against someone else and people come head to head.”
“Sections” include pastry – specialist, but considered quite low down in kitchen “rankings”, she explains – and run to “sauce”: the grill section where meat is cooked. “Sauce is the top,” she says. “That’s where people want to be and there’s a lot of squaring-up to get there. Everything becomes a fight and chefs might ruin each other’s mise en place [prepared ingredients] to sabotage their service.
“That creates heated arguments and usually ends in physical fighting. Female chefs might be less likely to have a punch-up but they’ll scream at each other and I’ve smashed my fair share of plates, too. Army-style discipline used to exist in kitchens but people don’t care anymore.”
The Calcot butter incident sounds like “one of those extreme, odd incidents,” she adds.
Yet every chef has a story of flying pans and hot oil burns. One, who doesn’t wish to be named, was training around 10 years ago at a famous seafood restaurant in London, when he claims a frying pan was thrown at his face mid-service and he ducked, only for it to smack a waiter in the face.
Prabir Chattopadhyay, the founder of London’s Bengali restaurant Little Kolkata, has worked at both Michelin-star establishments and chain restaurants. “I used to work with a chef who was seriously injured in a very expensive Indian restaurant when a female chef threw a burning saucepan at his face,” he says. “It just missed his eye but sliced down the side of face, burning his skin to the scalp and he was in hospital for four months.”
In another incident, a chef drew a knife mid-service and had to be held back from stabbing a colleague, he says. “No one can take aggressive, vocal bullying all the time and people snap,” he says. “There are an abundance of knives in every kitchen, so how bad it gets is just down to the chefs and it goes beyond the kitchen. Chefs are often the grassroots of society; traditionally Indian chefs didn’t have much education, they might not have a lot of support at home and if they’re unhappy there, they’re coming to work in a bad state and it’s exacerbated by a difficult shift.”
Neil Rankin, former head chef and founder of the Temper restaurants in London says having an equal number of female to male chefs in his kitchens changes the atmosphere. “When you get a group of guys together anywhere you get that laddie mentality and chat amplifies, then things like this can happen,” he explains.
“Pouring burning butter down someone’s trousers is GBH, isn’t it? Something must have gone seriously wrong in that kitchen because country house hotels are not normally that busy, they’re in the rural destinations often and might do 30 or 40 covers a night. At Temper we might do 400 covers a night, and I don’t know a kitchen hotter than ours, but there’s no bullying.
“As a restaurant owner you have to be on top of it and take the small pranks seriously before they build up into something like this.”