Chefs have described the “extreme suffering” behind the creation of award-winning food, in candid accounts including plunging breadcrumbed hands into deep-fat fryers as an endurance test and cauterising knife cuts on stove tops.
Staff in Michelin-starred kitchens in the UK and abroad have told researchers how pain – from burns to beatings – continues to be central to building respect and to demonstrate work ethic and character. But far from running from the violence, many embraced it as part of achieving success and inhabited a sub-culture that imbued suffering with “a dark, tawdry kind of beauty”.
The study of 62 chefs in 11 countries by academics at business schools at Cardiff University and the University of Lyon, a centre of classical French gastronomy, comes despite recent undertakings by several high-profile chefs to embrace calmer, less brutal cultures.
One chef told the researchers he was promoted because he had coped with a boss holding a knife to his throat during service and screaming: “I’m going to fucking kill you.”
Another said a senior chef grabbed their cut thumb and cauterised it on an oven so he could keep working. And a third said: “They would get you to put your hand into flour, then into eggs and then into breadcrumbs … and the game was who could hold their hand in the fryer the longest, with the breadcrumb mix until you – until – before you feel it burning and take it out.”
“This extreme suffering had a unifying effect on the people working under these conditions,” concluded Dr Robin Burrow, lead author of the study titled Bloody suffering and durability: how chefs forge embodied identities in elite kitchens. “Chefs who neglected to suffer had little claim to membership of the culinary community … They were not true and proper chefs.”
The findings, based on frank but anonymous interviews over six years with mostly male chefs, have sparked calls from the UK’s chef’s union, Unichef, for greater diversity in kitchens, including more women, to help stamp out what it described as a “playground bullying” culture.
“In the 21st century this is absolutely unacceptable, whether in a Michelin-starred kitchen or a cafe,” said Brian McElderry, executive director of Unichef, which has 8,000 members. He said that in recent weeks he had witnessed chefs committing assaults by whipping using towels and was handling a complaint about a member grabbed by the throat in a kitchen.
But the study, which also involved chefs in kitchens named in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, found suffering is “mythologised as virtuous and beneficial” by some chefs. The culture remains “central to how individuals form professional identities to gain recognition and respect among their peers”.
“The ability to endure suffering was bound up with notions of employability, character and worth,” it concludes.
It comes after allegations in 2021 about abuse in kitchens overseen by the TV chef Tom Kitchin, who suspended two chefs and launched an investigation. He has since said: “We’ve been striving to make our kitchen and restaurant environments better.”
In 2019 a chef at a restaurant run by a Gordon Ramsay protege, Richard Davies, had scalding butter poured down his trousers, resulting in burns. Davies, who was not involved in the incident, apologised, sacked the perpetrator and strongly denied any bullying culture.
Recent film and TV productions, including The Bear, The Menu and Boiling Point, have examined the highly driven world of top chefs. Earlier this month René Redzepi, a five-time winner of the world’s best restaurant prize who has previously admitted exploding in an “absolute rage” at staff, and being a bully who yelled and pushed people, announced the closure of Noma in Copenhagen saying: “This is simply too hard.”
The culture appears to have deep roots. In his 2006 memoir, Marco Pierre White described his kitchen at Harveys, his first London restaurant where he employed a young Gordon Ramsay, as “my theatre of cruelty” and boasted of giving chefs “a 10-second throttle” and pelting one with glass bottles.
Chris Bartlett, a head chef in Norfolk who has worked in several Michelin-starred kitchens, cautioned that the study would not capture the many people, particularly women, who quit in the face of abusive cultures.
Clare Smyth, who holds three Michelin stars, admitted in 2008, when she worked for Ramsay, to “grabbing hold of a guy and screaming in his face if he gets it wrong”, which she said was the norm. Now running her own restaurant, Core in Notting Hill, she said in a recent interview: “I like a calm environment. Everything controlled. I find that a lot less stressful. There’s no need for shouting.”
Bartlett also suggested the interviewees may have framed their suffering in a positive way, “otherwise they would just crack”. He said he had been “grabbed by the neck” by another chef and has cauterised his own wounds. He said elite cooking attracted people who wanted a measure of pain and suffering in their lives. He used to be a professional cyclist, a job notorious for its physical brutality.
One chef told the researchers that working in kitchens “where no one else could last it” showed you were “hard as nails” and “play an important role in the industry because they deal out badges and medals of honour”.
“The ability to endure suffering was bound up with notions of employability, character and worth,” said co-author Dr Rebecca Scott. “Suffering is central to chefs’ understanding of who they are –both as individuals and as a broader social collective.”
Finn, a sous chef with experience in European and Asian kitchens, told the researchers mistakes during service could be punished with a punch in the ribs but said “taking a bollocking – it kind of builds your character and … that’s what I liked … everyone I worked with there all wanted to be three Michelin star chefs”.
Arthur, who worked in Europe and Australia, said: “There isn’t a way of developing yourself without suffering – your abilities and your tolerances – without that. You know, there isn’t – it’s all part of the development in that world … Through suffering there’s some enlightenment, some higher goal. It’s that stoic life.”
You’re in the army now
Life in a top kitchen has similarities with life in the army, chefs say. “The body assumes that it’s going to war,” one chef told the business school researchers in Cardiff and Lyon. “So before I was starting work, I was vomiting and diarrhoea and then going to work and doing a 19- to 20-hour shift.”
“It’s like that mentality of if you go through war,” another told them. “You come out and you’re stronger on the other side.”
One chef described a colleague suffering “shell shock” through exhaustion. The language of the kitchen is militaristic too. The team is “a brigade”. The tools and pans used in a professional kitchen are known as the “batterie de cuisine” – which carries the suggestion of kitchen artillery.
Auguste Escoffier, the French cook who initiated the stratified brigade system and designed the highly organised “mise-en-place” approach of preparation for service – in use in most kitchens – was in the French army for several years.