09 | Sep | 11

Richard Johnson

Stand Away From The Palette Knife, Tom And Nuno

I’m cooking on the Farmhouse Stage with Tom Kerridge and Nuno Mendes this weekend at the British Street Food Awards. It reminded me of my treatise on the psychology of great chefs……..

I was skinning peas. I didn’t even know that peas had skin, but as a stagiere – or kitchen trainee – I was there to learn. In the cramped, low-ceilinged Pied A Terre, chefs danced between hotplates, carrying heavy metal pans, while sauces steamed over brilliant blue flames. Shane Osborne, Head Chef at the time, stood at the pass checking every plate as it went out. “Everything is a reflection of who I am” he said. And, if his sous chefs gave him anything less than perfection, he took it personally. It’s what Pied A Terre is famous for.

In the tiny basment kitchen, in 1999, Head Chef Tom Aikens ‘branded’ a stagiere. “I was cooking the fish” says Aikens. “I was taking some langoustines out of the frying pan with a palette knife and went to put them on a paper towel to drain the grease off. Anyway, I brushed it, you know, brushed the palette knife on the back of this guy’s hand.” Aikens remembers it as a joke. But the stagiere ended up in A&E. And Aikens, who was routinely dismissed by the restaurant, ended up in therapy. If it was a joke, it was a joke that went badly wrong.

Osborne, who was in the kitchen during the ‘branding’ incident, understands what stress can do. “I showed my sous chef – and best friend – how to plate a dish a couple of times” says Osborne. “But one day he went to plate it a different way. In a fit of rage I picked up a whole pile of plates, and hurled them onto the floor.” At the time, Osborne was working from 6.30am to 1am – six days a week – and struggling to hold on to Pied A Terre’s two Michelin stars. “Stress cost me my best friend” he says. “And that still hurts.”

It’s nothing new – Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay used to be best friends. Ramsay was even best man at Wareing’s wedding. But, after an an acrimonious split in May, Wareing said he “wouldn’t give a fuck” if they never met again. Wareing described how working for Ramsay had made him feel “constrained, confined and trapped”, and that he would rather kill himself than be overshadowed by the “sad bastard” who launched his career. The apprentice, very publicly, turned on the mentor.

It’s all so much macho swagger. Raymond Blanc had his nose, cheek and jaw broken as a young chef when a colleague threw a saucepan at him – like it’s part of apprenticeship. It’s why Marco Pierre White got away with stringing one of his chefs up by his bib, before dumping him in the bin for a ‘time out’. And it’s why nobody pulled him up for taking his scissors to a chef’s apron when he was complaining about the heat. Chefs are seen as artists – creative geniuses who rise high above the the petty constraints of employment law.

“Chefs do tend to be creative” says Paul Dickens, a chartered consultant psychologist, and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. “But highly creative people aren’t best at working in groups. They tend to be temperamental – as one colleague put it to me, it’s 90% temper and 10% mental. Chefs also tend to be perfectionists. That’s not a good combination. In the high pressure world of the restaurant kitchen, where attention to detail is vital, the lack of emotional control means that small issues cause an huge emotional response – the swearing, the anger and the aggression.”

Paul Merrett – who now has a reputation as one of the nicest chefs in the business – remembers thinking that, to attain greatness, it was almost necessary to cultivate this “aggressive, non-sympathetic and indeed offensive approach to man management”. It’s what Merrett had grown up with. When he was training at the Ritz, he had been slapped round the back of the head. Twice. And had fingers jabbed in his face. It’s no surprise that he ended up hitting a waiter with a metal bowl during the white heat of service.

It’s the abused child syndrome. The commis or sous chef who has been abused “grows up” to be an abuser himself – it doesn’t always happen, but it establishes a pattern. Psychologists call it ‘modelling’ – when people learn behaviour by copying what they see around them. “There are certainly chefs out there who are well known for battering people” says Osborne. “And it’s really interesting to look back at their family tree – the restaurants they’ve worked in. That’s what determines their future behaviour.”

Wareing agrees. “You’ve just got to look at where I came from” he says. Wareing can’t spell it out – he can’t talk about Ramsay any more under the terms of a new agreement with Ramsay Holdings. But Wareing trained at The Aubergine. Under the bullying, threatening sway of Mr F Word himself. The odds of Wareing turning into a calm, fair-minded Head Chef were stacked against him. When he took over at L’Oranger, at the age of 25, Wareing was an angry young man. With no control of his temper.

“All I did was bark” says Wareing. “Hour after hour after fucking hour. My kitchen was almost a torture chamber. Barking was the only way I knew how to get [the staff] to do things. I didn’t dare love them. I didn’t dare become their friend. It didn’t cross my mind to get know them as individuals. It was ‘I’m going to torture you to get what I want out of you. And when you’re on the floor, at your lowest, I’m going to leave you there.’ I was meant to bring them back up, and dust them down. But I didn’t always do it…..

“Until there was just the two of us” says Wareing. “Me and my sous chef – a French Algerian. Hard as a brick wall. A skinhead with hobnail boots. Number one and number two, and the kitchen was scared shitless of both of us. Everyone left. And, when they were all gone, I was like ‘Why the fuck have they left me?’”. The frightening thing was that it took Ramsay, a man not noted for his inter-personal skills, to tell Wareing that he needed to calm it down. But it worked. Wareing is now a shining example to his industry.

The abused child syndrome is still being felt throughout the restaurant industry. According to recent statistics from Dr Chris Gibbons, Psychologist and Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, almost a quarter of chefs report some experience of being bullied or harassed at work. And The Andrea Adams Trust, a charity dedicated to tackling workplace bullying, get more calls from kitchen workers than anybody else. The macho chefs have left their mark. Literally.

It’s fair to assume that anger in the restaurant kitchen began with the first restaurant – A Boulanger, which opened in Paris in 1765. It sold soup. Before A Boulanger, there were coffee houses and taverns, but they offered a set menu, at a set price and a set time. Restaurants (from the Old French word meaning “to restore”) offered the freedom for diners to order their food a la carte. Even if, in the beginning, it was only a la carte soup. But the idea caught on and, by 1804, Paris was home to over 500 restaurants.

Auguste Escoffier, the so-called ‘chef of kings, and king of chefs’ had served in the army during the Franco-Prussian War, and learnt to run his kitchens with military precision. In 1890, when he arrived at the Savoy Hotel in London, Escoffier brought his ‘brigade’ system with him. Every station was led by a chef de partie who was in charge of a unit of sous chefs, cooks, and assistants. There was a chain of command – and staff were issued with a uniform. Even the double-breasted whites (that could be rebuttoned if the front was soiled) were based on military issue.

“The restaurant kitchen is what’s known as a command and control culture” says Paul Dickens. “Orders are given from the top, and obeyed below. It builds camaraderie, and appeals to macho men as it has a high degree of certainty about it – you know your place and everyone else knows theirs. When things go wrong, it’s often because a link in the chain fails. And when tempers fray, aided and abetted by the testosterone-fuelled all-male working atmosphere, people end up getting aggressive, and people end up getting hurt – physically and emotionally.”

It’s the brigade system that has institutionalised kitchen bullying. It gives chefs the power to punish insubordinates but, in the hands of the wrong individual, it can be a corrupting influence. The system wasn’t designed to allow – for instance – Anthony Bourdain to hurry up a sous chef with the threat that, if he didn’t get a move on, he would tear out his eyes and ‘skull fuck’ him. It was designed to build respect. It’s unlikely that Escoffier would think Gordon Ramsay berating another chef with ‘Are your brains in your fucking arse, Fatso?’ would be the best way to achieve it.

British gastronomy, until long after the Second World War, resided in the country’s big hotels. Hotels like the Savoy in London, or the St George in Harrogate, where the young Marco Pierre White was trained. “It was the tail end of Escoffier’s world, I suppose” says White. “You still said ‘Yes chef, no chef,’ and kept your head down” says White. “They were programming you. But they didn’t hit you. Chefs on the pass screamed. But they were shouting to retain control. A lot of chefs scream today because they’ve lost control.”

As British society became less formal, the great hotels were replaced by the great restaurants. And, with them, the great restaurateurs – Raymond Blanc, Nico Ladenis, Albert Roux and Pierre Koffman. Marcus Wareing, Gordon Ramsay and Rowley Leigh worked with Roux. Heston Blumenthal worked with Blanc – if only for a week. So did Eric Chavot, who also trained under Koffman with Tom Aikens and Jason Atherton. Atherton also worked with Ladenis, with Jeff Galvin. Marco Pierre White worked with them all.

Blanc, Ladenis, Koffman and Roux all ran strict kitchens. But Roux’s kitchen, at Le Gavroche, was the strictest. As White remembers, “René would always get it first from Albert, and the bollocking would then be passed down the hierarchy. René would bollock the chef de partie. The chef de partie would bollock the premier commis. The premier commis would bollock the commis. During these inspections it was rare for Albert to bollock the commis in the first place: hierarchy had to be respected.”

It was a physical kitchen. Not violent – just physical. After making a mistake one service, White remembers Roux coming at him with a ladle. “The spoon part of the ladle came toward the bridge of my nose” says White. “Then, before it could touch me, it was swiftly retracted. Forward, back, forward, back in pendulum fashion, though metal and skin never connected. Albert stared at me and, swinging his ladle, he uttered the words, “Now [peck] . . . you [peck]. . . listen [peck] . . . to [peck] . . . me [peck]. . . my [peck] . . . little [peck] . . . bunny [peck].”

But the physicality of Le Gavroche was always part of the fun. Marcus Wareing remembers seeing his friend, chef Stephen Terry, getting stabbed in the leg with a fork by a young female chef. “Whether it was an accident or not, I don’t know” says Wareing. “Fucking hilarious, because it was Stephen Terry. I remember Michel Roux used to walk past all the cooks with a blow torch under their arses. He would stop at one until his pants were fucking on fire. You shouldn’t put a flame under someone’s arse, but it was hilarious….”

In part, Michel and Albert Roux held on to staff because Le Gavroche was the best kitchen in the country. Chefs would put up with it – just to get the right name on their CV. But it was also because the kitchen was run by inspirational teachers. Young chefs would learn from the masters. “It’s a funny paradox” says Paul Dickens. “As well as the macho culture in a kitchen, there’s also a development culture. The young chef is working, developing, with someone else.” It’s something that all the great kitchens have in common.

And, as Gordon Ramsay found out when he trained at Joel Robuchon in Paris, chefs in France didn’t have it any easier. Not during service. “Robuchon got hold of the plate, and threw it at me” said Ramsay. “It hit the side of my face. My ear was blocked with hot food, my face was burnt, and there was ravioli all over the place. I apologized, and started all over again.” At Guy Savoy, Gemma Tuley – now Head Chef at Arch One – was dragged round the kitchen by her pony tail. All because she didn’t speak French. So she cut off her hair.

It’s tempting to think it was down to Ramsay and Tuley’s inadequate grasp of the language. But Nicolas Laridan, who went on to become Head Chef at Le Gavroche, had a similar experience. Even though he was fluent. “I was punched, slapped and insulted” says Laridan. “I remember when I started my apprenticeship in Paris, and there were two guys who were a year older than me. As an initiation, they wanted to grab me, tie me up, and cover my genitals in shoe polish. So I ran like hell to the Metro.”

London, meanwhile, was reinventing itself as one of the world’s great culinary cities. And at the centre of it all was Marco Pierre White’s Harveys. “It was shouting from 6.30am right the way through to 2am” says Jason Atherton, the Head Chef at Maze. “At Harveys, if you couldn’t work 18 hours a day, six days a week, and put up with the chef’s temper, you weren’t good enough.” But it gave the trainee chefs a thick skin. “You got called so many names. When somebody uses the c word against you, it’s like ‘so what?’.”

One of White’s other trainees was the young Gordon Ramsay, who went on to open Aubergine. “Gordon barely slept” says Stuart Gillies, who is now Head Chef at the Boxwood Café. “He was like Thatcher. Some of [the chefs] were only sleeping for two or three hours a night. And at Aubergine, everyone was knackered. Falling asleep. Such a nightmare kitchen. Two sinks. One for washing plates. The other was for fish and pastry. How can you create food out of that? The sections were tiny. But it worked.”

Whatever his behaviour in the kitchen, Ramsay inspires incredible loyalty. It’s difficult to know whether that’s down to the power of his teaching – or his lawyers. Ramsay is canny. He keeps hold of his talent, and – after they have proved themselves – gives them a restaurant within Gordon Ramsay Holdings. It’s a Faustian pact. But a survey of 167 sous chefs from across the country by jobsstore.co.uk showed 72% of chefs would be happy to put up with Ramsay’s temper in order to learn from him. And they wouldn’t say no if he threw in a restaurant. Who can blame them?

Atherton, who is a Ramsay protegee, has witnessed violence in kitchens all over the world. “Once I was beaten to a pulp. But the restaurant I was working in at the time had a three-year waiting list to get in. I wasn’t just going to give up. I asked if I could change my jacket – it was hanging off my back. But it was ‘No – finish fucking service’. I came home with bruises all over my chest.” He was rewarded with a Head Chef’s position by the age of 24. “But I had guys by the throat” he says. “I remember head butting a guy and knocking him down the fire escape. I couldn’t control myself.”

The turning point was when Atherton was invited to launch Verre, Gordon Ramsay’s fine dining experience in Dubai – and train 180 staff in just six weeks. “It was mostly Indonesians that I had to train up” he says. “I remember one night I was shouting quite a lot, and as soon as the last main course was sent they all froze. It was surreal. They wouldn’t move. One came forward and said ‘Out of respect for you and your ability we finished the service, but until we can talk to you about your temper, we’re not going to work’.”

“I said, ‘Do you want me to come over in the middle of service, give a little rub on your shoulders and say, ‘When you’ve got five minutes please can I have that foie gras terrine a little squarer?’ They said ‘No, but we don’t accept your name calling’. I was always called names. Go into the trading floors – there’s always swearing. But I remember Nico making me work with a mixing bowl on my head because I screwed something up. You can’t degrade people. That had to stop.” Atherton vowed to change.

He still shouts. But chefs will always shout. Service doesn’t allow for niceties. “It’s easier to push someone out the way than say ‘Excuse me’” says Blumenthal. “Can you imagine – ‘Excuse me, do you mind letting me just get past please?’ There’s normally a one word command asking someone to get out the way.” And it begins with F. But it gets the point across. Fast. Like Paul Merrett says, “I never see Roy Keane going ‘Do pass the ball please – I seem to have some space’. He just shouts. My team understand if I shout. As long as I keep [the shouting] in service.”

It’s a legal grey area. “We were told by a Human Resources person that, because of the environment we work in, and the stress, swearing is perfectly acceptable” says Stuart Gillies, Head Chef at the Boxtree Cafe. “You can’t be sued for saying ‘Get your fucking arse over here’. Just as well. There would be no chefs left in London.” But – as in the case of Horkulak v Cantor Fitzgerald – the use of bad language in the workplace could constitute a breach of contract. The Court of Appeal held that ‘the frequent use of foul and abusive language did not sanitise its effect.’

Heston Blumenthal has always struggled with his anger. “It’s one thing to go across to someone and smack them” he says. “When I was younger, that’s what I did. But the really psychotic stuff started around the opening of the Fat Duck. I was running out of money. And I was stressed. I could have hurt somebody really badly and enjoyed it. I chased somebody in the car – in reverse. And I ran a Bedford Rascal off the road.” It’s difficult to believe that this is the man who has created one of the world’s most elevated dining experiences. “I don’t know where it all came from” he says.

At the highest level, the restaurant business has become increasingly stressful. Marco Pierre White chose to hand his Michelin stars back, rather than live with that stress. But the French chef Bernard Loiseau didn’t have the foresight. Loiseau identified that winning three stars was his purpose in life. He won the stars – but he hadn’t figured on the stress of holding on to them. In 2003, when the GaultMillau guidebook dropped his restaurant’s rating, and the rumours started to circulate that he was on the verge of losing his stars, Loiseau committed suicide.

And at the end of a long shift, workers – buoyed by adrenaline, and full of stress – have traditionally turned to drink or drugs. One of Ramsay’s chefs, David Dempsey, fell to his death in 2003 after a bad reaction to cocaine. The toxicologist said that Dempsey’s blood cocaine level was 1.3mg per litre – and 0.9mg can be enough to kill. But only two weeks before, Dempsey had been made head chef at Ramsay’s eponymous Chelsea restaurant. His death was enough of a shock for Ramsay to pledge to drug-test new staff.

The kitchen is a lawless place – like the Wild West. There are, of course, other ways to relieve stress. Which is why, at New York’s Bistro du Vent, a waitress, a chef, a manager, and a waiter were caught on tape engaging in a foursome. And, at a family restaurant in Provincetown, the young Anthony Bourdain saw a bride rear-ended on her wedding day by the Head Chef. He recalls in Kitchen Confidential that she was bent obligingly over a 55-gallon drum. As he also recalls in Kitchen Confidential, it was the moment he decided he wanted to become a Head Chef himself.

The restaurant kitchen is stressful. But more stressful than the flight deck of a plane? Or the operating theatre of a hospital? “Up to a fifth of the working population at any one time experience psychological distress to the point that it can give rise to a transient stress related illness” says Dr Gibbons. But he found that all the chefs he surveyed experienced this high incidence of distress. Nearly 60% had given serious consideration to leaving their present job because of stress, and nearly 50% had considered leaving the profession entirely.

It’s not like they do it for the money – dissatisfaction with pay is common. But that’s hardly surprising. Employees in the hospitality and catering sector earn 68% of the UK average. And there’s very little in the way of job security. Kitchen staff, including chefs, are often employed on a part-time or temporary basis, and they regularly work double shifts. “Kitchen staff typically work in excess of 65 hours a week” says Dr Gibbons, “and staff shortages lead to excessive workloads in remaining staff.” It’s a miserable state of affairs.

The conditions are difficult. And air conditioning is still a rarity. One way to deal with that is the new trend of ‘gourmet raw’, as cooked by Chad Sarno at Saf. He doesn’t heat anything above 47.8 degrees Celsius (the point at which, some believe, enzymes begin to degenerate and harm to the body). “So we do lots of dehydrating, instead of cooking in ovens. Timing isn’t as crucial – the way it is with hot lines – because everything is prepared in advance. So the pressure is on during the day. Less during service.”

Then there’s the war between front- and back-of-house. It all started over tips. The waiters got them – chefs didn’t. “So waiters drove cars and wore nice clothes” says Marco Pierre White. “We were bred to hate waiters. But we cooked the staff meals, so we would take what they wanted. And leave the rest for the waiters. We ate like kings compared to that lot. I saw my chef have a fight with the maitre d. Two buckets of ice, all over the floor. They hated each other. But today it’s different, because chefs get tips.”

At Saf, it helps that half of Sarno’s brigade don’t drink. And two of the brigade are female. Traditionally, very few female chefs work the stoves; most get sidelined into pastry. But not at Saf. Or the River Café, where Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray aim to have a 50/50 split of the sexes working the entire kitchen. “At the moment we’re around 40% female” says Ruth Rogers. And they break that testosterone-fuelled, male swagger. “But women can be just as bad” says Rogers. “Having any single sex in a working environment is a bad idea.”

Judith Ets-Hokin, who runs a culinary institute in the US, once said that she believed that the machismo of restaurant kitchens was to do with men overcompensating. The work, which is traditionally ‘female’, was in desperate need of something that made the chefs proud of what they were doing – that way, the long hours, dangerous conditions and pitiful wages would have some kind of ‘ego’ reward. Maybe Ets-Hokin is bitter. Women, traditionally, haven’t found the restaurant kitchen a rewarding place in which to work.

Fernand Point, the inventor of nouvelle cuisine, was once asked why he had never accepted a woman as a student. “Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art” he said. A year before his death, Point said that “women are meant to decorate professional kitchens. They should not, however, be allowed to cook in them”. Paul Bocuse remarked that “the chef who names a dish after a woman is a gentleman and a diplomat. The chef who invites that same woman into his kitchen as a colleague is a fool”.

That attitude isn’t dead. Not quite. Despite the fact that women have better palates than men, and a greater eye for plating up, they are still under-represented in the kitchen. “They just don’t have the physical strength” says White. “It’s a man’s world. They’re not as physically strong. You do have to be physically strong. All the pans you have to pick up – the hours you have to work. Look at the Olympics. What time does a woman run the 100 metres in? Compared to a man? You have to be physically and mentally strong in a kitchen.”

Times are changing. And there are now kitchens out there noted for their sense of calm. Including the Fat Duck – Blumenthal hasn’t raised his voice in six years. But amongst some, there is nostalgia for the old ways. “When I cooked, what did I look like?” asks White. “Why? I worked hard. What do today’s chefs look like? Do they look like they give of themselves? Like they break their balls? Ask the boys how hard I worked. You don’t see the burns on the arms. Look at a chef’s hands, and see how hard they work. The cuts. The scratches. It’s a different breed these days.”

The punishments are changing too. Vivek Singh, Head Chef at the Cinnamon Club, disavows the idea of sending chefs home (“they just forget what they’ve done wrong”), preferring instead to take them to one side. “Just to be a spectator” he says. “The suggestion is that ‘We can do this without you, you know. We don’t need you’. And not needing you, in a brigade, is one of the worst things that can happen. You see people itching to contribute to what’s going on. You only have to do it once. It always works.”

As a stagiere at Pied a Terre, I kept my head down. And my hands out of harm’s way. But, even though he was Tom Aikens’ sous chef, Osborne runs a very different kitchen. When somebody drops a plate in the heat of service, he shouts “This is not a fucking Greek restaurant, people”. Osborne believes in inspiring his chefs. “If my trainees are doing badly,” says Osborne, “I send them to the park round the corner. It’s a waste of my energy to scream and shout. I don’t want to stand and belittle people. That’s not how it should be.”