Hell's kitchen

Hell's kitchen

Punches, burns and verbal abuse; chefs here have endured all this and more, with some calling it "going through hell".

Abuse in restaurant kitchens has come under the spotlight after two former workers made a police report to start a lawsuit against Japanese executive chef Tomonori Danzaki, who runs several of French celebrity chef Joel Robuchon's restaurants.

One of the two, Mr Franck Yoke, a chef who worked at La Grande Maison in Bordeaux, France, quit after two days. He complained of the long hours and verbal abuse.

Mr Yoke said that chef Danzaki, who used to head Joel Robuchon and L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon at Resorts World Sentosa when they opened in 2011, "treated us like dogs, morons, less-than-nothing".

Mistreatment and violence in restaurant kitchens happen everywhere, say chefs in Singapore who have worked here and abroad.

It is due in part to the intense pressure of working in the heat of a kitchen, the macho atmosphere in male-dominated kitchens and the vicious circle where chefs who were abused go on to abuse others.

SundayLife! spoke to 22 chefs, all of whom have their own stories about their kitchen experiences here and overseas.

Many of them, such as Corner House's chef-owner Jason Tan, 32, have been the target of both physical and verbal abuse.

He has worked in various fine-dining establishments, including Robuchon's Robuchon a Galera (now Robuchon au Dome) in Macau.

He says of the restaurants he worked in: "It was common to be physically pushed around in the kitchen, to have our ears pulled or have the chefs hit you with a swinging towel, which can be quite painful.

"Verbal discipline was very common, such as the use of vulgarities by the chefs. They would call me 'stupid' or call me certain choice body parts in French."

He notes that these instances occurred because he did not follow instructions and did not perform to the chef's expectations.

Bacchanalia's executive head chef Ivan Brehm, 31, has experienced physical abuse in the form of punches, burns, public humiliation, and having food thrown at him.

Even standing up for a fellow chef in a two- Michelin-starred kitchen in Madrid turned out to be a bad move.

He says: "When I started out as a chef, I would talk back to my chefs. Once, I tried to defend a girl in the kitchen and she got angry at me because of how weak she thought it made her feel."

All of that changed when he went to work at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal's restaurant in Bray, England. The kitchen culture was a nurturing one where people were treated well, he says.

He says: "It is easier to shout, to use violence to discourage blunders. It is harder to nurture, uphold accountability and encourage improvement."

Restaurant Ember's executive chef Sufian Zain, 37, calls verbal abuse a "norm in the industry". But he insists that it depends on the chef's character.

He says: "I think it is very subjective and dependent on the personality of the chef. I find that I am more strict when it comes to food safety and hygiene issues. I am a pretty laidback guy, I don't always raise my voice."

Chef-consultant Jimmy Chok, 45, who used to work at the Raffles Singapore in the 1990s, says that he and his fellow chefs "went through hell".

He says: "You'd have chefs throwing pots and pans, and using four-letter words on you. It's not uncommon for chefs to blow up when you are working in a tense environment."

Despite all that, he says there is "nothing wrong" with it. "The chef was trying to teach me to remember what he has taught," he says.

All the chefs SundayLife! spoke to say that it is part of the learning process, with some calling it a "rite of passage".

Weighing in on the lawsuit against chef Robuchon, chef Chok says: "Mr Robuchon goes into the kitchen with a ruler to measure vegetables. That's his standard, so if you can't take it, don't go in and be a baby about how you got treated."

Yet, this bullying culture might be on its way out. A group of French chefs, including Guillaume Gomez, head chef at the French presidential palace, have urged their peers not to tolerate it.

In Singapore, chefs say they are less harsh for a pragmatic reason: the manpower crunch. They have had to mellow down to ensure that their young cooks do not quit after getting scolded.

Capella Singapore's executive chef David Senia says: "I've changed a lot from what I was before. I learnt not to be an a**hole. We have to adapt ourselves to the current labour situation and be careful because young chefs are clearly not afraid to sue you."

Chef-owner Travis Masiero, 35, of Luke's Oyster Bar and Chop House, says he has toned down his aggression to focus more on teaching and training.

He says: "When I was younger, I definitely did some things I am not proud of now, such as throwing plates, yelling at cooks and being extremely aggressive in communicating. All that wore thin on them and me, and I realised I had to change in order to get the best out of them and myself. I slowly matured and my style now is much more measured."

Alysia Chan, 34, the "no- nonsense" former head chef of Wolf restaurant, says: "If I yell at someone in the heat of service, I check in with them later and find out what happened. I've apologised before when I found out that I had wrongly yelled at one of my chefs."

She is now the executive sous chef of Meatsmith at Telok Ayer, which opens today.

Indeed, with better educated chefs entering the workforce, the need for them to hang on to their jobs is also greatly reduced.

Chef Pung Lu Tin, 54, director of the Gim Tim Group of Restaurants and adviser to the Society of Chinese Cuisine Chefs, says: "When we started out as cooks, we were not well- educated and needed our jobs. We'd get scolded and have plates thrown at us. The chefs would bang the wall or table to threaten us. They could just stare at us and we'd be scared.

"Now, if youngsters don't like how you treat them, they can quit and get employed the next day. I have to talk to them slowly and show more concern to make sure they stay."

Mr Alvin Goh, 45, deputy director of culinary arts at ITE College West, says: "The younger generation requires one to communicate in a professional way. They would want to be given a reason or explanation for why something has to be done in a certain way and will not take any scolding without constructive feedback given.

"The culture and environment in the kitchen lie very much in the hands of the head chef. He or she can set the tone - to make it a nurturing environment or to operate by fear."

The Singapore Junior Chefs Club - for chefs aged below 25 or currently in culinary schools - is in the process of launching Chefs' Clinic, where young chefs can seek advice from industry professionals if they are facing difficulties at work.

For Ding Dong's head chef Jet Lo, 27, gone are the days when he would call in sick to avoid getting yelled at.

Aged 18 then, it was his first kitchen job in Perth, while he was finishing his culinary studies at the Australian School of Tourism & Hotel Management.

He says: "The chef would yell at me in front of everyone and shove me out of the way and he was always rude in the kitchen. It was intimidating and because of this, I would call in sick sometimes.

"But I realised that how badly you are treated is a matter of perspective. I could work faster than other cooks. From then on, I didn't see it as being treated badly, but took it as good training."

euniceq@sph.com.sg

CHEFS HERE SAY:

Corner House chef- owner Jason Tan, 32, on what it was like working at Robuchon a Galera (now Robuchon au Dome) in Macau:

"It is like being in the army as it commands discipline, full concentration and commitment.

You may not appreciate the disciplinary action when it is being given, but you know you come out of it stronger, more enlightened, with skills or lessons you will remember for life.

You don't just give up half-way and complain to your mummy. If you want to work at the highest level, you also need to perform at the highest level."

Orchard Hotel's masterchef Chung Lap Fai, 51, on his experience in Hong Kong:

"When I started out about 30 years ago in Hong Kong, we were treated very strictly.

Make a small mistake and we would get a fierce scolding. The traditional way which Chinese masterchefs were taught is to be fierce, strict and harsh to our disciples to make them learn from their mistakes.

They should also treat their master with respect and ensure everything is taught only once. We respect our sifu and accord him the same respect and honour as we would a parent."

Chef-consultant Jimmy Chok, 45, on his temper now:

"I still throw a temper when I cook, but I will explain that it's not personal. I don't call you ugly or say your hair is not nice. That's personal. If you are willing to be pushed, I will push you. If you can't be pushed, don't waste my time."

Alysia Chan, 34, executive sous chef of Meatsmith, on what she's like as a chef:

"The stress of service gets to me sometimes and I've lost my cool. I don't believe in yelling loud enough that the customers can hear. I don't want to ruin their dining experience and they aren't there for a show. I also believe laughter is important in a kitchen."

Cocotte head chef Anthony Yeoh, 33, on the scene in Singapore for young chefs:

"It is a fairer industry than it was 10 years ago. That said, I have heard stories of pampered kids coming in as trainees and complaining that they were asked to clean the kitchen. You don't get far with that attitude."

President of the Singapore Chefs Association and Director of Culinary Studies & Operations at Shatec Edmund Toh, 54, on young, pampered chefs:

"We would consider young chefs as the 'strawberry' generation. We (older chefs) learnt through trial and error. Nowadays, they learn by the click of the button, which can never replace the empowerment of true practical lessons. However, times have changed and we too are changing along with them. But the objective is still culinary excellence."


This article was first published on Feb 22, 2015.
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