‘ The director was selling coke to faculties ‘: the truth about top restaurants

Stolen tips, long hours, lessening pay: the restaurant business has received itself in hot water lately. Thats merely the half of it, uncover cooks, waiters and matre ds

Things that are extol in the hospitality industry: sleep-deprivation, moods, narcotics, bullets in kitchens( especially sharp ones ), hedonism, asceticism, camaraderie, martial law, all broadly clustered under the umbrella notion that perfectionism induces you inherently unstable, and thats a good thing. Chefs are admired for being gits. Street angel, kitchen devil is used as a badge of honour, rather than identified for what it is, a description of a person who bullies where they can and sucks up everywhere else.

Random acts of violence are seen as proof that the person who got scalded by a hot knife has an authentic passion for the job, rather than that the person who scalded them has poor impulse control. Indeed, in a top-end kitchen, an environment of such precision that one is expected to care about the dimensions of a carrot at the level of the millimetre, the single region in which no control is expected is that of ones own behaviour; but only if youre in charge. You dont assure many waitresses calling people scum and hurling chives at them.

The self-fashioning of the cook as artist casts him( the pronoun is deliberate) as untameable by nature, so volatility becomes part of the glamour. Yet the considerable team required in a kitchen entails there has to be another code running alongside the genius-bastard-maverick, and for a long time it has been that of the military. Hierarchies are absolute; the whole system is known as a brigade. This is in the DNA of classic cuisine: French kitchens were historically laid down by with the same command structure as the army.

That leaves you with two hyper-masculinist tropes running in tandem, to which all other considerations courtesy, fairness, respect are subordinate. From the perspective of a somewhat proximal foreigner a restaurant critic, say, as I was for a decade its horrible if you see it, but you scarcely ever do.( I have glimpsed it merely twice. It was no more than effing and jeffing up and down the alphabet, as they say, but it was the relentlessness and the power imbalance .) Otherwise, theyre like any elite: intensely bonded, very passionate and quite enviable, genuinely, for the totality of their interest.

The perks of the job saliently, the tips-off, which 30 years ago could dwarf or even render irrelevant the actual wage have been hollowed out. Anyone bemoaning conditions will be told regretfully that, were they to improve, the cost would only be passed on to the diner, as though that were an unthinkable ask: that one might pay a bit more for a steak so a sous chef could run a shift of eight hours instead of 16. The truth is, its straight exploitation, and the sorrier truth underneath is that almost none of it is in the service of art. Dinner isnt always a masterpiece; most people are being balled out for the sake of an overpriced meat patty.

Ive considered a fair quantity of debauchery : r estaurant director and former waiter

I have been a restaurant manager for four years, and ran as a waiter for 15. I had only ran in small, family-run eateries before I went to a branch of a chain fronted by a celebrity chef, and it was a real shock. There was one uptight manager who was verbally and physically abusive; he would push you and swear at you.

Most of the stress is in the kitchens. In one central London restaurant I worked at, owned by a famous TV cook, we had crisp pork belly on the menu and a diner complained that it wasnt crisp. The head chef asked the chef who cooked it to redo it, only for the customer to complain again it still wasnt crisp. This time, the head chef picked up the pork and hurled it as hard as he could, from a metre away, into the face of the guy whod cooked it. The cook collapsed in tears.

Ive considered a fair quantity of debauchery. One owned had a couple of sexual harassment suits settled out of court. At another revered London restaurant, there was a rampant medication culture. At one personnel party, the general manager was selling coke to staff and taking the money out of their wages. They were young people having fun, working hard and partying hard.

The industry is much harder now. In 2001, when I worked at the place owned by the Tv chef, we waiters earned about 10 an hour. My rent was 260 a month; 16 year later, waiters still earn 10 an hour, but theyre paying at least 500 in rent.

The opprobrium heaped on Michel Roux Jr when it was exposed he hadnt been passing on the service charge was somewhat unjust, because that happens in most places. The law is quite opaque. Business are technically allowed to keep as much of that service charge as they want. Funnily enough, the introduction of the minimum wages was disastrous for professional waiters. Thats when eateries started to introduce tronc strategies( where tips-off are pooled) and be unscrupulous about what they did with it. When I cut my teeth in waiting, Id walk away every day with between 60 and 100 in tips-off. Those undertakings are almost nonexistent now.

Were told we have to wear makeup as if its a first date : f ront of house at a prestigious members club, London

Ive been working here for eight months, but it feelings much longer. Its a glamorous place, full of celebrities, artists and creative people. Its got a liberal, chilled-out image, but behind the scenes its quite different.

On my first day, I was given a dress as my uniform. I asked if it was OK to wear black tights, because I had hairy legs, and “theyre saying”, Not actually and gave me a razor. Its archaic and sexist to attain us wear a fitted dress and see-through tights, and its really uncomfortable. Were told we have to wear makeup as if its a first date, which is weird.

They operate a tronc system for tips-off, which isnt transparent and doesnt add up. Basic pay is the minimum wages, 7.20, and a 12.5% service charge is added to every bill. Were told that 100% of this goes to staff, that it enables our agreed hourly rate of between 9 and 11. This means I can be rushed off my feet and build 400 in service charge in one night, but I wont walk away with a penny extra. When the minimum wages last went up, personnel pay didnt, so it looks like the company absorbed service charge money to pay the increase. Ive overheard managers say that if fund is missing from the tills at the end of the night, they take it out of the service charge pot. If a client walks out without paying( which happens a lot ), the waiter has to pay the full bill. I lately had to cover a 45 bill, which meant I earned under the minimum wage that shift.

Knife
You get pans hurled at you, person will threaten to break your legs in the middle of service. Photo: Lol Keegan for the Guardian

There are mystery diners all the time, trying to catch you out. They dont use assessment criteria and are often friends of the bosses. After one complained that everything was terrible, everyone involved destroyed during management. One of the head cooks was fired. The person who poured the wine was bullied and managed out of their chore. There was no identifiable mistake that I constructed, but they induced me feel like I couldnt do my job. I was put on humiliating training for a few weeks. I wasnt sleeping properly and had bad dreams. Id step on to the restaurant floor worried, depressed, tired and paranoid.

There is surveillance behind the scenes, too. Managers are always watching workers, telling us not to speak to each other about run problems. They disperse us if were seen talking together. They write daily reports and monitor our performance. They try to gather information by monitoring our social media. Various colleagues have told me that directors have asked them about my participation in the union.

I was a 20 -year-old boy who would come home in tears every day : f ormer cook at Michelin-starred restaurants

Ive ran at three prestigious London restaurants and encountered some nightmare characters. The most famous was the worst behaved, although he was and still is one of my idols. I was there just over six months and it was my first task out of college. I ran 18 -plus hours a day up to 10 days in a row. Its hard, but people virtually become your family because youre there so often. Id never do it again, but it gave me some amazing discipline and training. In the end, I left because I was a 20 -year-old boy who would come home in tears every day. People got fired daily: in one instance, a head waiter yawned at the pass[ the counter where chef put finished dishes for collection] and was instantaneously dismissed; that was someone whod worked there for eight years.

The cook/ patron had a go at me only once, wailing abuse because a pot of chopped chives on my section had toppled over. He called me a fucking dirty pig and told me to clean up the shit. Fortunately, the head cook was easy to speak to and very understanding. I had a very long commute and hed allow me to start somewhat subsequently and leave slightly earlier.

Another Michelin-starred chef I worked with was a much softer character; but if things werent going his style, hed fling his toys out of the pram and tell you what he thought of you. All kitchens are the same: you get pans hurled at you, person will threaten to break your legs in the middle of service, but afterwards, you shake hands and go back and do it all again the next day. It is very much hierarchy-led. If person one position above you asks you to do something, you do it: theres no backchat. Ive watched abuse at every establishment Ive ever worked, from the top down. But Id never say anything, because it could damage my career.

If I got to keep all my tips, I wouldnt care so much about not permitted to be take breaks : w aiter, 23, in their own nationals restaurant chain

At the end of every switching, we have to pay 3% of our tables takes back to the company. So, if my segment spends 1,000, Id better make at least 30 in tips-off to cover my 3 %. Anything over my 3 %, I can maintain. Colleagues have occasionally not induced enough in tips-off and have had to go to an ATM at the end of their switching to pay their 3 %. Busy changed are the toughest. My tables could spend 2,000 but I wont have time to give my best service, and after paying my 3 %, Ill take home merely 20 in tips-off. For parties of five or more, a 10% service charge is added. Occasionally, a big group, expending 500, might opt not to pay the service charge, which entails Ive had to pay 15 for them to sit and have a meal.

The way my boss justify the 3% to us is that it pays for our summertime and Christmas parties. But our Christmas party this year was half the staff driving to another branch of the restaurant in a different city, having a few cheap beverages and coming back before 11 pm. If our 3% was genuinely paying for staff parties, Id expect more than that.

If I got to keep all my tips-off, I wouldnt care so much about not permitted to be take breaks. During seven-hour shifts, youve got no chance to eat; you work flat out until around 10 pm. If your tables are level at that point and you smoke, youre allowed to go for a quick cigarette. Otherwise, you keeping running until close.

Tipped
Ive never verbally assaulted a colleague. Theres a big difference between banter and abuse, one chef explains. Photograph: Lol Keegan for the Guardian

I find my knife box in the walk-in fridge, filled up with choux pastry: cook for 20 years, mostly in hotels in the Midlands

Ive watched a chef pin person against the wall and smack him. Another head cook I worked with chinned a commis. He knew he was going to get sacked for that, so he took the easy option: went off on long-term sick leave and never came back.

I took over his undertaking, and during my tenure I had a nice, successful kitchen. You can do the job without being an arsehole. Dont get me wrong, there are times when you do have to shout to get the job done, to get the kitchen fired up, like army-style motive. But in 20 years Ive never verbally assaulted another chef. Theres a big difference between banter and abuse.

When I was younger, on an unpaid six-week run placement at a five-star hotel, one of the cooks insisted on calling me a gimp. One switching, I determined my knife box in the walk-in fridge, fill up with choux pastry. I was told to go and find salmon legs and chicken lips. Since then, Ive been in the position where Ive told other chefs off for doing that kind of thing: I want a 16 -year-old commis being productive , not looking in the dry store for something that doesnt exist.

In my last place of work a big four-star hotel I was on a part-time contract, and even though the rotas and payroll showed Id been working five days a week for years, they refused to acknowledge it when it came to holiday and sick leave entitlement. I wouldnt want to go into the business now; chefs are widely expected to do unpaid overtime. It can be a really good job, but no ones leading from the front. Wheres the British Hospitality Association? Wheres the innkeepers association?

The boss told, If you want to keep your job, dont ask questions: former administrator at a eatery owned by a Michelin-starred chef

The chef-patron tended to drink quite a bit, and when he was hungover the next day, the staff suffered. He said the best way to get your staff to perform is to bully them. If he saw one cigarette butt in front of the restaurant, hed come in during service and cause massive trouble, screaming, I cant trust you, youre just so fucking rubbish!

On my first day there, he wanted to show that he was the boss. He observed a glass with a slight water stain on it, and reacted so badly that the head waitress was crying and wanted to walk out. He had a powerful voice, and called and shouted abuse. I said to him, If you have any problem with the staff, talk to me and Ill deal with them. If youre not happy with that, Im leaving. He told no one had ever spoken to him like that, and gave me the job. For a few months he was respectful, but then started bullying everyone again.

In the end, they decided to push me out, bullying me in front of everyone. I lasted a year and a half there, and was congratulated by people in the industry for being one of the longest serving directors. I worked 80 hours a week, but it was never enough. I ran almost a full month without a day off, with no thanks. Every time someone was sick, I covered their shift.

You were supposed to have two days off a week, running 48 hours in total, but after I left, he didnt pay me for my lieu days. They told, You were the manager, and you decided to work on your day off. The 12.5% service charge was not passed on to the staff. The bosses said, Listen, if you want to keep your job, only dont ask questions. The only people who worked there were desperate and looking for another job. But its hard to get to job interviews when youre working so many hours, so you get stuck.

We have to wear heels between 2in and 3in high: former waitress at a five-star hotel, London

I spent 18 months at the hotel and the job get steadily worse. The basic pay was minimum wage, but the service charge on top constructed it an attractive alternative, as did having such a prestigious employer on your CV. I knew we didnt get all the service charge and tips, but we probably got a better sum than a lot of other places. It added between 400 and 800 a month to my pay.

I tried to find out the percentage of service charge we got, but I was always blocked. When a colleague tried the same, they questioned his sanity and ground him down so much that he left.

Some customers were lovely, but a lot were very snobby. If a client wanted to hug you, you were supposed to reciprocate, even if you didnt wishes to. My colleagues told me that a woman who left just before I arrived was sexually assaulted by one of the guests in full view of my director and a supervisor. She was distraught and complained, merely to be hounded out of her task. The administrator was promoted.

High
Wed be on our feet at the least eight hours a day. I left soon after a new deputy administrator insisted I wear higher heels. Photo: Dave Thompson/ PA

Women have to wear leather heeled shoes between 2in and 3in high. Wed be on our feet at the least eight hours a day, carrying heavy metal trays. I managed to get away with wearing lower ones for a while, meeting demands from my boss with have committed themselves to get new shoes. I left soon after a new deputy administrator insisted I wear higher heels.

You are also required to wear foundation, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick or gloss, lip liner and blusher. Management constantly harangue you and tell, Oh, youre not appearing as glamorous today, or, Did you forget your makeup bag? My colleagues, especially the other women, would join in, subtly stimulating me feel bad.

We all wanted to join trade union organizations and get organised, but we were frightened of losing our jobs. There were always managers or superintendents around, and we knew wed be sacked if the wrong person heard us.

Management set covert cameras in the air vents to catch us feeing during our shifting: cook at the in-house restaurant of a luxury department store

We make sure the customers arent aware of the sadnes behind the scenes. If they discovered themselves downstairs in the kitchens or in the staff canteen, they would not believe their ears.

Twice they sacked the whole eatery, back and front of home, for feeing in the kitchen. They had put covert cameras in the air vents to catch us. Officially, all cooks are on 45 -hour-a-week contracts, with two hour-long violates, one paid and one unpaid. But were so busy that were working up to nine days in a row, and during a 10 -hour shift all we can do is spare 15 -2 0 minutes. Usually in catering, food is, but here, grabbing a sandwich or some chips in the kitchen is classed as stealing.

Conditions have got worse over the last few years. Our annual pay rise fell from 3.5% to 1 %, while the last annual figures congratulated personnel for inducing 50 m. We are short-staffed every day. They tell us its because they cant determine the staff, but the store saved about 1m on wages last year and they know we can get through it, even if it almost kills us.

When we do overtime, they dont pay us the contracted rate. My boss told me theres no fund, and when I refused to do any more, they found others to cover the switchings easily enough. Its terrible, the amount of money in the business, yet theyre squeezing and squeezing us. To top it all, we lately found out they were taking more than 50% of our service charge. Theyve since promised to give it all to us, but the general manager and executive cook have resigned. Are they the scapegoats?

The head chef hurled a foccacia at me because he didnt like the seasoning: bureau chef, Staffordshire

Ive been a chef for eight years and have had to walk out of two jobs. My last workplace, before I switched to bureau work, was a bar, restaurant and club. The owners were inexperienced, over-ambitious and greedy. In the run-up to Christmas, we worked manic 16 -hour shifts. Conditions were unbearable. The consultant head cook had a good reputation, having run at Michelin-starred places in London, but he was angry and violent.

During one service, he hurled some pans at me( I ducked ). He threw a freshly cooked foccacia at me, too, because he didnt like the seasoning. Everyone was too scared to ask him a simple question, and there was no time for violates. The atmosphere was so horrendous that most of the kitchen squad didnt want to go into work.

I was hired as a chef de partie, on 6.50 an hour( then the minimum wage ), but I was doing a more senior sous chefs undertaking, which involves running the kitchen in the absence of the head cook. I went to discuss my pay with the head cook and he erupted, wailing: This isnt my job. You need to speak to the owners. I was terrified.

Some weeks I easily ran 100 hours, but I was getting paid for only 45. I worked out that, over nine months, I was 3,750 down. I even went to the union to try to get my fund. Eventually, I was so depressed and angry at being ripped off that I left. More and more people like me are switching to bureau work, because they cant take it any more. Now, Im on 10 an hour, choose the hours I want and am treated much better.

Stylist: Emily Blunden. Props: nisbets.co.uk/ homechef

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