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Extreme suffering’ central to culture of elite kitchens

The above headline, although taken from the UK Guardian newspaper has also appeared in various forms in other UK media outlets.

‘Extreme suffering’ central to culture of elite kitchens – study Chefs in Michelin-starred restaurants tell researchers how brutality, burns and beatings are routine to ‘building respect’

For those who are not familiar with commercial hotel and restaurant kitchens, the article will be I am sure an eye-opener.

The article reminded me of a piece I wrote in 2017 n response to comments made about (sexual) harassment including my time training in commercial kitchens.


I remember my school years – mid/late 1950s and early 1960s (UK) – as being full of bliss, happiness, and sunshine. Somehow wrapped in a cocoon. OK, so I have a selective memory!

Although I guess we did tease girls, it was done I want to believe in a fun way with no malice intended. If anything I think that I was somewhat intimidated by the girls. Something that stayed with me during my college years. The latter was I guess partly because I was by at least five or six years, the youngest in my college class and year, and was to some extent mollycoddled by the other students as the “baby” of the group.

The full extent of what we today call sexual harassment in all its many forms together with verbal, mental, and psychical abuse hit me when I started my training in the London West End kitchens of now-defunct J.Lyons Group. (London, 1966).

The level of verbal, mental, and psychical abuse we as trainees endured would today not be tolerated – thank goodness. Back then we had two choices, suck-it-up or leave. There was no middle ground, no one to talk to, no one would listen, it was the accepted norm.

Sexual abuse/harassment was also the norm. The perpetrators were other chefs higher up the totem pole; as trainees were considered the lowest of the low, fit only for abuse until we proved ourselves. Many nights I went home in tears, vowing not to return for my next shift but always did. And no, I did not discuss the abuse at home. Most psychical bruises were on my body, not my face; they were carefully where they hit you.

I witnessed sexual abuse firsthand from chefs that today we would call “gay” or maybe even pedophiles that would touch us or try to tell us what they would do to us given the chance. You learned quickly to do anything and everything to avoid them, sometimes the best you could do was keep your back to the wall and have a knife in easy reach.

However, for the most part, it was the female staff – mainly from Africa and the West Indies – that suffered the most with the non-stop sexual innuendos, touching, and chefs rubbing themselves against the girls from behind. The head chef of one kitchen I worked at was having regular sex with the head of the cold kitchen in his office after hours. This I thought was a story until I twice saw them. The first time it happened, I thought I was in for a beating. The chef, who was Jewish (he treated the Jewish trainees far worse than the non-Jewish), was also the stepfather of a friend of mine. I did not twig the connection due to the different surnames. That connection saved my hind.

After one year and understanding that I could not take the abuse and frankly the heat, I moved from the kitchen to Front-of-House, donning striped trousers, a black jacket, and a tie.

Although now a member of the management team, I was the “new boy” and treated as such although there was no real abuse of any kind.

I did try to stay clear of a “gay” guy a couple of rungs above me who in the first weeks delighted in telling me what he would do to me if he had the chance. (It never happened and strangely during my time on the team became friends.)

Waiters who today we would call “gay” – back then they were called queers, queens, homos, and much more – also delighted in telling me what they would like to do to me. And several older waitresses were not backward in coming forward and telling me that they would be happy to share their knowledge and experience with me. I never took up any of the offers. And of course, we had a few lesbian waitresses who went after anything in a skirt.

I left the management team at the end of my first year to move to Israel. My decision to leave had nothing to do with working practices and the environment.


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