With some of the restaurant industry's most vocal leaders gathered at Drexel University, the question at hand was clear and urgent—how can we shift kitchen culture to be healthier for everyone?

By Maria Yagoda
March 13, 2019
Neal Santos

If you gather a group of chefs, the conversation eventually veers towards the gruesome realities of kitchen work. When Zahav's Mike Solomonov first started out in kitchens—years before he established his Philadelphia restaurant empire and got sober and became the sort of leader he'd never had—he watched a colleague chop through his thumb, blood squirting everywhere, and cauterize it on a scalding-hot pan. The cook continued working for another six hours, for about three dollars an hour. 

"I was like, 'I wanna be a chef so bad; that’s so cool!'" said Solomonov on a panel at the Philly Chef Conference in March. "It’s a really difficult thing. We get into this industry because we’re all crazy and we love it, and the idea of living and dying for a dish—essentially the most subjective thing in the world—is something we can all relate to."

The panel, which kicked off the annual Drexel University conference, sought to address the issue of "balance," that ever-elusive state of work-life equilibrium that many of the country's top chefs still struggle to grasp. Solomonov is proud to be in a place where he can encourage bleeding team members to go to the hospital, and he can pay for their bills. He recognizes that he can support his team in ways that were once unimaginable.

"When people ask for a personal day, the first thing I can think of is old-school chefs, who are like, 'Psh, personal day?!'" he said. "There were weddings and funerals I couldn’t attend because it was on a Saturday. I'm glad and happy and proud we can be leaders of an industry and say, 'No, I'm done with that.' It's okay to ask for help, to go to the hospital, to ask for benefits. It's also okay to take time when you feel like shit."

Reem Assil, the Oakland chef behind F&W Restaurant of the Year Reem's, added that taking care of others requires taking care of yourself, another health measure that chefs have historically neglected.

"I have a responsibility as a leader to show people who look up to me what that life could look like," she said. "That doesn’t mean I work any less. If I come into work really stressed out, that’s going to trickle down from me. It really is about taking care of myself and making sure I'm brining my best self to work."

The theme of kitchen culture—and the question of how to make it more sustainable—colored the entire weekend, from a panel on reporting #MeToo scandals to another on growing your business without abandoning your well-being. With some of the most vocal leaders in the restaurant industry gathered at Drexel, the task at hand was clear and urgent: how can we shift kitchen culture to be healthier and more fair? And traces of a path forward emerged.

Below, find the biggest takeaways from a weekend devoted to rethinking the industry.

"Bad-assery" isn't everything.

On the panel with Assil and Solomonov, mkgalleryamp; Wine senior editor Kat Kinsman noted that we're all to blame—media, chefs, the food TV-watching public—in valorizing the sort of macho, go-hard chef culture that we are now trying to undo. It's a matter of shifting what we, as a culture, reward and recognize. 

"For such a long time in restaurants, the going-hard was valued," said Kinsman. "Does that help the work in the end? It’s a matter of changing what's rewarded. Do you find the glory in the end product, or the masochism that went to it? I think there’s a way to change the language in the restaurants and what journalists say about particular chefs. I think there's a way to have beautiful, incredible, maybe even better food coming from a person who hasn’t killed themselves to get that onto your plate."

Solomonov added that "all the torture that we go through and all the extra hours and all the addiction and all the sacrifice" doesn't make the food taste any better.

"When cooks are terrified ... the food tastes like shit," he said. "It's just not sustainable."

Therapy is an essential resource.

On a panel called "Improving Kitchen Culture," mkgalleryamp; Wine Editor-in-Chief Hunter Lewis led a discussion on how chefs can encourage healthier, more sustainable cultures in their restaurants. Chef Karen Akunowicz, of Boston's newly opened Fox & the Knife, gushed about therapy, a topic that's often stigmatized and unspoken, especially within the chef community. 

One thing Akunowicz learned from therapy? Everyone has a soup pot.

"You’re ladeling out your soup all day," she said. "If you’re not doing anything to put soup back in your pot, you’re going to burn right through it. Sometimes that looks like making sure you’re hydrated. For me, I started power lifting two years ago. That definitely puts soup back in my pot. Some of the other things aren’t just those self care kind of things—conferences like this, working with No Kids Hungry. Things you’re giving, but that also feel good."

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While therapy isn't accessible to everyone, new resources have been created over the past few years to support chefs. Earlier in the conference, Kinsman detailed the origin story of Chefs with Issues, a platform and resource for restaurant industry workers to feel less alone in their struggles with mental health.

"A lot of people are in pain, and we have to talk about it," she said. 

The inclusivity discussion cannot be divorced from capital. 

While many of the conference's panels addressed how we can better include, support, and recognize women and people of color in the industry, as they continue to face barriers to upward mobility (and retention) that block them from claiming titles like "owner" and "executive chef," Lewis' panel on kitchen culture dialed in on the ways that access to capital informs visibility. Who has access to funding, or feels empowered to ask for it? How can we plan a future in which more women and people of color own their own restaurants?

"Access to money or capital for women, folks of color, for queer people ... a lot of us were taught not to talk about money, whether it was growing up or in your career," said Akunowicz. "But when you get to a point where you want to buy your own restaurant, money is a thing we need to talk about. I just raised capital for my own restaurant. I was very sure of how I was going to run a restaurant, what our culture would be, [but] I had no idea how to write that first email and ask someone for money."

Normalizing the money conversation will help encourage people to ask for what they want and deserve. 

Building kitchen culture requires intentional leadership. 

Chef Misti Norris, of acclaimed Dallas restaurant Petra and the Beast, gathers her staff regularly to discuss issues beyond the scope of missing quart containers or walk-in clean-up. 

"I have them all write down goals and they give them to me, and I'm kind of the keeper of all their goals—things they want to accomplish. It may be personal, or something professionally they want to get better at," said Norris. "What I've noticed that, especially in the kitchen, when you constantly have a goal, that comes through in your work."

At her Oakland restaurant, Reem enforces a policy that many over-worked kitchens don't—big success requires big celebration. 

"We do have a work-hard, celebrate-hard kind of atmosphere," said Reem. "People want to be appreciated for the hard work they do. We have a hard service, we’re down one person, we celebrate afterwords. That martyr mentality invisibilizes work, and we're trying to visibilize that work."

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