French chefs struggle to break silence on workplace violence
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A handful of famous French chefs are starting to draw attention to harassment and physical violence they admit is too often part of the work culture in restaurant kitchens.
Renowned chefs, including Cyril Lignac, participated in a panel discussion on Monday in Paris to discuss violence – often psychological and verbal, but sometimes physical – frequently endured by young and apprentice cooks.
People flocked to the "Cook it Cool" conference hosted in Sciences Po university, with some being turned away at the door for lack of seating space. It was organised by Le Fooding and Atabula, two leading French media outlets dedicated to the restaurant and food industry.
“The goal was to widen the debate,” Franck Pinay-Rabaroust, Atabula founder and editor-in-chief, told FRANCE 24. “Our idea was to raise awareness, and ask a lot of questions that we hope will lead to more discussions.”
Indeed, Pinay-Rabaroust said it was difficult for the star cooks to tackle the subject honestly during the almost two-hour meeting, and many people in the audience felt the chefs often provided ready-made answers.
Christian Etchebest, owner of several prestigious bistros in the French capital, joked about once getting hit in the face with a rack of lamb in his youth. Other chefs said the school of hard knocks helped them become the inspired culinary experts and successful business owners they are today.
“You could sense there is still a certain denial by chefs, even if they agree there is a problem,” Pinay-Rabaroust noted. “There is a real difficulty in establishing what level of pressure is acceptable and what is not.”
Some panelists struck a more sombre note. Chef Gregory Marchand, who once worked at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in London, spoke about reaching a breaking point after repeated humiliations as an apprentice elsewhere. “It also takes courage to toss in your apron,” he told the audience.
While Monday’s conference drew many people curious to check out popular TV chefs, the issue of workplace violence in restaurants has been gaining interest in France since a breakthrough article published in April.
Titled “Lifting the veil on violence in our kitchens,” the article in Atabula focused on a disturbing case at Le Pré Catelan, a Paris restaurant boasting three Michelin stars.
Earlier this year an apprentice cook at the restaurant was the victim of intentional burnings by a senior member of the kitchen staff. The perpetrator first tried to disguise the incident as a playful, if misguided, game among some members of the team.
But head chef Frédéric Anton finally learned the truth: On three occasions one of the chefs had warmed a spoon until it was bright red, before turning it on the cook-in-training.
Days later, Anton gave a long interview to clear up any rumours about what happened at the prestigious establishment. The attacker had been fired. The apprentice cook had decided on his own to seek an internship elsewhere. No police report had been filed, even if Anton acknowledged it was within the apprentice’s rights to do so.
“Being a restaurant cook is a fast-paced job where one must react quickly, and sometimes, authoritatively. But in no way does that justify violence, physical or even psychological,” Anton said.
After publishing the article, Atabula’s Pinay-Rabaroust said he received around 200 emails from cooks, who shared their own stories of pain and humiliation in some of the most prestigious kitchens in France.
“An article about this issue had never been published in France, so I expected some reactions, but I had no idea of the scope of the backlash,” Pinay-Rabaroust said.
As a constant observer and critic of the industry, he hopes French chefs will use their relatively newfound status as media celebrities to change one of the less flattering traditions of their culinary craft.