The seventh-annual Philly Chefs Conference took place over the past few days, with notable chefs and food experts (including a few from Eater) converging to discuss hot topics in the food industry, including sustainability, diversity, and workers’ rights. But one high-profile chef’s comments also highlighted how, despite great strides in combating abuse in restaurant spaces, the trope of the head chef with the “bad temper” is still alive and well, reigniting the conversation about normalized abuse in restaurant kitchens.
In a panel about food memoirs led by Esquire food and drinks editor Jeff Gordinier and featuring chefs-authors Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Kwame Onwuachi, and Phyllis Grant, Vongerichten was asked about a passage in his new book JGV: A Life in 12 Recipes that details how he beat up an employee while working at Restaurant Lafayette in the Drake Hotel in 1986.
In the book, Vongerichten recounts how Sam, a dishwasher, would take daily breaks for 45 minutes at noon, a time when the restaurant was busy. Vongerichten writes that he begged Sam to stay one day, but “he didn’t give a damn, he was union.” So at the end of service, Vongerichten asked his chef de cuisine to watch the door as he invited Sam into the walk-in refrigerator, where they argued, and eventually Vongerichten “beat the shit out of him,” breaking his nose in the process. The next day, Sam was transferred, and Vongerichten wrote the two are still friends. Vongerichten also wrote that he was “not proud” of his violence, and that he was shocked he was not fired for his behavior. “Everyone in the kitchen saw what happened, and nobody said a word,” he wrote.
At the panel on Sunday, Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme reported in a recap for Philly Mag that “Vongerichten said that he does not [regret his actions], that he was glad he did it because he felt the dishwasher’s poor work ethic was getting in the way of what he was trying to accomplish in that restaurant.” Sweitzer-Lamme says that Gordinier was the one who asked if Vongerichten had any remorse, and that “people were generally taken aback” when the answer was no. Food writer Lukas Volger, who also attended the panel, said “my row certainly tensed up, and it was a major topic of conversation at dinner afterwards.” (Vongerichten also reportedly described feeling like “Christopher Columbus” when traveling to Thailand.)
Sweitzer-Lamme’s recap of the event, published yesterday, amplified the comment to a wider audience, who considered Vongerichten’s blasé comments — especially within the context of ongoing conversations about workplace harassment and abuse in the restaurant industry — particularly disturbing, and emblematic of how some kitchens might not be changing.
I was wondering if this would get reported and credit @phillymag for doing it. Missed the part where he tried to justify it by saying he was a union worker!! also: unclear if jgv even read his own book pic.twitter.com/4eVsOMYp8D— Stephen Satterfield (@isawstephen) March 4, 2020
Consider if you will what it takes for a person to:— Kae Lani (@KaeLaniSays) March 4, 2020
1 - beat a dishwasher
2 - document it in a book
3 - admit he still feels he did the right thing by beating a dishwasher
4 - justify the beating, making it about him and "what he was trying to accomplish" https://t.co/EARy5KNfEa
a disturbing reminder of just how bad workplace standards are in the restaurant industry. you're beating the shit out of an employee in the name of, what, tuna tartare? https://t.co/RzD4tn0Ows— Chris Crowley (@chrisecrowley) March 4, 2020
The traditional structure of a restaurant kitchen has its roots in European military traditions, which, as Samuel Ashworth wrote for Eater, “forged chefs who could take the heat, and it broke those who couldn’t.” Violence, belittlement, and pain in the professional kitchen were normalized — they were signs the hierarchy was working, and that the people who survived were wholly dedicated to the job. The system has fueled the fetishization of the chef who achieves perfection by enacting a “bad temper,” who throws plates when the steak is overdone, who screams and hits out when a sauce breaks, who demands the only answer to any request, no matter how unreasonable, be “yes, chef.” It is perhaps unsurprising that this tradition excuses abuse.
Increasingly, chefs are balking that the only way for a chef to be successful is to be exacting and cruel. (Onwuachi addressed his own experiences with abuse while working in a fine dining kitchen in his memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef. “As I’ve opened my own kitchens, at times I’ve certainly been guilty of regurgitating the habits I learned at Per Se,” Onwuachi wrote. “But when I grow enraged, I also try to remember how it made me feel to be yelled at on the line.”) Some restaurant groups are actively working to improve employee’s mental health and well being, or at least to address the double standard of how men and women are treated in the kitchen. Other chefs are grappling with how they might have upheld or participated in toxic culture in the past, in an effort to improve conditions in the future.
But as Volger tweeted, Vongerichten “seemed to be expecting to get a laugh” in not showing remorse, signaling that he perhaps views breaking an employee’s nose because he took what sounds like a work-mandated break as excusable, or at least understandable. In 2018, Vice published an article saying the restaurant industry is “done with angry chefs,” noting how younger chefs, and specifically women chefs, are less interested in carrying this violent tradition forward. Vongerichten’s comments prove we’re not quite done yet.
Update: March 4, 2020, 3:27 p.m.: Jean-Georges Vongerichten provided Eater with the following statement regarding his comments:
I’m sorry for my irresponsible and ignorant comments last week. They don’t reflect my views. Treating co-workers respectfully is a core value in all of my restaurants, I don’t tolerate abuse of any kind, and if anyone physically threatened or assaulted a co-worker, I would fire that person immediately. Everyone in my restaurants knows this.
In my book, I was honest about bad choices I made in my youth and early career, and one of them involved a physical altercation in the 1980s with a co-worker when I was in my 20s. I wrongly made light of this incident on the panel—it does not reflect who I am today. In fact, I do regret that incident and am not proud of it. I have worked hard to run restaurants where employees feel respected, well-treated, and safe, and I should have made this clear when given the chance. Let me also note: that was the first and only such incident.
I have an overwhelming respect and love for other cultures and their cuisines. In trying to convey the awe and wonder I felt when I arrived in Thailand, I made a thoughtless and insensitive reference. My career has been defined by working to respectfully incorporate flavors and traditions of many cultures. It pains me that I said something that would cause anyone to doubt that respect and hurt others.
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