Chefs have become another sexy profession in recent years, with some chefs reaching near-celebrity status. As chefs enjoy the spotlight, however, the less glamorous side of working in a kitchen has also been garnering attention — the long hours, the toxic work environment, the substance abuse. In recent years, the industry has been trying to address these serious work issues, alongside meeting the call to transform the industry by practicing more sustainable and eco-friendly ways of sourcing and cooking ingredients.
This edition of Weekly Bites covers three stories of restaurants that try to be part of a sustainable culinary industry, but that lead from the ego rather than enacting real change.
Using plant-based or locally sourced ingredients is a trend that many chefs are embracing, and it’s a trend that consumers are willing to pay more money for. Customers are willing to pay more for locally sourced and plant-based ingredients because, for the most part, they understand the difficulty in making a profit when taking such care in sourcing ingredients. There is also a certain amount of “feel good vibes” attached to this way of eating. A feeling that both the restaurant and diner are part of a real change in the culinary industry.
The problem is when certain chefs — usually successful chefs — sell the fantasy of a reformed restaurant, while still encouraging a toxic workplace and misrepresenting ingredients. These are restaurants whose claim to fame is a message of eco-conscious, sustainable sourcing of ingredients, and with that the implication of an idyllic workplace. A restaurant that does things differently. What really goes on is allegations of food waste, toxic workplace practices, and abuse.
So, why does this happen? Perhaps the problem is when certain chefs assume that change comes from what’s on the plate, without taking a hard look at how they run a restaurant. Or maybe it’s just plain ego that gets in the way.
Here are three recent stories of restaurants that sell the feel-good sustainable fantasy, while hiding a toxic reality.
Chef Daniel Humm made waves in the culinary world when he announced in 2021 that his three Michelin star restaurant Eleven Madison Park was going completely vegan. Since the big change, the restaurant has had a slew of bad reviews. Even more concerning, however, are the allegations of food waste and unfair labor practices. This article by Bon Appétit summarizes the following findings of an investigation into Eleven Madison Park.
For a restaurant that charges $335 per person for its tasting menu, one might assume that here finally is a profitable restaurant that can afford to pay its workers well. Instead, there are allegations that a commis chef at the restaurant was making just $15 an hour, which is below a living wage in NYC. Meanwhile, Chef Humm claims that his staff are like “family.”
Former employees also alleged that there was rampant food waste. Chef Humm says that he made the change to veganism because to become more eco-conscious, yet food waste is responsible for more greenhouse emissions than airline travel.
Chef Humm widely publicized a partnership with Magic Farms to source produce for the restaurant, but employees say that the produce was sourced nationally, and sometimes even from supermarkets. One employee says that they were sent on a chase to buy peppers not from the local farm but from Whole Foods, just so the peppers would better match the Instagram photo already published.
Diners pay more than $300 a person to eat at Eleven Madison Park because of Chef Humm’s reputation. They pay the same amount for the new plant-based menu as they did when it was studded with pricier ingredients because they believe in the vision of a Michelin-star vegan restaurant. If these allegations are true, then Eleven Madison Park is betraying the trust of its diners, and not staying true to its vision of vegan high-dining.
Lummi is a peaceful island in the Pacific Northwest that’s best known for its phenomenal seafood. It’s the kind of place where successful chefs dream of going to buy a small inn and provide one service a day using all ingredients that can be found on the island.
That’s exactly what Chef Blaine Wetzel set out to do when he bought Willows Inn on Lummi island.
The concept sold to diners is of an idyllic setting, and a restaurant helmed by a chef that could perhaps escape the hustle and bustle of constantly booked up restaurants and multiple services a day. Instead, former employees of Wetzel claim that this story is misleading.
An exposé by The New York Times outlines some of the allegations from 35 former employees of Willows Inn. Part of the allegations claim that despite publicizing that certain ingredients came from the island, the restaurants sourced them from national suppliers or even the supermarket.
In an investigation, the Department of Labor found that Willows forced their employees to work for 14 hours a day for as little as $50 a day, and that the use of interns to provide unpaid labor was rampant. Previous employees allege physical intimidation and verbal abuse in the kitchen. Some admit that this was typical chef behavior, while others claimed it went beyond that. Some of the most damning allegations claim that the kitchen staff pressured local island girls as young as 15 to party with them, and that sexual harrassment and underage drinking were frequent occurrences.
Regardless of which of these allegations may be true and to what extent, it seems that even in the remote and idyllic island of Lummi, Chef Wetzel is unable to truly transform some of the more toxic aspects of kitchen life.
The world has long regarded Blue Hill as the paragon of sustainable fine dining. The restaurant, Blue Hill, is located at Stone Barns which is a non-profit farm and education center. The vision that Chef Dan Barber had was an ambitious one — to highlight sustainable farming practices in fine dining. Like the previous two stories in this Weekly Bites, however, this vision proved to be a smoke screen for a toxic working environment.
Bon Appétit summarized a thorough investigation into the restaurant. Employees claim that although the restaurant built its reputation on sustainably sourced foods, Chef Barber often cut corners and misrepresented how they sourced food. For example, their Blue Hill butter was labeled as “single udder,” implying that it came from the milk of a single cow. Allegedly, the reality is that the restaurant sourced their dairy from multiple sources in order to make their butter.
Other employees bring forward allegations of long hours and verbal abuse that clash with the “feel” good message of the restaurant, as well as unsafe working conditions and hazing practices. With tasting menus priced as high as $398, it’s unclear whether diners are aware that the reality does not always match the sustainable image of the restaurant.
There is still hope…
This Weekly Bites summarized three instances where a desire for change fell short. The culinary industry is facing a reckoning where people are yearning for a healthier work environment and more sustainable ways of doing business. There are plenty of chefs that are spearheading those changes, as we will be highlighting in the next few editions of Weekly Bites.
These three stories simply serve as a reminder that these changes should come from a genuine place of wanting to do good for all, instead of a place of ego.
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